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.
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.
So what's in it for Venezuela? Professor Eric Hershberg, director of Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, says it's extremely unusual for a developing country to send this type of donation to an industrialized nation--and that it's pure petro-diplomacy. Although Venezuela has always used oil as a diplomatic tool, President Chavez has taken the practice to the next level. Hershberg says that Chavez's style of leadership has been built in large part around denunciations of the United States as an imperial power.
"[The heating oil program] is meant to be a stick in the eye of the Americans to show that the empire doesn't even take care of it's own unfortunate people," he said. He added that "it's also a way for [Chavez] to gain some degree of affection from sectors of the left in the United States."
According to Hershberg, the cost of the CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program is relatively small in the grand scheme of Venezuela's international economy. During the years of the program, CITGO says it has helped more than 1.7 million people stay warm during the coldest months of winter by donating more than 200 million gallons of heating oil. That oil has a value of more than $400 million. Currently, Venezuela is the United States' fourth largest supplier of imported crude oil: in 2011, they provided the United States with $42 billion in mineral fuel and crude oil.
But the idea that this is small change for a country that still struggles with poverty gets under the skin of many Venezuelans who oppose this and similar foreign-aid ventures the Chavez administration has embarked on. Despite World Bank estimates that poverty levels have decreased significantly under Chavez, as of 2011 the Venezuelan poverty rate still stood at 31.9%. That's double the poverty rate of the U.S.
According to blogger Francisco Toro, "This is a small part of a much larger strategy by Chavismo…to create international alliances and give support to the Bolivarian revolution through oil and its revenues." The strategy, Toro adds, "has had a high cost for Venezuela and has been murky." Toro is referring to the numerous foreign-aid programs Venezuela is engaged in, which includes programs to provide aid to Nicaragua and Cuba. Venezuela sends Cuba an estimated 115,000 barrels of oil a day, for instance. Cuba pays Venezuela back in the form of doctors, intelligence and security experts stationed in Venezuela.
Venezuela, however, continues to be a poor country, one that is plagued by issues like electricity shortages. Toro says it's simply unacceptable for his country to be donating any money abroad. "A country where you have families, many families who still can't eat three times a day, that's not a country that should have a foreign-aid program," he said.
Venezuela's aid programs may be on precarious footing as the cancer-stricken Chavez continues to battle for his life. Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro has said that, if Chavez dies, elections will be held within 30 days. If Chavez fervor grows after his death, as Hershberg believes it will, his administration's aid programs will continue undeterred. But the opposition has vowed that, if it wins the next election, one of the things it will tackle is what it sees as excessive spending on foreign aid.
That might spell trouble for people like Sofie Holland. Back at her place in Washington, D.C., the limos and hors d'oeuvre are long gone. The aid, however, continues to come in: this year is Holland's second time as a beneficiary of the CITGO program. It's also her second time receiving heating oil from the city.
Despite the assistance, as winter drags on Holland fears she will soon run out of oil. Her home--a large, old house that she moved to 30 years ago--has been rapidly deteriorating, and keeping the warmth inside the house is a problem.
"I'm handing it over to God" she says. She also effusively repeats her gratitude for the CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program. "How can you criticize someone who is helping people? What are the people who are criticizing doing to help? I don't look at the president of Venezuela as a dictator. I look at him as a kind human being."
*Jasmine Garsd is a host of NPR's Alt.Latino, a weekly show about Latin music and culture