Taking the heat

December 18, 2006

How do you accept a gift that's tied with a ribbon of barbed wire? Very gingerly, as demonstrated by Rep. Charles B. Rangel, when faced with the quandary of allowing eligible households in his district to benefit from a subsidized foreign heating-oil project while at the same time scolding the South American president who sanctioned the plan.

The New York congressman managed to accomplish both. He stopped short of saying he didn't want his constituents to receive the oil, and he managed to fire off a few well-publicized admonishments toward Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's populist leader, for referring to President Bush as the "devil." In this case, it's too bad there aren't more politicians agile enough to walk that sort of tight rope.

Citgo Petroleum Corp., the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil giant, is offering low-income American households - including some in Baltimore - heating fuel at a 40 percent discount and at no cost to some homeless shelters. Citgo is providing the oil through former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II's nonprofit Citizens Energy Corp. Though Mr. Kennedy's outfit has distributed Venezuelan oil since 1979, nobody seemed to care much about where it came from until the name-calling incidents.

The outrage against Mr. Chavez, sparked when he spoke his indiscreet mind at the United Nations and again at a church in Harlem, provoked what surely was an unintended consequence by uniting, for a brief while, Republicans and Democrats in a spirited but narrow-minded defense of Mr. Bush.

As politicians from Maine to Alaska bathed in the sanctimonious afterglow of their refusals to accept Mr. Chavez's largesse, many of the low-income people they represent got ready for another winter of tough decisions about how to pay for food, medicine, rent and heat. Is the Venezuelan oil-for-poor program intended to embarrass leaders of the world's wealthiest country? No doubt about it. But when there's an opportunity to score political points over what should be a humanitarian gesture, some U.S. politicians proved that Mr. Chavez is hardly alone.

The real shame comes not from Citgo, but from the other oil players who should have taken a cue from the bipartisan outcry against Mr. Chavez. Mr. Kennedy said he asked for similar assistance from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and from every major oil company. No one other than Citgo agreed to help. Apparently it's OK to reap enormous profits if you're an oil giant - as long as you don't say bad things about Mr. Bush.

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