Venezuela's Chavez Offers Hurricane Aid

Ian James
Date Published: 
September 1, 2005

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez is offering planeloads of soldiers and aid workers to help American victims of Hurricane Katrina, while at the same time taking aim at the U.S. government for its handling of the crisis.

Some critics on Thursday said Chavez, a leading voice for the Latin American left, seemed to be using the disaster to try to make the Bush administration look bad.

While confusion reigned in New Orleans, Chavez said the looting was to be expected under such circumstances.

"As more information comes out now, a terrible truth is becoming evident: That government doesn't have evacuation plans,” Chavez said Wednesday night during a speech.

He called Bush “the king of vacations” and noted he had been at his Texas ranch when the storm hit and didn't provide leadership. “There were many innocent people who left in the direction of the hurricane .. No one told them where they should go.”

A controversy erupted in another disaster situation in 1999 when Chavez turned down an offer for U.S. military engineers to come help reopen a main coastal highway following catastrophic floods and mudslides.

He said Venezuela didn't need the Americans' help.

The U.S. government has yet to respond to Chavez's offer to send planeloads of aid, including 2,000 soldiers, firefighters, volunteers and other disaster specialists. Venezuela, the world's fifth largest oil exporter, also pledged $1 million in aid through its Citgo Petroleum Corp., plus fuel to help in hard-hit areas.

But Venezuelan commentator Ibsen Martinez, a frequent government critic, said the aid offer by Chavez seems to serve other intentions as well. "He's trying to win a political game," Martinez said.  "It's very astute.”

Just as Chavez has been offering preferential oil deals to allies across the Americas, the aid offer and simultaneous criticism appear aimed at influencing international opinion and reinforcing support among the U.S. and Latin American left, Martinez said.

"I think he's speaking for the gallery. He's bragging,” Martinez said, adding that sending aid to wealthier Americans could irritate some poor Venezuelans but that in general Chavez's remarks seemed aimed at putting forward a sympathetic face.

Venezuela is a leading supplier of fuel to the United States, though relations have been tense between Washington and Chavez, who says he is leading a "socialist'" revolution and blames U.S. "imperialism" for many of the world's problems, from poverty to global warming.

Chavez's criticisms of the U.S. response to the disaster came two days after he met with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who said he hoped their talks would help both sides cut down on "hostile rhetoric.”

His government, meanwhile, has demanded U.S. authorities take legal action against conservative commentator Pat Robertson for suggesting on his TV program last week that Chavez should be assassinated because he poses a danger to the region. Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition of America and a prominent Bush supporter, later apologized for his remarks.