Mitt Romney, perhaps gearing up to talk hawkish foreign policy to South Florida Republicans in the run-up to the state's Jan. 31 primary, put out a statement Thursday condemning Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
"The new year is young, but Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has wasted no time in continuing his string of outrageous and embarrassing actions," Romney said. "His consul general was expelled from Miami after she was discovered to have plotted cyber-attacks on U.S. nuclear facilities. In response, he disenfranchised thousands of expatriate Venezuelans who oppose him by ordering the closure of the Miami consulate."
Seven years ago, however, then-Governor Romney said he was grateful to a Democratic Massachusetts congressman, William Delahunt, "and all those around the world" -- read: Chávez -- who provided discounted heating oil to Massachusetts. Venezuela provided the oil to Massachusetts in 2005 and, later, to the Bronx in New York City in a similar deal.
According to an Associated Press story from Massachusetts at the time:
Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican like President Bush, cheered the agreement during a Statehouse news conference, saying, 'I want to say thanks to Congressman Delahunt and all of those around the world working to get lower-priced energy to us.'
He refused to respond to a question about the propriety of dealing with Chavez, however. [...]
Chavez proposed offering fuel directly to poor U.S. communities during a visit to Cuba in August. He has said the aim is to bypass middlemen to reduce costs for the American poor - a group he argues has been severely neglected by Bush's government.
The plan in Massachusetts is "eminently a political move" designed to compromise the White House's domestic position, said Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst with the New York-based Eurasia Group. He said it was also a way to emphasize what Chavez has long cited as the failings of U.S. policy.
The initiative is part of a larger effort by Chavez to use Venezuela's surging oil wealth to extend the country's influence.
UPDATE: We have now received a comment from Romney spokesman Alberto Martinez:
"This is a ridiculous claim. Governor Romney has spoken for years about the despotic pretensions of Hugo Chavez and his effort -- along with the Castro brothers -- to spread an anti-American movement across Latin America. As president, Mitt Romney will speak clearly about the moral and economic bankruptcy of Chavez's vision and stand firm with our democratic allies in the region."
The Romney campaign has pointed us to a 2007 Associated Press report where a spokesman for Romney, then running in the 2008 GOP presidential primary, called Romney "a staunch Chávez critic."
A Romney spokesman said Romney is a staunch Chavez critic, and noted Romney denounced Chavez as a "cartoon character" in an August TV interview.
Chavez is "trying to play politics, of course, with oil prices," Romney said in that interview. "The reality is we buy a lot of oil from Venezuela. We ought to get as much oil as we can for a cheap a price as we possibly can and suck it dry if we possibly could."
Read Romney's full statement from Thursday after the jump.
The new year is young, but Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has wasted no time in continuing his string of outrageous and embarrassing actions. His consul general was expelled from Miami after she was discovered to have plotted cyber-attacks on U.S. nuclear facilities. In response, he disenfranchised thousands of expatriate Venezuelans who oppose him by ordering the closure of the Miami consulate. He hosted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Caracas, and then went to Nicaragua to celebrate the inauguration of Nicaragua's unconstitutional president, Daniel Ortega. He named as his defense minister a recognized drug kingpin. Unfortunately, Chavez is beyond embarrassment. As Chavez deepens relations with the world's most despotic and dangerous regimes, President Obama has failed to respond with resolve. The United States must strengthen ties with our partners in Latin America, shed light on the ills of Chavez's regime and his anti-American allies, and vigorously support political and economic freedom in the region. As president, I will do that.