Dial Joe-4-Chávez: Former Congressman Kennedy In A Deal With Venezuelan Strongman
The Wall Street Journal Online
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez is an ally of the Iranian mullahs, a supporter of North Korea, a close friend of Fidel Castro and a good customer for Vladimir Putin's weapon factories. Now he's also a business partner of Joseph P. Kennedy II.
The former Democratic Congressman describes the deal he's cooked up with Mr. Chávez as charity for low-income consumers of heating oil. But it's worth asking what the price of this largesse is to Venezuelans and to U.S. security interests.
The arrangement is this: Mr. Chávez's Citgo--a Houston-based oil company owned by the Venezuelan government--is supplying home heating oil to Mr. Kennedy's Citizens Energy Corporation at a 40% discount. Citizens, a nonprofit outfit, says it passes the savings onto the poor, aiming to help 400,000 homes in 16 states that would otherwise have trouble heating their homes. In the process, Mr. Kennedy happens to get a high-profile publicity plug. If you think you qualify, says the television ad that drew our attention to this partnership, just dial 1-877-Joe-4-Oil.
Generous Joe is not the only one polishing his public image here. In the mold of the Castro strategy of sending armies of "doctors" and "teachers" among the Latin American poor, Mr. Chávez is trying to shape U.S. public opinion in the hope that more gringos will come to see the Chávez government as benevolent.
Massachusetts Democrats seem especially eager to help. In a September 29, 2005, "confidential memorandum" addressed to "President Hugo Chávez" and uncovered by a Congressional committee, William Delahunt (D., Mass.) gushed that it was a "pleasure" to have met with the strongman "to discuss your generous offer." The Democrat advised Mr. Chávez to steer his oil through Mr. Kennedy's nonprofit and declared that "from a public relations perspective" the discount oil scheme "is an extraordinary opportunity to address urgent needs of people living in poverty, while showcasing the compassion of your nation."
Compassion? If fighting poverty is the goal, Mr. Delahunt would do better to remind Mr. Chávez that charity begins at home. The U.S. is far richer than Venezuela and since Hurricane Hugo took power in 1999 Venezuelan living standards have suffered despite soaring oil prices. Annual inflation averaged more than 20% between 2001 and 2005, imposing a tax on the poorest.
Meanwhile, an insecure investment climate has taken a harsh toll on private-sector employment and shrunk the middle class.
In his eight years in power, Mr. Kennedy's business partner has also polarized Venezuela with his class warfare, rewritten the constitution, politicized the judiciary, the electoral council and military, and announced he plans to rule until 2021. Freedom House now ranks Venezuela 34th out of 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere in press freedom. Only the Cuban press is more repressed.
Transparency International puts Venezuela second to last in the Hemisphere in its 2006 "corruption perception index." And then there was that revealing rant against President Bush ("the devil") at the United Nations in September. Even Mr. Delahunt criticized his Venezuelan buddy after that one.
But Mr. Kennedy keeps on trucking. Last week in a telephone interview with the Washington Post, he defended his Chávez subsidy deal as "morally righteous," arguing that the Citgo contribution to his nonprofit is only "one-half of one percent" of Citgo oil and product sales in the U.S.
We dialed Joe-4-Oil ourselves to ask directly whether it is also "righteous" to assist an anti-American tyrant at the expense of the Venezuelan people. In between berating our reporter for daring to ask such a thing, Mr. Kennedy said that Mr. Chávez has done "so much more" for the poor than any previous government. As for democracy, he said there was "ample room for improvement in the ways that people get elected in Venezuela as well as in Florida." Mr. Chávez chose his partner well.