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Chávez's oil largesse winning fans abroad

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The London bus has come to symbolize many things over the years. It's a national icon, a picture postcard paragon of public transport, a byword for frustration and irregularity.

But a harbinger of international socialism? Far-fetched perhaps, but less so after the latest move by Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez to offer cut-rate fuel so that 250,000 Londoners on welfare can travel half-price throughout one of the world's most expensive cities.

The double-decker trademark isn't the only trace of Mr. Chávez's so-called "21st century socialism:" For the past year residents in New York, Boston, and other major US cities have scored cheaper heating bills, thanks to Venezuela. Chávez has also sent cheap oil to Cuba, Nicaragua, and more than a dozen other countries.

His offerings go beyond oil and have been announced with particular frenzy since he won a third term in December, promising $500 million in financing for Ecuador, $135 million for a dairy cooperative in Argentina, and a development plan in Nicaragua that includes generators to ease blackouts as well as a new development bank.

Analysts say his projects both in Latin America and beyond are singular among leaders sitting on vast energy reserves, as Chávez sets out to create a counterbalance to US dominance with a flurry of deals, measures, gifts, and grandiose schemes. To his harshest critics he's an egomaniac using an "energy bribe" to inflate his reputation. To fans he's the consummate humanitarian. Both agree that his moves have amounted to a PR coup, and some analysts even say the fallout could lead to a shift in social, economic, and political balances across the region.

"By situating Venezuela in these various international arenas of cooperation, the Chávez government is also attempting to limit what the US can do to isolate Venezuela," says Miguel Tinker-Salas, a Latin America oil and politics expert at Pomona College in California.

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