As heating oil prices continue to rise, poverty-stricken Americans in several states will receive an unexpected donation from an even more unexpected source: Hugo Chavez. Venezuela's president has teamed up with CITGO to donate heating oil in 23 states.
The CITGO-Venezuela Heating Oil Program offers millions of gallons of low-cost heating oil to needy families who suffer during the winter season. The program has been in place since 2005, and the first delivery of this season was made in Boston, Massachusetts on December 10th. CITGO's Chairman Alejandro Granado says, "I am proud of the fact that CITGO is a very socially responsible company."
The program was first started after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. During the crisis in New Orleans the world got its first glimpse of the deplorable living conditions of the United States' impoverished populations. Studies have shown that during the winter months low-income families reduce their food spending by the amount that they have to spend on heating oil. This leads to higher rates of undernourishment during the coldest part of the year.
The cost of heating oil has risen nearly than 50% in the last year, and approximately 40,000 households in Massachusetts alone will go without heat this winter. A gallon of heating oil now costs $3.36, and some expect that number to rise this winter.
Most likely, those living in Massachusetts have seen television commercials where former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II promotes the low-cost oil which is shipped in "thanks to our friends in Venezuela." Those who wish to be a part of the program are urged to call 1-877-JOE-4-OIL or visit www.citizensenergy.com.
Chavez successfully nationalized Venezuela's vast oil reserves, which are estimated to become the world's largest by 2009. His country's relationship with the U.S. is tenuous at best, partly due to his close friendship with Fidel Castro and Venezuela's membership in OPEC. This program, while undoubtedly beneficial to the needy in the U.S., is suspicious in its motives. The question on everyone's lips is, "Is this just a PR stunt to make the U.S. look bad overseas?" As one blogger wryly remarks, "Chavez wants to give you 100 gallons of free heating oil to help survive the cold cruel capitalist winter."
Castro made a similar gesture following Hurricane Katrina by offering to send Cuban doctors to New Orleans to help with the humanitarian crisis. President Bush was put in the awkward position of refusing help due to the ongoing embargo.
While Venezuela's donation is definitely appreciated by those needing help with their heating bills, I can't help but feel that Chavez is delighted to draw attention to the problem of poverty in the United States.