Venezuela provides discounted heating oil to Massachusetts

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Venezuela will provide heating oil at a 40% discount to low income families in Massachusetts this winter. According to an agreement signed on Tuesday Citgo, the Houston-based subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, will provide 12 million gallons of discounted home heating oil. The oil will be distributed through two nonprofit organizations, Citizens Energy Corp. and the Mass Energy Consumer Alliance.

In August William Delahunt (D-Mass) met President Hugo Chávez in Caracas. The meeting between a member of Congress and a head of state so critical of the White House, sparked negotiations that led to the deal. Mr Delahunt said he was simply trying to smooth strained US-Venezuelan relations while helping low-income people in his home state.

Hugo Chávez says he is leading a Bolivarian Revolution and calls his program an act of justice for poor Americans, whom he says have been neglected by their government. Mr Chávez is one of Latin America's harshest critics of U.S.-style capitalism, which he calls a major cause of poverty. Venezuela has been selling fuel on preferential terms to countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, extending low-interest loans and accepting partial payment in goods ranging from bananas to sugar.

Critics said Delahunt should not be working so closely with Chávez, an outspoken leftist. Steve Johnson, a Latin American specialist at the conservative oriented Heritage Foundation, said "Meeting with the leader who calls himself a revolutionary populist is not something I'd like my congressman to be doing."

Representative Delahunt said "This is a humanitarian gesture," and that his constituents' needs for heating assistance trump any political points the Chavez administration can score. Asked if he was subverting State Department policy toward Chávez, Mr Delahunt said, "I don't work for Condoleezza Rice. I don't report to the State Department. I report to the people who elected me in the state of Massachusetts. I belong to an independent branch of government."

Over 10 percent of US oil imports come from Venezuela, and while Mr Chávez seeks to diversify his markets, the US remains his leading trade partner.

When the discounted oil arrives early December Citizens Energy will determine suitable recipients with the help of local organizations that serve the poor. 350 local dealers will then distribute three-fourths of the oil to local families.

The remaining quarter will be distributed or sold to homeless shelters, food banks, and low-income housing groups by MassEnergyConsumer Alliance. Larry Chretien, the nonprofit group's executive director says home heating oil prices are expected to increase by 30 percent to 50 percent this winter because of rising oil prices. The CITGO agreement could help ease the crunch on some families.