How Venezuela Keeps Low Income Americans Warm

PHOTO: Sofie Holland lives in the working class neighborhood of Anacostia in Washington, DC. She is one of thousands of recipients of the CITGO Venezuela heating oil program, which provides free heating oil to families in need.

Sofie Holland, a longtime resident of Washington, D.C.'s, Anacostia neighborhood, says the unusual scene that took place on her front yard back in the winter of 2007 is forever etched in her memory. Former Massachusetts Congressional Representative Joe Kennedy, along with Venezuelan ambassador Bernardo Alvarez, and several other politicians had parked their limos up and down the street. They were eating hors d'oeuvre right by her porch. In this working class, often stigmatized area of D.C., it was an odd sight, but for Holland it was a welcome one. All this meant she would be able to get through the winter with a little less difficulty: it was the kickoff to the 3rd CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program, of which Sofie was a first-time recipient.

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This year now marks the CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program's 8th anniversary. You may be familiar with the non-profit Citizens Energy Corporation through its television advertisements. They feature founder and president of the corporation Joe Kennedy urging people in need to call 1-800-Joe-4-Oil for a one time delivery of 100 gallons of home heating oil.

The program was conceived in 2005, in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With oil prices skyrocketing, CITGO Petroleum, which is a branch of Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA, became a major donor of heating oil to Citizens Energy. Critics raised their voices. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is known for his bombastic anti-American proclamations; he's also been accused of human right violations and silencing free press in that country--in other words, being a dictator. Following the launch of the CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil program, the Wall Street Journal penned a scathing op-ed questioning "what the price of this largesse is to Venezuelans and to U.S. security interests."

Brian O'Connor, spokesperson for Citizens Energy, argues that the outrage against the source of donated oil is misplaced. In 2011 the U.S. Congress approved slashing 25 percent from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), and O'Connor argues that the focus needs to be on how low income American families are going to survive winter. He also clarifies that Citizens Energy advocates constantly for greater fuel assistance from the U.S. government and continues to ask for donations from other oil companies, nationally and abroad, to no avail.

When asked about the Chavez administration's politics, O'Connor said, "It's up to the Venezuelan people to decide who runs their government and how their government is run… and if people want to be critical of the one non-profit company doing business with Venezuela then why aren't Chevron Texaco, and Shell and BP and so many billions of dollars of business with Venezuela being called on the carpet?" He also points to U.S. commercial ties with Saudi Arabia, Russia and China.

"If there is something morally wrong with our dealings with Venezuela, then what about the U.S. dealings with countries that have a much clearer record of hostility to our way of life and our interests?" he said.

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