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Behind scenes, unlikely allies spurred oil deal

Delahunt-Chávez accord to be announced today

WASHINGTON -- While most of Congress was spending an August recess tending to local constituents, Representative William D. Delahunt was in Caracas, sitting down to a four-hour, one-on-one dinner conversation with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, one of the Bush administration's most ardent critics.

That meeting -- unusual for a sitting member of Congress and a head of state so critical of the White House -- sparked negotiations that led to the official announcement scheduled for today: A US subsidiary of a Venezuelan-owned company will provide 12 million gallons of discounted home heating oil to Massachusetts consumers and organizations serving the poor.

Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat who is emerging as one of his party's leading voices in Latin American affairs, said he was simply trying to smooth strained US-Venezuelan relations while helping low-income people in his home state.

Critics said Delahunt should not be working so closely with Chávez, an outspoken leftist.

Chávez is close to the Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro, who seems to delight in needling President Bush and his administration.

''He's been kind of an apologist for Chávez for some time," said Steve Johnson, a Latin American specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Meeting with the leader who calls himself a revolutionary populist, Johnson said, ''is not something I'd like my congressman to be doing."

Delahunt dismissed the criticism, saying he is doing his part to continue a dialogue with a country that is the fourth-largest provider of refined petroleum products to the United States. The heating oil agreement, he said, ''was something that wasn't about politics, was not about the bilateral relationship. It was about people. It was genuinely humanitarian in its intention and in its impact."

Asked if he was subverting State Department policy toward Chávez, Delahunt said, ''I don't work for Condoleezza Rice. I don't report to the State Department. I report to the people who elected me in the state of Massachusetts. I belong to an independent branch of government."

Critics have described Chávez as a democratically elected leader who governs in an undemocratic manner. Elected in 1998, Chávez was removed in a violent coup in April 2002. That development was recognized by the US government. Chávez has accused the United States of aiding the coup, a charge that US officials deny.

Troops loyal to Chávez returned him to power later that month, and he survived a recall effort in 2004 in an election that was found to have been conducted fairly by the Organization of American States and by the Carter Center, the Atlanta nonprofit group founded by former President Jimmy Carter.

Human rights groups have accused Chávez of curtailing press freedoms and of stacking the country's judicial system with sympathetic judges.

Yet he has won plaudits within his country for his efforts to help the poor; an independent Chilean polling group recently reported that Chávez has a 65 percent approval rating among Venezuelans, 30 points higher than Bush's domestic approval rating, Chávez defenders say.

Bernardo Álvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, said in an interview that Chávez now wants to help low-income people in the United States.

''We want a united and prosperous America -- the whole Americas," Álvarez said. ''This is our way of showing our friendship and mutual cooperation between the US people and the Venezuelan people."

Chávez has been less cooperative and friendly toward Bush, calling him a ''crazy man" and an ''assassin." When Bush was in Latin America earlier this month, Chavez derided him at anti-Bush rally and declared ''dead" the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a Bush administration priority.

At a congressional hearing last week, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Thomas A. Shannon Jr., warned that the Chávez government was ''subverting democratic institutions by using them to restrict the rights of those who disagree with it."

Alvarez said the animosity between Bush and Chávez stems from what he called a false impression of Latin American governments as a threat to American democracy and capitalism.

''I have the perception that people want to see Latin America through the lens of the Cold War. This is not what's going on in our country," Álvarez said.

As a legislator, Delahunt has been active in Latin American affairs for several years, and in 2002 he inaugurated a series of unofficial talks aimed at ending the acrimony between the Venezuelan government and the political opposition.

The idea, Delahunt said, was to get conflicting parties into a private, secluded place where they would talk to one another personally and participate in recreational activities together.

The group, which called itself ''Grupo de Boston," met in 2002 and 2003 on Cape Cod. Participants often engaged in heated political talks in the mornings (one session needed an intervention to stop a fistfight).

They also went whale-watching and played intramural baseball in the afternoons, with mixed teams and a bipartisan group of legislators as umpires.

Bottles of Scotch were in the guest rooms, and all had been consumed by the end of the session, a Delahunt spokesman said.

The Grupo de Boston members continue to meet informally in Venezuela, and Álvarez said the initiative has eased tensions.

While the US government has a shaky diplomatic relationship with Venezuela, the two countries have substantial economic ties. Venezuela is the United States's third-largest Latin American trading partner and its 13th largest worldwide. And CITGO, the Venezuelan subsidiary that will distribute the discount heating oil, has a historic place in Boston: Its giant sign in Kenmore Square has been a city landmark for four decades.

Chávez has used oil wealth to make allies in the rest of Latin America, said Alan Henrikson, a diplomatic historian at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

'' ''It's consistent with what Chávez is doing elsewhere in the hemisphere," Henrikson said, ''and it's also consistent with the activism of Representative Delahunt in the Caribbean Basin and South America."

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