CARACAS, Venezuela – A candidate challenging Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez for the presidency said his top campaign issue will be what he calls a massive waste of billions of dollars through generous oil deals for friendly countries.
Chavez, leading strongly in the polls, denied the accusations by candidate Julio Borges on Tuesday night, calling his challenger a "frijolito" — or "small fry" — and expressing confidence in an easy re-election victory in December.
Borges said earlier Tuesday that his party, Justice First, calculates Chavez's government has committed more than $16 billion to unprofitable international oil deals or humanitarian donations.
"We aren't giving gifts to anyone," Chavez insisted in a speech. He argued the oil is sold at market prices, though with special financing arrangements.
Borges' Web site alleges that Chavez has "given away" more than $5 billion to Cuba, ranging from an electricity project to oil sales exchanged partially for the services of thousands of Cuban doctors.
Borges lists $4.5 billion for Brazil, including plans for an oil refinery. He includes more than $200 million for the United States, including sales of discounted home heating oil to low-income Americans in the Northeast.
"They're all programs in which Venezuela gives money or gasoline or oil and receives nothing proportional in exchange," Borges told The Associated Press, adding that he will make the issue his "No. 1 point" in the campaign.
Chavez, who celebrates his seventh year in office Thursday, said many of the oil deals merely allow long-term, low-cost financing for part of the bill. Some countries also can pay partly in goods or services, such as bananas, beans or the work of some 20,000 Cuban doctors now treating Venezuela's poor without charge.
"How much do 20,000 doctors cost? Add it up," Chavez urged his listeners. "Look how foolish these people from the opposition are."
Venezuela last years signed the "Petrocaribe" agreement with 13 Caribbean countries, allowing them to pay 60 percent of their bill up front and pay off the rest as a 25-year loan with a 1 percent interest rate.
Chavez, a vocal critic of President Bush, says such oil deals are a step away from U.S. dominance and toward greater regional integration.
Venezuela is the world's fifth largest oil exporter, with $48 billion in oil export revenues last year.
"The ones who used to govern the country are the ones who gave it away," Chavez said, arguing past governments sold out to U.S. interests and transnational oil companies. "We're rescuing the country."
As he looks to the elections in December, Chavez said he is urging his Cabinet to plan for another six-year term in office.
"I'm going to leave here someday, but when I leave I'm going to hand over the government to a revolutionary, and surely someone more revolutionary than I am," said Chavez, who envisions a long-term shift toward socialism. "The revolution ... has arrived to stay though all of this century, and past the 22nd century."
Borges said Chavez is tossing money around while neglecting poverty at home. Chavez argued that government statistics show his social programs have cut poverty at home from 48 percent of the population in 1997 to 37 percent today.
Meanwhile, Chavez recently signed contracts with newly elected leftist President Evo Morales of Bolivia to sell his government up to 200,000 barrels of Venezuelan diesel a month, while accepting 75 percent of the payment in agricultural products — largely soybeans — and allowing the remaining 25 percent to be paid over 15 years at 2 percent interest.
Chavez also said Venezuela will donate $30 million to Morales' government to help start up social programs.