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John Metzler Archive
Monday, January 7, 2008

Comrade Hugo Chavez bids for the 'hearths and minds' of low-income Americans

PORTLAND, Maine — In the midst of a brutally cold winter and increasingly expensive fuel heating season here in the Northeast, a tropical dictator is coming to the rescue to help struggling low income American families keep warm. None other than Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, has used his petrodollars to offer cheap and free heating fuel to ostensibly aid the poor but to gain a red hot propaganda windfall as well.

Describing the program as “From the Venezuelan heart to American hearths” the effort actually is a slick public relations move which should be re-labeled Chavez’s “Hearts and Minds campaign.” For the third consecutive year, CITGO petroleum, a totally owned subsidiary of Venezuela’s state owned oil company, will send free heating oil to needy families from the Bronx borough in New York City to Boston and states throughout New England. This year 112 million gallons of fuel will be distributed to 235,000 low income families.

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The state of Maine is New England’s largest and probably coldest state; last winter 9 million gallons went to 51,000 families which includes members of the Aroostook Band of MicMacs, the Penobscot Indian Nation, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians. A further 12 million gallons went to 50,000 families in Massachusetts; 3.3 million gallons to 9,000 families in Rhode Island, and 2 million gallons to 12, 000 families in Vermont.

When the controversial program kicked off in Boston a month ago, Joe Kennedy, a former Democratic congressman whose nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp is a major distributor of the heating oil, said the project has nothing to do with politics. Politics? No it’s just that a socialist South American dictator Hugo Chavez wishes to play political Santa Claus for poor Americans. President Chavez is best known for his anti-American political rants and coddling up to dictators from Cuba to China and Islamic Iran.

“The politics side of this is absurd,” Kennedy told Reuters. At the same time Kennedy, scion of the Boston political dynasty and nephew of former president John F. Kennedy, and his group imply that the U.S. government really does little for the poor and so it takes a Latin American caudillo to ride to the rescue. Gracias Presidente Chavez!

In fact the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program (LIHEAP) started during the Reagan Administration has been an expanding federal program offering block grant assistance to low income households across America. This year Congress appropriated $2.6 billion for the program. Given the historic spike in energy prices with oil hitting $100 per barrel, the ensuing jump in per gallon fuel prices, combined with a very cold winter, there are additional price squeezes for all consumers.

Speaking of expanding LIHEAP assistance, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said “This is certainly an initial step, but in the context of the historic prices of heating oil, we must provide additional resources to this vital program.” Given the extent of rural poverty in Maine, the problem is here and now.

For example over the past year alone, average heating oil prices have increased 35% from $2.37 a gallon to $3.21 a gallon. Now with prices at record highs, it would cost over $800 to fill the average home’s 250-gallon tank.

There’s a real challenge. According to the Maine Community Action program “80% of Maine people heat with oil. Heating costs are projected to be 30% higher than last year’s, but federal fuel assistance dollars are projected to remain the same.” Still last year 48,174 households were served with an average benefit of $572.

Contrary to the mantra of global warming gurus, the city of Boston was just an inch short of the highest December snowfall ever recorded, neighboring New Hampshire had the snowiest December ever on record, (that’s really saying something) and looking around the mounds of snow in coastal Maine, only a fool would say this is not a rough winter.

But there’s a solution beyond the federal government in Washington and the oil slick dictator in Caracas. It is called the private sector. It’s time for American oil companies to step up to the plate and not be shamed by a buffo dictator in Venezuela, who while having wrecked his own country’s economy, will gain good favor here in America.

For example, Irving Oil, a major firm, has donated $100,000 to the Keep Maine Warm Fund, a coalition of public and private efforts to help the poor.

Chavez has been allowed to build credibility, goodwill and political influence throughout the Northeast. This propaganda ploy, using Venezuela’s petrodollar treasure chest, should not be shrugged off by Americans but challenged and met by American corporate and individual giving. Let’s trump Chavez!

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for World
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