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Chávez pledging $8.8b in global aid

Venezuelan funds exceed US total

CARACAS -- Laid-off Brazilian factory workers have their jobs back, Nicaraguan farmers are getting low-interest loans, and Bolivian mayors can afford new health clinics, all thanks to the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez.

Bolstered by windfall oil profits, Chávez's government is now offering more direct state funding to Latin America and the Caribbean than that coming from the United States. A tally by the Associated Press shows Venezuela has pledged more than $8.8 billion in aid, financing, and energy funding so far this year.

While the most recent figures available from Washington indicate that $3 billion in US grants and loans reached the region in 2005, it isn't known how much of the Venezuelan money has actually been delivered. And Chávez's spending abroad doesn't come close to the overall volume of US private investment and trade in Latin America.

But in terms of direct government funding, the scale of Venezuela's commitments is unprecedented for a Latin American country.

Chávez's largesse tends to benefit left-leaning nations that support his vision of a Latin America with greater independence from the United States. But he denies the two countries are in a competition.

"We don't want to compete with anyone. I wish the United States were 100 times above us," Chávez said. "But no, the US government views the region in a marginal way. What they offer is a pittance sometimes, and with unacceptable pressures that at times countries can't accept."

US aid tends to be low-profile, constrained by strict guidelines, and often distributed through other institutions so that recipients may not know it is from the US government. Venezuela offers money with few strings attached and a personal Chávez touch that aid analysts say generates more good will, dollar for dollar.

Clay Lowery, the US Treasury Department's acting undersecretary for international affairs, contends that the United States plays a larger role than reflected in its aid figures. The United States, for instance, helped reach debt relief deals with the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank totaling $7.5 billion over the past three years in Latin America, he said.

"Who is the biggest financier of the IDB? The United States. Who is the biggest financier of the World Bank? The United States is," Lowery said.

Still, as the Chávez effect gains ground, there are signs that the United States is responding to the challenge.

The Navy medical ship Comfort is on a four-month, 12-country voyage to Latin American ports, and has already treated more than 80,000 patients with free vaccinations, eye care, dental checkups, and surgeries.

The United States also has worked with the Inter-American Development Bank to mobilize as much as $200 million in private loans to small businesses.

Chávez's aid isn't limited to his region. Low-income Americans get cheap heating oil, while the former Soviet republic of Belarus is counting on Chávez to help pay off a $460 million gas bill to Russia. But most of the funding goes to Latin America.

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