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A congressman brings home the fuel - from an unorthodox supplier

A deal with Venezuela's Chávez sends heating oil to Massachusetts' poor. Is there a hidden price tag?

Linda Kelly of Quincy, Mass., and her family will get some help with their heating bills this winter, courtesy of Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez, who evidently can feel a US chill way down in Caracas.

This week's announcement that Venezuela will sell 12 million gallons of heating oil - at a discount - to help Massachusetts' neediest citizens is part political theater to tweak the Bush administration, part PR campaign for Mr. Chávez, and, some allow, part gesture of help.

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"Our objective is simple: to help people of limited means through the winter," said Felix Rodriguez, chief executive officer of Citgo, the US-based refining subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company.

A deal to supply oil to New York - and possibly other US cities - is in the works.

Behind these pacts are influential Americans with close ties to Chávez - in Massachusetts' case, a US congressman who worked behind the scenes for some time to secure the oil. It's an indication that Chávez, who was castigated in Congress just last week for aligning himself with the likes of Fidel Castro and the late communist revolutionary Che Guevara, is not without friends in America.

But some analysts see such oil deals as carrying a hidden price tag in the long term: bolstering Chávez's government.

"It's a populist move by Chávez and his government," says Gal Luft of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security in Washington, an energy security think tank. "They're trying to offer cheap oil to curry favor with the American people to provide some political relief at time when relations between the two countries are not good."

In some ways, the oil pact should not be a surprise, fitting Chávez's pattern of diplomacy.

"He's been going around the continent giving money away, subsidizing every country in the region, and this move is part of that," says Ricardo Hausmann, an economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former Venezuelan planning minister. "Such things are meant to make it harder for a political coalition to limit his actions."

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Like 45,000 needy Massachusetts families, Mrs. Kelly's will get an extra load of fuel oil delivered to her home if she needs it - at a 40 percent discount, a savings of about $184.

In total, those savings for Americans will cost Venezuelans, who on average are much poorer, about $8 million. But it's worth every penny to Chávez, whose current global charm campaign involves using petro-dollars to quiet critics and win goodwill, several experts say.

Chávez has been in tit-for-tat mode with the Bush administration for several years. But anxiety has been building in Congress, too, as Chávez stokes his brand of "21st-century socialism" across Latin America.

"We want to help the poorest communities in the US," Chávez said in August. "There are people who die from the cold in winter in the US."

Besides needling the White House, Chávez's show of generosity may be aimed at casting his policies in a positive light for Venezuelans, who vote in December in a legislative election. Earlier this month at a summit in Argentina, Chávez led opposition to a Bush-backed free-trade agreement among countries in the hemisphere.

"This is precisely what he loves to do - embarrass the White House, show that the US doesn't take care of its own, and that the approach he's devised in Venezuela is superior," says Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank on Latin America.

A big reason Chávez is so attuned to the problem of $1.77-a-gallon heating oil in New England is US Rep. William Delahunt (D), who has been cultivating his contacts with Venezuela's president since 1999. In a private conversation with Chávez a few weeks ago in Caracas, Mr. Delahunt reminded him that there are many poor in the US who need help, says Larry Chretien, director of Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance, which is helping to distribute the oil.

On top of that, US oil companies told Congress in recent hearings they couldn't do much to relieve the burden of high heating-fuel prices on the poor this winter.

"It is gratifying that at least one major oil company is willing to step up to help - and voluntarily and at its own expense," Mr. Delahunt said in a statement Tuesday. At a press conference in Quincy the same day, he defended the deal with Chávez. "This today is about people, it's not about politics," he said.

The Bush administration has generally supported Delahunt's efforts to reach out to Chávez, whose country sends 60 percent of its oil to the US. But others say the Massachusetts deal is all about Chávez's aim to inherit Mr. Castro's mantle, win reelection next year, and remain a thorn in the side of US policymakers in Latin America.

"The point he's trying to make is that not only can he take care of the poor in Venezuela, but he can do it in the world's richest country, too," says Mr. Shifter. "It's shrewd political theater."