By JP Carroll
Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (1954-2013) would not have been so well-known in the U.S. were it not for powerful friends in the halls of Congress and studios in Hollywood.
Chavez, who ruled over Venezuela from February 1999 until his death from cancer in March 2013, won the presidential election in 1998. The socialist dictator quickly realized that befriending powerful Americans was among the best ways to establish his authoritarian regime’s legitimacy.
Despite ruthlessly ruling over Venezuela, Chavez ensured that he appeared sympathetic to Hollywood actor, activist, and amateur freelance journalist Sean Penn. At the time of Chavez’s death, Penn said, “Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have. My thoughts are with the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela.”
Hyper-inflation that will reach 720 percent this year has ravaged Venezuela’s economy. A variety of different goods ranging from life-saving drugs, to basic luxuries, such as soda and beer, are all but impossible to find.
Acclaimed film director Oliver Stone also befriended Chavez and even made a documentary, released in 2010, South of the Border, which casts Chavez in a flattering light. The director’s documentary heaped praise upon various socialist South American leaders and their policies.
As the documentary made appearances in various film festivals in 2009 before its 2010 premiere, Stone attended the Venice Film Festival with Chavez himself. There Stone scorned U.S. media coverage of his dictatorial pal, saying, “Americans must question the role of our media in demonizing foreign leaders as our enemies.”
When Chavez died in 2013, Stone provided a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, saying, “I mourn a great hero to the majority of his people and those who struggle throughout the world for a place.” Stone goes on to say that Chavez was, “hated by the entrenched classes,” but that he, “will live forever in history.” The Chavez friendly director closes by saying, “My friend, rest finally in a peace long earned.”
Stone’s praise of Chavez did not end with a brief eulogistic statement. To mark the one-year anniversary of Chavez’s death, Stone directed an almost hour-long documentary, released in 2014, about the lieutenant colonel turned president. Stone’s Spanish-language documentary, called Mi Amigo Hugo (Spanish for My Friend Hugo) was co-produced by Venezuelan state-controlled media outlet teleSUR.
Even though he enjoyed high-profile friendships with many of Hollywood’s elite, Chavez sought to gain ever more legitimacy by befriending members of Congress and American royalty: the Kennedys. Chavez began a financial relationship with former Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Patrick Kennedy II (D-MA) by giving Venezuelan heating oil to Kennedy’s non-profit Citizens Energy Corporation in Massachusetts. Kennedy served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 to 1999.
Chavez donated the oil to Kennedy’s charity through oil-refining firm CITGO, the Houston, Texas-based subsidiary of Venezuelan state-owned oil firm Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., known as PDVSA. The Venezuelan-funded heating oil is given to low-income families in Massachusetts and 24 other U.S. states as well as Washington D.C.
Despite the outwardly-seeming good intentions of such an arrangement, Kennedy has made a whole lot of cash off of the CITGO deal through for-profit firms Citizens Investments Ltd. and Citizens Enterprises Corp. The two firms have netted the former congressman $807,390 in 2010, besides his $86,311 non-profit salary, according to the New York Post.
The Chavez-Kennedy relationship was brokered by former Democratic Reps. William Delahunt of Maryland and Gregory Meeks of New York. Meeks has been labeled one of the most corrupt members of Congress by renowned watchdog group CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Meeks has publicly thanked Chavez for the oil deal.
Cash-strapped Venezuela briefly suspended the CITGO deal with Kennedy’s Citizens Energy Corporation in 2009 but then resumed its mutually beneficial relationship just two days later. Citizens Energy Corporation again announced the suspension of dealings with CITGO in January 2011 but a press release in December of that year thanked CITGO and promised a continuation of their partnership.
Delahunt and Meeks both attended Chavez’s funeral in 2013 as the U.S. delegation. Meeks said of attending the funeral in part, “I am honored to be a part of a delegation that will represent the United States at the Funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.” The New York Rep. went on to say,
“My deepest sympathies go out to the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela. Venezuela is an important nation to the Western Hemisphere. I remain committed to building the relationship between our nations. As always, I stand in continued support of the Venezuelan people especially at this time of mourning.”
Kennedy is the son of U.S. Attorney General and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy III is a U.S. Congressman serving the 4th District of Massachusetts since 2013.
Former Congressman Joe P. Kennedy II, former Congressman Delahunt, and Congressman Meeks all declined The Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.
This article is part two of a two-part series on Hugo Chavez’s admirers over the years. Click here for part one.