The Boston Globe by Susan Milligan CARACAS -- Leftist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela said yesterday he would greatly expand the discounted home heating oil program he started last year for needy people in Massachusetts and other northeastern states. Chavez, a firebrand populist who has clashed repeatedly with President Bush, said in an interview with the Globe that he would extend the program for next year and increase the amount of cheaper oil available. Former US representative Joseph P. Kennedy II, who was among a group that negotiated with deal with Chavez, said customers would have more direct access to the heating oil and would be subject to looser eligibility rules. Chavez made the pledge in an interview after meeting with a group including Representative William D. Delahunt, Democrat of Quincy, and Kennedy, who is now chairman of Citizens Energy, a nonprofit Massachusetts group. The two had played a key role in negotiating the initial deal with Chavez last year that sent 12 million gallons of reduced-cost heating oil to Bay Staters this winter, which assisted about 45,000 needy families. Several other states negotiated similar deals. That program set off sharp criticism from some Republicans who said Delahunt was playing into the hands of Chavez and undermining US foreign policy by dealing with an anti-American populist with a questionable human rights record. The initiative to renew the discount oil program for the coming winter is certain to intensify the political battles in the United States over how to respond to the high price of gasoline and home energy costs -- including whether the US government is itself doing enough to help the poor confront soaring fuel costs. While Chavez did not say how much more oil would be made available this year, he said in an interview after meeting the delegation that he will move to a “second stage, an expansion and deepening of the project.” The oil will again be provided by CITGO, the US distribution arm of the Venezuelan state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela. While the controversial Venezuelan leader has irked the administration and other critics with his anti-Bush rhetoric, he said yesterday that he had no problems with the American people. “The only things we feel about the American people are affection, caring, and the willingness to improve relations,” Chavez said in the interview in his Miraflores presidential palace. This past winter, Venezuela made 9 million gallons of heating fuel available to Massachusetts families, and another three million to institutions that serve the poor. Families got a 200-gallon shipment -- enough to last about three weeks -- for about $276, which means a savings of about $184. The discounted fuel was available through the Citizens Energy non-profit organization to families eligible for federal fuel oil assistance, which offers an annual subsidy of $550. The expansion of the Venezuelan cut-rate oil offering is part of an effort to begin to repair US-Venezuelan relations after years of confrontation, Chavez said after his meeting with Delahunt, Kennedy and US Representative Gregory W. Meeks, a Democrat from Queens, N.Y. Kennedy and the two congressmen hailed the agreement as critical relief to low-income families facing growing energy costs. The three dismissed suggestions that they were giving Chavez yet another opportunity to tweak the US president, whom Chavez has called “Mr. Dangerous” and a “murderer.” Longtime Massachusetts Republican consultant Charles Manning, referring to Chavez as “the most...anti-American government leader in South America,” called the relationship between the Venezuelan president and the proponents of the heating oil program unsavory and hypocritical. “If Hugo Chavez wants to play politics in our country by giving us low-cost oil while he’s short-changing the people of Venezuela, that’s fine with me,” Manning said last night. “But it shows you what type of bad guy he is, and I don’t understand why Delahunt and Kennedy would want to do business with someone like that.” Under the “second stage” of the program, the oil will be delivered more directly to consumers and the eligibility terms will be broadened, Kennedy said. Details and amounts of the fuel to e involved in the second phase were not disclosed. Kennedy said he had written to every major company in the US oil business -- an industry now enjoying record profits -- and asked for discounted oil for the poor, but was turned down by all of them. Only Venezuela agreed to provide cut-rate home heating oil, he said. Delahunt also shrugged off criticism of the program, and accused Republican of failing to give enough funding to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides cash assistance to needy families for heating and cooling homes. “We want to get more [discounted Venezuelan oil], particularly when we’re looking at $3 a gallon at the pump and $70 a barrel” for oil, Delahunt said. “We want to extend the deal because we don’t have confidence in the administration and the Republican Congress to deliver adequate dollars for the LIHEAP program.” Congress has repeatedly failed to come through with the full amount of money it has promised for LIHEAP. The move served to boost the goals of all the parties in the negotiations: Delahunt and Meeks got lower cost heating oil for their districts; Kennedy got a promise of cheaper oil for his customers, and Chavez got another opportunity to needle Bush. In the interview, Chavez said he was willing to rebuild relations with the current administration, which he believe participated in the April 2002 coup attempt that briefly ousted Chavez from power. The Bush administration appeared to embrace the coup when it happened, but denied it had any role in the uprising. Chavez was restored to power that month by the military. But the Venezuelan leader hinted that he could not fully re-establish warm relations with Washington until after Bush was gone, calling the administration “transitional.” I think our relations with the US administration couldn’t be worse. That’s positive,” Chavez said with a chuckle, and said things could only get better. “Did you ever have a problem with your husband or your friend, where you throw dishes” at each other? Chavez asked. After some talking, “it gets better,” he said. Despite Chavez’s bad relationship with the Bush administration, Americans who can’t afford to heat their homes don’t care about the politics of the situation, said Meeks. “I just had a town hall meeting, and when I said I was coming here [to ask for reduced-cost oil], they all applauded,” said Meeks, adding that several other members of Congress have approached him about getting a similar deal for their districts. American consumers who were flown to Caracas by CITGO to thank the Venezuelan government agreed. “We’re talking about basic needs. It’s not like Mafia money or drug money,” said Linda Kelly, a 45-year-old Quincy homemaker. She was among 61 heating oil consumers who were taken to Venezuela by CITGO, a journey that was separate from the congressmen’s trip. “Maybe you don’t like his [Chavez’s] politics, but who are we to say?” she added. Peggy Longueil of Brattleboro, Vt., said the discounted oil is critical to covering her household budget. “It gives us a chance to not have to worry about whether we’re going to pay for food or oil, or medicine or oil,” said the 64-year-old, who was at a dinner Sunday night for the heating oil beneficiaries. Chavez came to power in 1998 in a democratic election, but human rights groups have accused him of thwarting press freedom and loading the judicial branch with judges sympathetic to him. The Venezuelan leader has used his nation’s surging oil revenues to help the Venezuelan poor, a move that has contributed to his popularity at home. But critics warn that Chavez is playing a risky financial and political game by relying on high oil prices that may one day fall, potentially leaving him with a discontented populace and a national budget problem.