The Citgo Ads


(Click on picture to watch the Ad)
A number of Citgo commercials lauding the Venezuelan government for supporting poor Americans with discounted heating oil have been appearing on prime time television, some even featuring former Congressman Joseph Kennedy. Though Kennedy has been accused of a Faustian pact for appearing in the ads, this story sidesteps the bigger picture.
I happened to catch one of the latest Citgo ads — disarmingly humanizing and compassionate — while watching the New York Giants stick it to the Dallas Cowboys last night (confession: I grew up in 49er country where Dallas was reviled with the ascendance of Bill Walsh’s west coast offense, the significance of which I could not comprehend until reading Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side).
The ads seem to capitalize on some of the crucial weaknesses in America today: economic uncertainties for Americans in the bottom two income quartiles magnified by rising heating bills and the geopolitical missteps that have given rise to the “New Axis of Oil” which Flynt Leverett described in the Summer of 2006. Leverett’s latest piece in The National Interest continues to probe the limits of American power with a fragile and declining dollar against rising major oil and manufacturing states.
Part of the problem is also how we deal with the leadership of these rising powers. We try to simultaneously demonize and marginalize leaders like Putin, Chavez, and Ahmadinejad while pursuing soft regime-change efforts when they retain control of pivotal nodes of power, the energy faucets. Thus far this has proved ineffective and counterproductive as Leverett’s article contends.
Chavez is not a megalomaniacal dictator like Kim Jong Il as some would like to paint him. He’s motivated by a triad of interests — augmenting Venezuelan geopolitical power, bridging domestic disparities with his ambitious social agenda, and maintaining his own regime. Sometimes the publicity of his social/populist efforts may actually cut into actual delivery of services. Journalist inquiry, like Tina Rosenberg’s “The Perils of Petrocracy” in the New York Times Magazine a few months ago, has exposed the conflicts of interest and ineptitude that riddle his gospel of oil agenda.
The Citgo ads reveal a more complex opponent in Chavez than the one typically portrayed in the Wall Street Journal editorial page. We’ll need to craft more sophisticated devices, such as an enlightened policy that weans Cuba away from Chavez if we want to create voices of geopolitical pluralism. If Israel-Palestine is the trope that animates the forces that move against us in the Middle East, our bungled Cuba policy plays a similar role for Latin America.
Chavez cannot be easily dismissed out of hand for the populist politics and global posturing that appeal across Latin America even amongst moderate allies in Brazil and Argentina. Now he’s taking his case to a broad swathe of the American people — I won’t be surprised to see a Citgo ad on Super Bowl Sunday with over 90 million viewers — and I guarantee people will be listening.
–Sameer Lalwani