As if U.S.-Venezuelan relations could become no more bizarre, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has now donated an island to the state of New Jersey. No, what you are reading is not an article for The Onion or a conceptual skit for Comedy Central. The 392 acre property called Petty Island lies along the Delaware River. For decades it belonged to Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company PdVSA. Tucked between heavily industrial sections of Camden County and the city of Philadelphia, Petty Island is home to a plethora of shorebirds including a nesting pair of bald eagles.
Yes, that’s right: Chávez is now helping to save the national symbol of the United States from environmental degradation. Strange as it may seem, this latest move is merely the latest in a series of surreal twists and turns between the Obama and Chávez administrations. Confounded by the new resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Chávez has treated Obama schizophrenically. At one point the Venezuelan President called Obama “a poor ignoramus.” Laying it on pretty thick, he added that Obama had “the same stench” — the smell of sulfur that Chávez said he smelled on the floor of the United Nations in 2006 after “devil” President Bush addressed diplomats — as his predecessor.
Before he traveled to the Summit of the Americas held in Port of Spain, Trinidad Chávez explained that he was preparing his verbal “artillery.” “What will Mr. Obama come with? I don’t know. We’re going to see.” Chávez, a big baseball aficionado, added “We’ll see what the pitcher throws.” Later reversing his hostile posture, Chávez greeted Obama warmly at the summit. As Chávez provided Obama with a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Michele Bachelet of Chile looked on in disbelief.
An astute politician, Chávez has recognized that the U.S. has now “re-branded” itself and that fiery confrontation with Washington will not work as effectively as it did during the Bush years. For Chávez, donating an island to the state of New Jersey is no “petty” or trivial matter. Indeed, Petty Island is yet the latest chapter in Chávez’s ongoing public relations efforts in the United States. Key to Chávez’s outreach has been oil company Citgo, headquartered in Houston, Texas. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the company set up disaster relief centers in Louisiana and Texas and provided humanitarian to thousands of victims. Volunteers based at Citgo refineries in Lake Charles, Louisiana and Corpus Christi, Texas, provided medical care, food and water to approximately 5,000 people. In Houston meanwhile, Citgo volunteers provided similar assistance to a whopping 40,000 victims. As a result of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, refineries closed all over the Gulf of Mexico and this in turn led to lower oil production and higher oil prices. Visiting Bronx, New York in 2005, Chávez offered to sell discounted heating oil to poor families in the area. Following through on his pledge, the Venezuelan President had Citgo send 20 million gallons of oil to 181,000 families in eight states, including thousands in New York. Today, Citgo donates 100 million gallons of oil to 224,000 poor families within 23 states.
Four years after his announcement of the Citgo program in the Bronx, Chávez continues to pursue his oil diplomacy in the United States. Choosing to make a splash, the Venezuelan leader announced the Petty Island deal during the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. Today, Citgo does not conduct any commercial operations on the island, merely environmental restoration projects. About half of Petty Island still has old tankers, a refinery, storage facilities and vehicles dating from Citgo’s old days.
Elizabeth Kinsey, a Quaker, acquired the island from Lenni-Lenape Indians in the late 17th century and later transferred the property to William Penn. Petty Island has had a long and colorful history; indeed it’s been home to a slave depot and possibly even pirates. The island takes its name from John Petty who owned it around the time of the American Revolution. During the 19th century schooners were built here and a summer resort flourished before industrial operations took root in the early 1900s.
As I point out in my recent book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), the environment has not always been Chávez’s strong suit. Indeed, the Venezuelan oil producing area of Lake Maracaibo has become an ecological disaster in recent years, overrun by patches of noxious duckweed. By donating Petty Island to New Jersey, Chávez may hope to burnish his environmental credentials.
Compared to other U.S. oil companies which refuse to accept responsibility for contamination, Citgo has stood out as a result of its handling of the Petty Island affair. In 2004, the oil company offered to carry out an environmental cleanup of the island and transform the place into a wildlife refuge. In making his offer, Chávez was actually adopting a more environmentally friendly posture than then New Jersey Governor James McGreevey, who actually blocked Citgo’s offer.
According to the New York Times the Governor, supported by Democrats in South Jersey, wanted to give “the island to developers for a hotel, a conference center, a golf course and 300 homes.” Prospective home buyers would be drawn to Petty Island, which is said to offer impressive views of both Philadelphia and Camden. Reportedly a Raleigh, North Carolina-based development company called Cherokee Investment Partners would have overseen the development but the proposal was shelved once the real estate market softened.
Had McGreevey succeeded with his development agenda this would have constituted an environmental tragedy: Petty Island is in the path of a major flyway for migrating birds and passing songbirds find cover within the island’s woods and wetlands. What’s more, the island is surrounded by 140 acres of ecologically important riparian lands. In addition to the pair of American bald eagles — the only ones of their kind in Camden County — the island also provides habitat for both the great blue heron and endangered black-crowned night-heron.
In 2005, during his first gubernatorial campaign in New Jersey, Jon Corzine jettisoned the environmentally unfriendly policies of his predecessor and pledged to preserve Petty Island. Just this week during Earth Day Corzine accepted Chávez’s donation, remarking “Petty’s Island has become an important home to bald eagles, kestrels, and a wide variety of waterfowl. We are opening a new chapter in the island’s long history by restoring it and giving it back to nature and the people of New Jersey.”
Under an agreement Citgo must remove structures associated with former oil development and complete cleanup of industrial contamination before the island is transferred to the state of New Jersey. Eventually, it is hoped that the island might become suitable for recreational activities such as hiking, fishing, birding, kayaking, and canoeing. As part of its commitment, Citgo will provide $2 million to New Jersey to maintain Petty Island as a nature preserve and $1 million to set up a cultural and educational center. The transfer cannot take place until 2020 at the earliest, three years after a current lease for the island expires.
The Petty Island affair has not been immune from political controversy. At the last minute, Corzine cancelled a ceremony designed to commemorate the environmental deal. One Corzine official said the governor feared that Chávez was planning to issue a video statement complimenting the New Jersey governor which would have proven politically problematic for Democrat Corzine who is facing reelection this year. The official added that the concern was that Republicans might use the Chávez statement to depict Corzine as a “socialist.” “Even the event for getting an island for free turned petty,” lamented Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club, who declared he had received an invitation to the Petty Island ceremony only to learn at the last minute from Corzine staffers that the event had been scrapped.
Judging from the debate at apporea.org, a pro-Chávez Web site, people are similarly conflicted on the issue in Venezuela. While some posters commended Chávez for seeking to extend an olive branch to the United States, others wrote that the Venezuelan leader was wasting his time trying to appease ignorant gringos who displayed scant regard for Latin America.
Whatever his motivations, Chávez deserves credit for the Citgo deal on Petty Island. Though it’s a largely symbolic move, the affair could help to mend tattered relations between the United States and Venezuela. The question however is why the burden should solely be on Chávez to reach out to the United States? After all, Venezuela never allied with political forces determined to unseat the U.S. government while the Bush administration certainly offered support to the Venezuelan opposition which briefly unseated Chávez from power in April, 2002.
So far, Obama has offered platitudes about the need for the United States to respect its Latin American neighbors without offering much in concrete terms. What about calling for a shedding of light on the U.S. role during the April, 2002 coup in Venezuela? The U.S. President has long extolled the virtues of political transparency and the American public surely wants to rekindle its democracy right now. Obama should reciprocate to Chávez’s overtures by cleaning house, in the process demonstrating that there is still accountability in Washington for foreign policy ventures run amok.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)