Published March 07, 2013
NEW ORLEANS – In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez offered to send thousands of soldiers, firefighters and volunteers to help with the cleanup. He also pledged $1 million in aid plus fuel to help rebuild hard-hit cities like New Orleans.
The offer, swiftly rejected, was part of a larger pattern: Chavez's repeated attempts to provide humanitarian relief to low-income and distressed U.S. families. Despite those efforts, he was never able to foster his image as a savior of the American poor like he did in Venezuela. More often, he was accused of orchestrating politically motivated ploys that in the end helped relatively few Americans.
"Many people questioned his motivation," said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society think tank. "Was this a true humanitarian gesture or was it an opportunity to stick it in the eye of the United States? I think many people in the U.S. thought it was the latter."
Chavez died Tuesday after a battle with cancer, ending 14 years of rule and leaving the oil-rich Latin American nation divided over his fiery brand of socialism. Vice President Nicolas Maduro will run Venezuela as interim president and serve as the candidate for Chavez's socialist party in an election that must be called, constitutionally, within 30 days.
While much of Chavez's socialist vision would have been in line with that of many American liberals, he never gained widespread admiration in the U.S.
Hollywood actor Sean Penn and director Oliver Stone praised him, but they were the exception, and many were hesitant to embrace a leader with military roots who shut down media outlets and abolished term limits.
Complicating any potential ideological synergy, Chavez had a combative relationship with the U.S. leaders that went beyond politics.
In 2006, he famously called President George W. Bush the devil in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, saying the podium reeked of sulfur after the U.S. president's address. Chavez's inner circle has also claimed the U.S. was behind a 2002 coup to overthrow him. Yet across the years, he kept up a lucrative oil-export relationship with the U.S. while also spreading his petroleum-funded largesse around Latin America.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept into Louisiana, busting federal levees, leaving New Orleans under a blanket of water and trapping tens of thousands in a chaotic landscape with no utilities, little food and a government that seemed unable to respond.
Chavez was quick to step in, offering a planeload of aid and criticizing Bush as "the king of vacations" for being at his Texas ranch when the storm hit.
"There were many innocent people who left in the direction of the hurricane," Chavez said in a speech. "No one told them where they should go."
The U.S. government dismissed his offer. Bob Mann, who was communications director for then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, said he supported the decision because he believed the offer was motivated more by Chavez's desire to embarrass Bush than any humanitarian concern.
Looking back nearly eight years later, though, he might have chosen differently.
"In retrospect, I think maybe we should have taken the money because we didn't get the help we needed from the federal government," Mann said.
Chavez did make some inroads through his heating oil program; more than 1.7 million people have received oil from Citgo Corp. to keep warm during the cold winter months over the last eight years, according to the state-owned oil subsidiary. The program was initially rejected in many states, but has now helped families in 25 states and Washington, D.C., as well as Native American communities.
Former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, who heads Citizens Energy, said Tuesday that Chavez cared about the poor at a time when "some of the wealthiest people on our planet have more money than they can ever reasonably expect to spend." A spokesman for Kennedy said Chavez and the people of Venezuela had donated about 200 million gallons in its collaboration with Citizens Energy.
Thomas Boswell, a geography professor at the University of Miami, said the amount of money and oil he contributed was too small to have a sizable impact.
Chavez's contributions "didn't really touch most of the poor in the United States," Boswell said, adding most Americans were unaware of Chavez's efforts.
There were many other reasons Chavez's populist message didn't resonate. In Venezuela, he could dominate the airwaves for hours on end. In the U.S., he faced a language barrier, among other hurdles. New York University professor Alejandro Velasco said Americans have long rejected the idea of a foreign country providing support to the U.S. population.
Velasco said Chavez's efforts to highlight the contradictions of the U.S. economic system were ultimately more successful in generating pride in Venezuela than gaining him a following up north.
While initially Chavez may have curried favor among liberals in the U.S., support had eroded over the last decade as he continued to takes steps against private property, the media and his opposition. His fierce rhetoric against the U.S. during the Bush administration also won fewer admirers when President Barack Obama was elected as the nation's first black president.
"It's hard to be a supporter of somebody today who is dismantling democratic institutions, from the left, right or center," Farnsworth said.
He added that Chavez's approach in Venezuela faced a different economic reality in the U.S. that proved to be a less fertile ground for shoring up political support. For example, Farnsworth noted the U.S. already has programs for the poor that include energy subsidies for heating oil.
Today, Hurricane Katrina victims are divided over whether the U.S. should have accepted Chavez's aid.
"I don't deal with that country. I don't know what they're about," said James Cager, 52, whose brick and stucco home in the Lower 9th Ward flooded to the rooftop. "If our government felt that it's not a good idea to take from them, then we have to go with that."
Others regret an offer to provide help in a desperate time was turned down. Mtangulizi Sanyika, 70, lived in New Orleans at the time of the storm and now resides in Houston. He said Katrina's victims weren't concerned with the ideological origins of the aid.
"An offer from Mr. Chavez may be multidimensional," Sanyika said. "Yes, it might be said he was seeking to embarrass the United States. On the other side, he could have been genuine."
Associated Press writers Stacey Plaissance and Kevin McGill in New Orleans, and Juan Lozano in Houston, contributed to this report. Armario reported from Miami.
Follow Christine Armario on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/cearmario .