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Chavez's Friend in Massachusetts

The real reason Joe Kennedy II shouldn’t take his uncle’s senate seat.

Speculation as to who will succeed Ted Kennedy is proceeding apace, with his nephew, former Congressman Joseph Kennedy II, the likely frontrunner in the January 19 special election. The eldest son of Robert Kennedy, Joe held the House seat once occupied by his uncle John and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, representing Boston from 1987 until 1999. If he does run, Kennedy would start with a financial disadvantage. The $1.8 million he has leftover in his campaign account is significantly smaller than the war chests amassed by other potential contenders; Massachusetts congressman Richard Neal has $2.5 million in the bank while Ed Markey is sitting on $2.9 million. Meanwhile, former representative Marty Meehan--who retired in 2007 to assume the Chancellorship of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell--has nearly $5 million. But what Kennedy may lack in funds he makes up for in something of far greater political value: his last name. The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza writes that Kennedy “would almost certainly have the right of first refusal since the seat has been in his family almost without a break” since 1952. But let’s leave the obvious question of nepotism aside for now. The real reason why Kennedy shouldn’t assume his late uncle’s seat is that he’s spent the past four years doing business with and supporting one of the worst authoritarians in the Western hemisphere.

After retiring from Congress in 1999, Kennedy returned to Massachusetts to retake the helm of Citizens Energy. He founded the non-profit two decades earlier, in the wake of the worldwide energy crisis. The idea was to negotiate down oil prices with for-profit ventures in Latin American and Africa so that the poorest Massachusetts residents could heat their homes during the winter. The first country that the group signed with, in 1979, was Venezuela.   

Fast forward to November 2005. Venezuela is ruled by the anti-American demagogue Hugo Chavez, a man who has cracked down on his country’s independent media, aided FARC narco-terrorists, formed strategic alliances with a host of rogue states, tried to rewrite his country’s constitution to allow him to serve forever, politicized the judiciary, deployed anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric, and used violence against his political opponents. (For the best summation of Chavez’s totalitarian ethos, see Enrique Krauze’s review-essay “The Shah of Venezuela.”) That month, Kennedy signed a deal with Citgo, the American subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned petroleum company, to supply twelve million gallons of heating oil to more than 40,000 low-income Massachusetts residents (the program has since expanded to include residents of 16 states). It was the first time that such an arrangement had been hammered out between a foreign government and a state, and earned praise from some unlikely sources, like then-Republican Governor Mitt Romney. “I’m delighted to hear we’ll be able to purchase oil at a lower price than the market for our citizens,” the famous free-marketer told The Boston Globe. (As much as it may be a noble venture, Citizens Energy also appears to be something of a vanity project for Kennedy. The organization’s hotline is “1-877-JOE-4OIL,” and its website is replete with campaign-style photographs of Kennedy helping the poor and elderly. He also stars in the charity’s ubiquitous television commercials in which he thanks “our friends in Venezuela.”). 

By shuttling oil to the underprivileged, Chavez was deliberately mimicking his hero Fidel Castro, who has sent Cuban doctors throughout the world as a supposed sign of international good will. But Chavez made no bones about the real motivations underlying his “oil diplomacy”: “It is a card that we are going to play with toughness against the toughest country in the world, the United States,” he told an Argentinean newspaper. And he found willing accomplices in Joe Kennedy and his erstwhile colleague Bill Delahunt, the congressman from Quincy, Massachusetts, who helped orchestrate the deal. In 2005, Delahunt authored a “confidential memorandum” to Chavez, in which he advised the Venezuelan strongman that his offering discounted oil to low-income Americans “is an extraordinary opportunity to address urgent needs of people living in poverty, while showcasing the compassion of your nation.”

Kennedy portrays his arrangement as if it did not negatively affect America’s prestige and regional interests. But Chavez remains one of the greatest obstacles to economic development and democracy in the southern hemisphere; just months before signing his deal with Kennedy, Chavez formed the PetroCaribe pact, an alliance of Latin American countries meant to serve as a counterweight to the United States. Kennedy also ignores how Chavez’s international grandstanding tightens his domestic stranglehold and worsens the welfare of Venezuela’s people. It’s not as if giving away billions of dollars of discounted oil doesn’t cost Chavez’s countrymen, who have grown more destitute as a result of his ruinous economic policies (today, oil counts for almost 100 percent of Venezuela’s exports, and revenues have declined steadily with the drop in crude prices). Nor is Citizens Energy’s Venezuela scheme an option of last resort; there are other ways that low-income Massachusetts residents can get subsidized heating oil without empowering an anti-American autocrat. The government of Massachusetts, for instance, has a heating assistance program, and state power companies run a Good Neighbor Energy Fund to help those in need. 

It would be one thing for Kennedy to rationalize his dealings with Chavez on utilitarian grounds (though the existence of the previously mentioned programs seems to weaken even that argument). But Kennedy has gone out of his way to defend and even praise Chavez, telling The Wall Street Journal in 2006 that the caudillo has done “so much more” for his country’s poor than any prior leader. (“Neither official statistics nor independent estimates show any evidence that Chavez has reoriented state priorities to benefit the poor,” the former Chief Economist of the Venezuelan National Assembly wrote in Foreign Affairs last year). As for concerns about Chavez’s assault on democracy, Kennedy drew a moral equivalence between the manifold abuses of the Chavista regime and our own government, saying that there’s “ample room for improvement in the ways that people get elected in Venezuela as well as in Florida.” That same year, he told The Washington Post that his deal with Chavez was “morally righteous.”

The great irony here is that John and Robert Kennedy were staunch anti-communists who believed in the robust assertion of American values abroad. As president, Kennedy established the Alliance for Progress, an aid program intended to serve as a bulwark against the communist infiltration of Latin America. According to Thor Halvorssen, president of the Human Rights Foundation, which monitors Latin America, “What Joe Kennedy has done both in Venezuela and in the United States to whitewash the crimes of Hugo Chavez goes against everything his family members valued.” And that, much more so than nepotism, should disqualify him from the Senate.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.