When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said on the weekend that he was going to open the taps on subsidized heating oil for poor folks in the United States, many assumed it was a drive-by comment aimed at raising the ire of his frequent critics in Washington.
But, as it turns out, Mr. Chavez is a man of his word.
Officials at Citgo Petroleum Corp. -- the Houston-based company that is wholly owned by Venezuela's state-owned energy company -- say they are scrambling to put the fine points on Mr. Chavez's promise to supply some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the United States with cheap heating oil this winter.
"The idea is to work with communities in need, with schools, and we'll have to work through not-for-profit organizations that will serve as intermediaries," public affairs manager Fernando Garay said.
"The very specific details, we don't have yet."
The Venezuelan leader's program is scheduled to begin next month in the Mexican-American community in Chicago, followed by the South Bronx, and then Boston.
Analysts say that Mr. Chavez's bold use of a state-owned company in a foreign country to so openly pursue his ideological aims is highly unusual.
"It's the first time I've heard that a foreign leader is basically giving away his country's natural resources," said Nikolas Kozloff, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Bradford University scholar Julia Buxton, who has written extensively on Venezuela, including The Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela, said Mr. Chavez's action is "quite unprecedented but consistent with the influence the oil has in the world economy.
"When Mr. Chavez first came to power nearly seven years ago, oil was at $9 a barrel and it's now above $60. That's given him huge fiscal leverage."
That is clearly not lost on Mr. Chavez's foes in the U.S. administration. Only days before Mr. Chavez took his message directly to Americans after speaking at the United Nations, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained -- hypocritically, in the eyes of many Venezuelans -- that oil was "warping" international politics.
"It gives certain power and leverage to certain countries and not to others," she said in a meeting with The New York Times editorial board. "We're experiencing it with Venezuela, for instance, where the oil profits are being put to use across the region to, you know, push forward Chavez's particular view of the world."
One thing that sticks sharply in Washington's craw is Mr. Chavez's close collaboration with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Venezuela is the fifth-largest oil exporter in the world and the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States after Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia. Last year, PDVSA accounted for nearly 12 per cent of U.S. imports. Citgo has eight petroleum refineries in the United States as well as nearly 14,000 gas stations.
Ms. Buxton said that Mr. Chavez's U.S. foray was borne of pragmatism and ideology.
"He's been deeply, deeply frustrated by coverage in the U.S. media and the attitude of the U.S. government, and he's trying to counter a very Republican-directed vendetta," she said, a vendetta that included a call by U.S. evangelist Pat Robertson for his assassination.
"He clearly needed to build constructive alliances with more liberal sections of American society and open a way to insulate himself against his Washington enemies."
On the weekend, Mr. Chavez, of mixed African and native Indian ancestry, toured the heavily black and Latino-populated Bronx and was treated like a rock star.
Ms. Buxton said Mr. Chavez's pledge to help poor Americans may have been ad hoc but follows a recent pattern to provide subsidized oil to 13 Caribbean countries -- including Cuba, in exchange for the long-term loan of about 20,000 Cuban health workers.
"He does have an interest in providing oil to the poorest in the Americas, including North America," she said.
However, Ms. Buxton said Mr. Chavez faces growing concern in Venezuela, where almost half the country's 25 million people live below the poverty line, about whether his international petro-social diplomacy is sustainable and about its long-term ramifications.