Joe Kennedy Challenged to Debate Support for Chavez

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:32pm EDT

( - The Florida congressman who earlier this week called on Joe Kennedy to stop running television commercials which he said give "shameless support" to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez went a step further Wednesday, challenging the former Massachusetts lawmaker to debate him "anytime and anywhere" on the issue.

"Since you refuse to stop airing television ads and participating in activities that praise this communist dictator - and indeed feel compelled to continue to laud him - I think the American people deserve to hear us debate your unfettered support of Hugo Chavez, and to hear just how wrong you are," Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) wrote in a letter to Kennedy.

"I welcome the opportunity to debate you anytime and anywhere about why you continue to allow yourself to be used as a public relations prop for the Chavez regime and why won't you stop," Mack added.

"I look forward to your response," he said.

As Cybercast News Service reported earlier, Mack sent Kennedy a letter on Monday asking him to halt running TV advertisements through his Citizens Energy Corporation that praise CITGO, a Houston-based oil company owned by the Venezuelan government, for providing heating oil at a 40 percent discount.

"Hugo Chavez is providing your company 'low-cost heating oil' not to help the American people, but rather to exploit his apologists in the name of public relations," Mack said.

Kennedy responded with a letter of his own late Monday. In it, he said he has "a lot of disagreements" with the Venezuelan leader, "but what are we supposed to do in the absence of adequate help from the federal government or of any help from other oil companies - turn down the fuel for those in need?"

Kennedy founded Citizens as a non-profit energy company in 1979 and has purchased oil from Venezuela ever since. Chavez came to power in 1998.

On Tuesday, the former lawmaker defended his record during an appearance on "Your World With Neil Cavuto" on the Fox News Channel.

During the interview, Kennedy said he considered it interesting that the one organization Mack "chose to put in his gun sights is a little nonprofit that is helping some low-income people here in the kind of colder climes than certainly he is used to down in Florida."

"Yes, we do provide help and assistance directly from Venezuela, but we're not the only organization that imports oil from Venezuela," Kennedy said. "Lots and lots of major oil companies do, U.S. manufacturers."

Kennedy noted he believes there are a lot of reasons "to be critical of the policies of the Chavez government. I think there's a lot of reasons to be critical of the policies of the Bush government."

He called it "hypocritical" that Mack was criticizing "that one nonprofit that's helping the poor with cheap Venezuelan oil" while allowing companies like ExxonMobil or Halliburton to continue to operate "because they are making money."

While acknowledging his company has refused to take oil from Libya, Iraq and Iran because those countries "are actually doing something that is tangibly in direct opposition to this country's national interests," Kennedy asserted: "You can't tell me that that is the case in Venezuela, when the guy just did get elected with about 70 percent of the vote."

In his letter on Wednesday, Mack criticized the arguments Kennedy put forward the day before.

"Why do you continue to be an apologist for Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez?" the Florida congressman asked. "Once again, in your disgraceful interview yesterday with Neil Cavuto, you made excuse after excuse for defending your shameless self-promotion of the most dangerous man in the Western Hemisphere."

Attempts to contact Kennedy by telephone and email regarding a response to Mack's latest letter were not returned by press time.

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