Venezuela helping city woman

A disabled resident of Remington becomes first Marylander to get discounted heating oil

December 07, 2006|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,Sun reporter

A disabled Baltimore mother became the state's first recipient yesterday of subsidized heating oil through a program backed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fervent critic of U.S. policies who has used his country's oil riches to burnish his image as a populist leader.

For the second year in a row, Citgo Petroleum Corp., the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, is delivering discounted heating oil to low-income Americans with help from a Boston nonprofit formed by former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II.

Debra Henderson, 58, of Baltimore's Remington neighborhood is among as many as 15,000 Maryland households eligible to receive more than 3 million gallons of fuel oil at a 40 percent discount.

The program was launched in the Northeast last year after Hurricane's Katrina and Rita sent fuel prices soaring, prompting Chavez to pledge aid to U.S. poor in a move dismissed by some as an attempt to tweak the Bush administration.

Citgo expanded the program this year to 16 states, which will divide up to 100 million gallons of discounted fuel oil among as many as 400,000 eligible households.

The U.S. gets about 15 percent of its imported oil from Venezuela, but the two countries have a complex relationship entwined in politics and the economics of oil.

Chavez has accused the Bush administration of supporting a coup against him in 2002. The Bush administration, in turn, has branded Chavez a destabilizing force in Latin America. Relations hit a new low when he called Bush "the devil" and other names in a September speech before the United Nations, inspiring some to call for a boycott of Citgo stations and products in the United States.

A nationwide advertising campaign by Citgo has blunted much of the impact from the boycott. But the controversy prompted a few Native American villages in Alaska to reject the offer of discounted heating oil, though many others embraced the aid.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci, whose state benefited under the program last year, has said he does not plan to join the program again.

Speaking in front of Henderson's home yesterday, Citgo and Venezuelan officials fired back at critics, saying the program is based on humanitarian need, not politics.

"We need to leave politics aside from this gesture and these initiatives," said Fadi Kabboul, minister counselor for energy affairs in the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. "... We do have differences politically, and we hope those differences can be worked out. What's important for us is that Venezuela is a friend of the people of the United States."

Kennedy, whose Citizens Energy Corp. is managing the program, pointed out that numerous American banks, oil companies and auto manufacturers, including Ford and General Motors, have business ties in Venezuela, yet nobody is calling for a boycott of those companies.

Similarly, he said, nobody is calling on scores of other charities that have received cash donations from Citgo to give the money back in protest.

"I think a lot of Americans had disagreements with the speech President Chavez gave a few months ago," Kennedy said after personally driving an oil tanker up to Henderson's home yesterday. "But at the end of the day, if people are going to have this reaction, it's interesting to me that the only program they choose to go after is the program that helps low-income people."

Kennedy has taken heat from some politicians and conservative commentators for teaming up with Citgo. And a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal questioned Chavez's motives.

But Kennedy said Citgo and Venezuela should be applauded for being the only oil company and country to respond to his requests for aid after last year's price spikes. Heating oil remains at about the same price this winter as last, even though prices for gasoline and natural gas have fallen from their post-hurricane peaks, he said.

Though he was re-elected this week by a strong majority, Chavez has been criticized at home for providing assistance in the United States. Some say the money should instead be spent helping the millions of poor in Venezuela, where per capita income is one-tenth that in the U.S.

Citgo officials say the company has an obligation to help people in this country, where it has thousands of employees and sizable operations.

Citgo is providing the discounted heating oil to Citizens Energy, which Kennedy founded during the oil price shocks of the late 1970s to help the poor buy fuel.

The nonprofit then provides qualifying low-income residents with up to 200 gallons of discounted heating oil. About 5 percent of the oil Citgo has pledged for Maryland will be provided free to homeless shelters this winter.

Henderson said the assistance will prove vital for her and her 28-year-old son, an Army Reserve sergeant who takes care of her during the day. The two live on money from his job at a filling station and the $622 a month she collects from Social Security and disability payments. After paying the rent on her brick rowhouse, there is often little left over for basics, she said.

"It's [the disability payments] not really helping and sometimes we don't eat, but we do the best we can," said the former nurse.

She praised the heating-assistance program, which came to her attention after her oil supplier contacted her.

"I know it will help a whole lot of people who are dealing with paying for oil," she said.

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