Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the U.N.
Hugo Chávez offers poor Americans free eye care, bus passes and discounted heating oil. (Photo: UNDPI)

Hugo Chávez, the irascible president of Venezuela, is sticking it to the Bush administration in a big way by offering free eye surgery, bus passes and heating oil discounts to needy Americans.

Mr. Chávez is exporting his “Bolivarian revolution” to Chicago and Milwaukee, as the White House grapples with how to tackle his increasing appetite for military hardware and his love for Fidel Castro.

It’s an awkward situation for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett who appeared ready to sidestep the White House’s intense dislike for the leftist leader and accept the offer in some way, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Mr. Chávez plans to fly needy Chicago and Milwaukee residents to Carora, in Lara state, for free eye surgeries to be done by Cuban doctors. Patients from two dozen countries, mostly in South America, will also participate.

Citgo Petroleum Corp. has already given 16 million gallons of heating oil at a steep 40 percent discount to 181,204 low-income households in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New York City, Philadelphia, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

When city or state governments refused to deal with Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil firm PDVSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.), the company worked with community groups. In Chicago, Citgo offered free bus passes to low-income residents, the Journal-Sentinel said.

For an administration that has trouble ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of Iraqis, Mr. Chávez’s approach is more annoying than anything else. During the abortive 2002 coup to topple the former paratrooper, the U.S. openly endorsed the coup plotters.

Then-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich, member of a dying generation of anti-Castro Cubans, even floated rumours that Cuban troops were trying to reverse the short-lived coup, The New York Times reported at the time.

Shopping List

Publicly the White House points its finger at Mr. Chávez’s shopping list that includes 100,000 AK-103 assault rifles, 24 brand-new Sukhoi-30 [SU-30] fighter jets and 15 helicopters (6 MI-17, 8 MI-35 and 1 MI-26) from Russia. Moscow is also negotiating a deal to build a Kalashnikov factory in Venezuela.

An earlier deal with Spain included 10 C-295 transport planes, 2 CN-235 patrol planes, four coast guard patrol boats and four frigates.

A cause for concern? Not really. The U.S. used to sell Venezuela arms, but it has now decided that the anti-Bush, pro-Castro president no longer deserves to buy parts for its aging fleet of Made-in-USA jets.

Colombia? Venezuela has been accused of supporting and sheltering different rebels groups fleeing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s crackdown. The strength of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] and the smaller National Liberation Army [ELN] has been waning. And the days of 19th and 20th Century open warfare in South America are also over.