- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 2, 2006

Venezuela will provide heavily discounted heating oil to about 37,000 low-income families in Maryland, Virginia and the District this winter, Caracas’ envoy to the United States said yesterday.

The local jurisdictions are beneficiaries of a greatly expanded program that this winter will assist more than 400,000 families in 16 U.S. states and the District, up from eight states and 180,000 families last year, said Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera.

Oil provided under the expanded program, first mentioned by President Hugo Chavez during a fiery speech to the United Nations in September, will be distributed through local governments, community centers and churches, and will be offered at 40 percent below the market price.

“This will give people a chance to have additional supply of heating oil,” Mr. Alvarez told editors and reporters during a luncheon at The Washington Times. “We are not making as much money as we could be, but extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.”

This will be the first time that Washington-area families benefit from the program, which is still being negotiated by Citgo, the oil company controlled by the Venezuelan government, and the Citizens Energy Corp., a non-profit group founded by Joseph P. Kennedy II, said an aide to Mr. Alvarez.

Citizens Energy officials could not be reached for comment late yesterday. Mr. Kennedy is a former congressman from Massachusetts and the son of Robert F. Kennedy.

The heating-oil program, which started last year, again includes jurisdictions in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont. Other newcomers this year are Alaska, New Jersey, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin, Mr. Alvarez said.

Several communities that had been considering the Venezuelan offer rejected it after Mr. Chavez described President Bush as “the devil” in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly.

In Alaska, many Eskimo and Indian villages say they have no choice but to accept the oil, but others would rather suffer.

“As a citizen of this country, you can have your own opinion of our president and our country. But I don’t want a foreigner coming in here and bashing us,” Justine Gunderson, administrator for the tribal council in the Aleut village of Nelson Lagoon, told the Associated Press last month. “Even though we are in economically dire straits, it was the right choice to make.”

Nelson Lagoon residents pay more than $5 for a gallon of oil — or at least $300 a month per household — to heat their homes along the wind-swept coast of the Bering Sea, where temperatures can dip to minus 15 degrees.

Asked why Mr. Chavez’s government is worried about poor Americans while poverty in his own country remains a problem, the ambassador said the profit Venezuela is forfeiting from its discounted sales in the United States is not enough to make a difference for Venezuela’s needy.

“The problem with poverty in our country is not money, it’s management,” he said.

The United States and Venezuela have had a tenuous relationship since Mr. Chavez came to power in 1999. Mr. Chavez has partnered with other U.S. adversaries, such as Cuba and Iran, to challenge the dominant role of the United States in world affairs.

Nevertheless, Venezuela wants American businesses to continue investing in the South American country, and Mr. Alvarez repeatedly urged the United States yesterday to import more oil from relatively nearby Venezuela, rather than the distant Middle East.

He said, however, that Caracas had decided to purchase future commercial aircraft from Airbus, the European company, instead of Boeing, for fear that U.S. sanctions would bar Venezuela from buying spare parts from the United States.

On another recent dispute that threatened to decrease the number of flights U.S. airlines are allowed to operate to Venezuela, the ambassador said his government will preserve the status quo, having won more flight licenses for Venezuelan carriers to the United States.

Mr. Alvarez, a 50-year-old political scientist, has been ambassador to Washington since 2003. He has held various positions in the Venezuelan government, rising to a vice minister of energy and mines.

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