CARACAS, Venezuela — His ambitious social programs are built on Venezuela’s petroleum wealth, but President Hugo Chavez is increasingly talking up environmental causes and urging the world to cut back on oil use to fight global warming.
He wants to use some oil revenues in a venture to manufacture solar panels and has begun doling out millions of energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs to homes nationwide.
Some critics say Chavez’s campaign is mostly rhetoric, noting this is a country where government subsidies have gasoline prices at 12 cents a gallon, car sales are booming and vehicle exhaust chokes litter-strewn streets.
But Chavez says Venezuela can be an example, and he has begun exhorting his followers to drive less and take public transport. His government plans a windmill farm to generate electricity on the Caribbean coast and is exploring more uses for cleaner-burning natural gas.
"Venezuela is one of the countries that least contaminates the environment, but nevertheless we want to give an example and be at the vanguard," Chavez said at a news conference Thursday.
He called U.S. oil consumption – which handsomely funds his government – a leading cause of the world’s environmental troubles.
"They’re destroying the world," Chavez said, citing melting glaciers in the Andes and predictions of rising sea levels. "The human race will be finished if we don’t change the world capitalist system."
Leftist ideology colors Chavez’s views, and he has spent time discussing the dilemma of climate change with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, his friend and mentor.
Castro’s obsession with energy saving has been caused in part by Cuba’s dependence on oil imports. Before he underwent intestinal surgery last summer, Castro was in the midst of an energy-saving crusade in which he distributed pressure cookers and offered household tips on TV.
In contrast, Venezuela is the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States and has traditionally had little reason to worry about saving energy.
Internationally, some environmentalists warn that Chavez’s plan to build a South American natural gas pipeline across Brazil to Argentina could be an ecological disaster.
Others, such as Venezuelan activist Deborah Bigio, say Chavez has interesting ideas but add that the government needs to put even more emphasis on environmental issues.
"I don’t see clear environmental policies in Venezuela," said Bigio, who heads the Foundation for the Defense of Nature. She said Venezuelans need to be given more concrete incentives to encourage them to save energy and protect their natural surroundings.
Venezuela, a country of 26 million people and about twice the size of California, has huge tracts of grassland and jungle in a sparsely populated interior. Most of the population is in the north, where Caracas and other cities generate the bulk of air and water pollution and use much of the energy.
Taking Cuba’s lead, Venezuela has distributed millions of fluorescent bulbs in recent months, giving a blue-gray glow at nighttime to slums that used to be swathed in common yellow incandescent light.
"We see the savings," said Francis Izquierdo, a single mother in Caracas who said her power bill is about half what it was before the bulbs were replaced in her barrio.
Chavez also said recently that he will raise gasoline prices to encourage Venezuelans to drive less, although he hasn’t said by how much.
The country’s heavily subsidized gasoline price hasn’t been changed for years and is among the cheapest in the world, encouraging strong sales of fuel-burning sport utility vehicles. Filling up an SUV’s tank takes roughly $3 – less than the cost of two jugs of drinking water.
Chavez said he also plans to open a solar energy research center to eventually produce solar panels "in massive quantities" to supplement hydroelectric dams and reduce the need for oil-fired power plants. It remains unclear when that project may begin.