December 1, 2005

Venezuela touts cheap fuel to US as Bush takes heat

By Matthew Robinson

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Venezuela on Thursday launched an ad
campaign touting its cheap heating oil program for the U.S.
poor as Washington faces criticism for doing little to protect
consumers from high fuel prices.

The full page ad in some of the nation's top newspapers
could irk the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush,
which has frequently clashed with Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez over economic and foreign policies.

Under the banner: "How Venezuela is keeping the home fires
burning in Massachusetts," the ad talks up a program to supply
poor residents of the state with low-cost fuel from Citgo, the
U.S. branch of the OPEC nation's state oil firm PDVSA.

"The advertisements are intended to inform about this
humanitarian effort," Dave McCollum, a Citgo spokesman, told

"This effort came in response to the impact that hurricanes
Rita and Katrina had on energy prices. It is being handled as a
pilot program," he added.

Launched in Massachusetts last month, the program will also
provide low-cost fuel to New York City.

The advertisement, which appeared in The New York Times,
Washington Post, USA Today and the Houston Chronicle, came out
as executives from U.S. firms including Chevron, ConocoPhillips
and Exxon Mobil appeared at a hearing in Wisconsin on Thursday
to defend record profits.

The hearings follow a similar face-off in the U.S. Senate
in early November, which critics say failed to get a sufficient
explanation about how the companies have made unprecedented
profits at a time of national crisis.

U.S. fuel prices soared after hurricanes damaged U.S. oil
infrastructure in the Gulf Coast last summer. The high costs
have become a political liability for Bush, who has suffered
from lower approval ratings in recent months in part due to
fuel prices.

Analysts said left-winger Chavez, who has given
preferential energy supply deals to Venezuela's South American
and Caribbean neighbors to strengthen regional ties, has seized
upon expected high heating bills this winter to curry favor
among the U.S. population.

"It's a publicity stunt, really. But it does give them some
support among U.S. regional politicians. It's not a stupid
thing to do," said one energy analyst who asked not to be

But proponents of the heating oil program say the former
army officer only wants to ease the sting of U.S. winter
heating bills in the Northeast, which accounts for 80 percent
of all the nation's heating oil demand.

"Chavez expressed his interest in helping the (poor)
people," Larry Chretien of Mass Energy, which is helping to
distribute the cheap fuel, said.

Oil-reliant Venezuela, the world's fifth largest crude
exporter, is already a top U.S. energy supplier.

But relations between Washington and Caracas have
degenerated since Chavez first won office in 1998, promising to
fight poverty through his "revolutionary" social programs and
increasing ties with anti-U.S. states such as Cuba and Iran.

He claims the Bush government has plotted to topple him.
Washington denies the charge but says Chavez is a threat to
regional stability.