NEW YORK - A day after he called President Bush "the devil" from the podium at the United Nations, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stood at the altar of a Harlem church and presented himself as an angel, offering 100 million gallons of subsidized heating oil to needy Americans.
"It makes us feel good to give," he said to a crowd of mostly Harlem residents and Latin American immigrants waving Venezuelan flags and chanting his name.
The move more than doubles the 40 million gallons of heating oil Chavez donated to eight northeastern states last year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated refineries and caused the price of oil to soar. This winter, the program should reach about 1.2 million people in nine additional states, he said.
Chavez, speaking at the Mount Olivet Baptist Church, acknowledged that it might seem odd for a developing country to send charity to one of the world's wealthiest nations.
"Some Venezuelans criticize me
. Some say I should be in the barrios of Caracas," he said. "Apparently I am giving away all over the world what belongs to Venezuela."
But the public relations value of tweaking his nemesis, President Bush? Priceless.
"We are afraid we won't be able to heat our building this winter, and someone told me about this guy," said Arthur Rena McDowell, a florist. "Somebody has got to make it better. It should start with our president, but it is starting with the president of Venezuela."
Harlem is the latest place where Venezuelan oil has created warm feelings toward the outspoken leftist leader. Venezuela already exports 1.5 million barrels a day to the United States.
It is able to use its oil wealth to bolster ties and influence in other countries in the region, especially to gain their favor. That could prove useful in the current U.N. contest between Venezuela and Guatemala to represent Latin America in the Security Council for the next two years. Washington, suspecting that Chavez would use the U.N. bully pulpit to rally opposition to U.S. interests, has been lobbying for Guatemala.
Chavez boasted of "walking around the world" to build ties and barter oil, describing what he got in exchange: pregnant cows from Bolivia, medical equipment from Argentina and 20,000 doctors from Cuba.
In Harlem, he received not only a warm welcome but the symbolic echo of Cuban President Fidel Castro's visits to the same neighborhood in 1960 and 1965, signaling that he is taking on Castro's mantle of anti-Americanism as the aging Cuban leader's health falters.
Wearing his signature red shirt, Chavez spoke for more than an hour at the altar next to a screen flashing the logo of Citgo, a Venezuelan-owned oil company based in Houston. Citgo is partnering with Citizens Energy Corp., a program run by former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, which sells and distributes discounted home heating oil to low-income families.
Kennedy did not attend the event Thursday.
Chavez, encouraged by a rousing response after he made another reference to Bush as the devil, played to the crowd, calling the president "an alcoholic and a sick man," and imitating what he called Bush's cowboy swagger.
Chavez repeated threats to suspend oil exports to the United States, its biggest customer, if the U.S. government tried to oust him from power.
"One day, the people of the United States will choose a president with whom we can talk," he said. "You don't know how much I would like to have as a friend the president of the United States."
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times