Venezuela lends a hand in Maine

“This is not about politics. This is about improving the lives of poor people. This is about people helping people.”

That was Felix Rodriguez, CEO of Citgo Petroleum Corp., speaking in the small town of Windham, Maine, on Jan. 12. There, Rodriguez, Maine Gov. John Baldacci and Bernard Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, signed an agreement making heating oil from Venezuela more readily accessible to low-income people in Maine this winter. Citgo is a subsidiary of PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.

Last September, while attending a United Nations meeting in New York, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced the availability of cheap oil to low-income people in the United States. Venezuela had previously offered oil at discounted prices to U.S. citizens trying to cope with the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Since then, Citgo distributors in Massachusetts and in the Bronx, N.Y., have been providing poor people with low-cost heating oil through nonprofit organizations at about a 40 percent discount. Starting in January, subsidized Venezuelan oil will also be available to people in need in Rhode Island.

Altogether 25 million gallons of Venezuelan home-heating oil will be sold to 100,000 poor households in the Northeast at discounted prices. That region consumes 80 percent of the heating oil used in the United States. The program ends on April 1, 2006.

The Chicago Transit Authority has recently rejected a Citgo offer to discounted diesel fuel for public buses.

Nonprofit organizations have been assigned leading roles in the distribution of Venezuelan oil. In Maine, such groups are unavailable. Accordingly, Citgo, which has 160 gas stations in Maine, plans to sell 8 million gallons of fuel at market prices in that state and then transfer an amount equivalent to 40 percent of the revenues to the state of Maine. The projected donation amounts to $5.6 million, according to the Portland Press Herald.

That money will enable the state government to provide 48,000 low-income residents with $100 worth of extra heating oil apiece through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

The timing was opportune. The Maine Legislature was forced to add $5 million to the state’s fuel-assistance program in response to federal cuts in the program at a time when home heating costs were rising.

Citgo also plans to donate 120,000 gallons of heating oil to 40 homeless shelters in Maine.

Right-wing critics took Gov. Baldacci to task a month ago for his part in negotiating $20 million in agriculture sales to Cuba. Kenneth Fletcher, ranking Republican on the Legislature’s Utilities and Energy Committee, referred to “a very shaky strategy to have to depend on another kind of government — a dictatorship —for our supply of oil.”

Baldacci responded, “The cost of heating oil has risen dramatically and the federal government has failed to provide the resources needed to help Maine citizens.” A spokesperson added, “The governor is not going to let anyone freeze to death.”

On Jan. 12, Baldacci, Alvarez and Rodriguez were on Indian Island in the Penobscot River meeting with the governors of four Native American tribes — the Penobscots, Micmacs, Passamaquoddies and the Maliseets. The tribes will buy 900,000 gallons of Venezuelan oil at a savings of $543,000.

Micmac Chief Bill Phillips praised the Venezuelan president: “He is a fellow Native from the Americas, and we appreciate Chávez trying to bring low-cost heating oil for our elderly.”

Interviewed in Portland, Maine, Felix Rodriguez said that Citgo’s shareholders are the Venezuelan people, adding, “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.”

Venezuela has invited Maine tribes to participate in a cultural exchange in Venezuela. “I would happily go down to pay a visit,” said Chief Phillips.