A gift of survival: Venezuelas Citgo provides low-cost heating oil to U.S. needy

BRONX, N.Y. — Residents of the Fordham-Bedford cooperative housing project, home to thousands of working-class people, were facing desperate times. Many were unable to pay their electric bills, and their lights were shut off. A desperate mother had lost her job and could not afford to pay the rent. This holiday season promised to be hard for the parents: they weren’t going to be able to afford gifts for their children.

Then Citgo stepped in.

On Dec. 6, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), along with Citgo CEO Felix Rodriguez, leaders of neighborhood organizations, and Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Alvarez, delivered the first installment of 8 million gallons of Citgo heating oil earmarked for New York City, to be sold to those in need at a substantially reduced rate.

Citgo, based in Houston, is a refiner, transporter and marketer of transportation fuels and related products. The company is owned by PDV America, Inc., a subsidiary of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., the national oil company of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

The first talk of low-cost heating oil for the Bronx was in September, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was in town for the United Nations World Summit. He went on a tour of Manhattan and the Bronx with Serrano, and announced then that he would direct PDVSA to make oil available to low-income U.S. families.

The oil will be sold to community organizations and housing cooperatives instead of landlords, at the request of Chavez, to prevent price gouging. All of the oil will come from the allotment that Citgo has to sell in the U.S. None of it will come at the expense of poorer countries.

Eartha Bergenson, a resident of the Fordham-Bedford houses, which will be a recipient of the fuel aid, said, “When Con Edison comes to turn off the lights, now we can say, ‘No more! We can pay your bill!’” She said that the mother who lost her job would be able to receive rent assistance, because the savings the cooperative receives in oil will be passed on to the renters. She thanked Citgo for the “gift of survival.”

Citgo’s Rodriguez questioned the ethics of privately owned oil companies, saying that helping the community is as important as doing good business. “With this initiative, Citgo is showing its commitment to the U.S. marketplace and to communities where we have a presence,” Rodriguez said. “As good corporate citizens, we are making an effort to help those in need.”

The publicly owned nature of the company made that vision possible, Rodriguez said. “Citgo’s shareholders are the Venezuelan people,” he said. “Our relationship to the U.S. people is the most important.”

Though the Bush administration has declared Chavez an enemy — even going so far as to support a 2002 coup, which, due to popular resistance was overturned — the Venezuelan president has nevertheless embraced the American people. After the disaster of Hurricane Katrina, Venezuela offered millions of dollars in assistance. The Bush administration, however, refused the offer.

In response to the idea that Venezuela was simply trying to “score points” in American public opinion, Serrano invited “every American corporation that wants to score points with my community to start scoring points this afternoon.” He dismissed the accusation as a ploy by U.S. oil companies and the Bush administration to avoid embarrassment over the aid of Venezuela, a developing country, to the U.S.

Serrano’s 16th Congressional District is 30 percent Black and 63 percent Latino. The Bronx distribution is part of a wider effort of the Venezuelan government to supply oil to those in need. It is part of a pilot program launched in the northeast, where 80 percent of all home heating oil in the U.S. is used. Citgo is said to be looking at expanding the program to Chicago.

In November, Citgo, in coordination with Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.), announced the same kind of deal for Massachusetts. Citgo is set to provide millions of gallons of heating oil 40 percent below market value to two nonprofit organizations. One of the agencies, the Mass Energy Consumer Alliance, will assist people through groups that provide aid to low-income people, while the other, the Citizens Energy Corp., will provide oil directly to families.

Citgo placed full-page advertisements in recent editions of The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and the Houston Chronicle. The ads read in part, “Why are we doing this? Why would we put people before profits? Because we’re not just any oil company. CITGO is ... the state oil company owned by — and responsible to — the people of Venezuela.”

The ads say oil profits in Venezuela are used “to support health, education, adult literacy and job training initiatives that help millions of Venezuelans.” As for Citgo’s humanitarian aid, the company asks, “What could be more American than that?”

Ambassador Alvarez spoke of solidarity between the U.S. and Venezuela, and said that the Bush administration’s threats to Venezuela notwithstanding, he saw the American people as friends.

“The relationship between the Venezuelan and U.S. people is a long relationship, and we are sure it is going to last forever,” he told the World. “This is a good example of how we can work together, people-to-people.”