December 7, 2005

Venezuela Delivers Energy ‘Aid’ to New York Poor

By Dan Wilchins

NEW YORK -- Venezuelan "humanitarian aid" arrived in The Bronx on Tuesday, leaving some residents of one of New York's poorest neighborhoods happy to be able to heat their homes and others wondering if they were political pawns.

The Latin American nation, where per capita income is about 1/10th that of the world's richest economy, sold 2,500 gallons of heating oil to apartments in the Bronx at a steep discount, aimed at offsetting high fuel prices.

It was also the latest chapter in an ongoing spat between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and U.S. President George W. Bush. Socialist Chavez says Bush is trying to undermine his political support and Bush calls Chavez a threat to democracy in Latin America.

Despite the politics, in the Mount Hood neighborhood of The Bronx, where supermarkets have signs saying they accept food stamps and bleak housing projects crowd out the sky, most residents were just glad to get a break.

"It's very hard as a single parent, trying to raise a child, and on welfare. I'm just trying to manage," said Yolanda Ayabarreno at an event to announce the delivery.

But analysts said the Venezuelan people might be the ones who suffer from sending the oil to New York and, in a similar program, to Massachusetts.

"Here we have a country where children are subject to malnutrition and (Chavez is) basically taking money from them and giving it to people in New York and Massachusetts, which to me seems quite strange," said Bruce Everett, a former executive with the ExxonMobil Corp. who teaches petroleum economics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

U.S. Congressman Jose Serrano, who helped put the discounted heating oil program together, said he was trying to do the best for his community in the Bronx.

"To those folks who say that this is a way for Hugo Chavez to score political points, I invite every American corporation that wants to score points with my community, to start scoring points this afternoon," he said.


The delivery on Tuesday was the beginning of a Venezuelan program to sell up to 8 million gallons of heating oil at a 40 percent discount to low-income people in New York this winter. The organizers say landlords' savings, which could run into the millions of dollars, must be passed along to tenants.

Citgo, the U.S. arm of the Venezuelan state oil company, will also deliver 12 million gallons of heating oil to 45,000 Massachusetts families at a discount of 60 cents to 80 cents per gallon, for a total savings of $10-14 million.

High energy prices have been a hot topic in Washington in recent months but the U.S. government has done little to alleviate the impact higher prices have on the poor.

Joe Kennedy, chairman of Citizens Energy, one of the organizations that will distribute the oil, told Reuters Chavez was the only person to date to help the poor get cheap oil.

"The federal government of the United States makes billions off the high price of crude oil and yet they haven't increased the amount of fuel assistance one dime despite the fact that the price of oil has nearly doubled in the past two years," said Kennedy, son of the late Robert F. Kennedy.

Venezuela is "the one country that has agreed to provide our poor people with some low-cost oil and it's the country that gets the greatest amount of criticism," he said.

Amid the hoopla as the fuel was delivered, some wondered if the oil was coming with a hidden cost.

"I think it's political, and who knows what it will mean for us. You have to think about what is good, and what could be bad about it," said Marta Rojas, a local mother of two.