Gift of warmth brings a chill

December 06, 2005|By BRUCE M. EVERETT

Venezuela ran a heart-warming full-page color ad in major newspapers last week titled "Venezuela is keeping the home fires burning in Massachusetts." Alas, it's not the home fires Venezuela is stoking; it's the fires of anti-Americanism. And some prominent Americans are helping.

According to the Venezuelan Embassy, the state oil company will deliver to Massachusetts consumers this winter as "humanitarian aid" 12 million gallons of heating oil at a discount of 60 cents to 80 cents per gallon. The embassy thanked Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts for being a partner in the transaction, which will distribute the oil through two nonprofit companies: Citizens Energy Corp., headed by Joseph P. Kennedy II, and the Massachusetts Energy Consumers Alliance.

According to Mr. Delahunt's spokesman, "It's the first time a major oil company has extended itself to this degree to help low-income people."

Mr. Kennedy claimed, "I wrote every single oil company asking them to give us a little break on the price of oil. ... I didn't hear back from one of them. The only one that came back was Citgo."

But is this really an act of corporate responsibility? Let's have a closer look.

Citgo, famous for its bright neon sign visible from Fenway Park, is no longer a "major company." About 10 years ago, it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) - the state oil company. Its earnings belong not to private shareholders but, supposedly, to the people of Venezuela.

According to the United Nations, Venezuela is a country where "poverty remains widespread, affecting nearly half the population. And up to one-third of the children in some impoverished rural states show signs of repeated or prolonged periods of undernutrition." Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has taken money belonging to these desperately poor people to give to Mr. Delahunt's constituents.

Perhaps the point here is to embarrass U.S. oil companies into subsidizing Mr. Kennedy's organization. The profits of the private U.S. oil companies belong to their shareholders, not to their management. It is no more appropriate for companies to give away their profits than for banks to give away their depositors' accounts. Oil company shareholders should be generous in their charitable giving. The overwhelming majority of these shareholders, however, are not wealthy oil executives, but ordinary people holding mutual funds, pension rights and retirement accounts.

Americans have an obligation to help our neediest citizens. For many years, the federal government has had an effective program called the Low Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). We also have the Northeast Heating Oil Reserve, which contains about 80 million gallons. If needs are higher this year, why not increase funding for these programs instead of taking money from starving Venezuelans?

The real issue, however, is not social equity. Mr. Chavez is a committed and outspoken enemy of the United States. According to Mr. Delahunt, the problem is merely personal animosity between President Bush and Mr. Chavez.

In reality, Mr. Chavez is a demagogue in the tradition of Argentina's Juan Peron, Chile's Salvador Allende and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega. Such leaders offer their people anti-American rhetoric in place of political and economic freedom. Their answer to abject poverty is to urge people to hit the streets and express their hatred of America. Mr. Chavez and his newfound friend, Cuba's Fidel Castro, are making a determined effort to undermine every U.S. policy and interest in the region.

If not for true humanitarian reasons, why would Mr. Chavez give money to Massachusetts? Simple. He wants to portray the United States as weak and poor. Why should anyone respect a country that can't even keep its own people warm in the winter without charity from Latin America? The world's only superpower is begging on street corners, and Venezuela has just tossed a coin into the cup.

Mr. Delahunt apparently has decided to join this effort. He consistently has defended Mr. Chavez, characterizing him as someone "who seeks greater power and influence for the developing world" and saying, "I respect his efforts to use Venezuela's energy wealth to improve the lives of the Venezuelan people."

Mr. Chavez's contribution as a critic of the Bush administration apparently trumps his role as an enemy of the United States.

America's adversaries are out in force all over the world. It's shameful when U.S. public officials offer them aid and comfort in the hope of picking up a few votes. What's next? Food packages from Syria?

Bruce M. Everett, a former executive with the ExxonMobil Corp., teaches petroleum economics at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts. His e-mail is

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