- The Washington Times - Monday, October 9, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A few of Alaska’s native villages are refusing free heating oil from the petroleum company controlled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, based on the patriotic principle that no foreigner has the right to call their president “the devil.”

“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,” said Justine Gunderson, administrator for the tribal council in the Aleut village of Nelson Lagoon.

“Even though we’re in economically dire straits, it was the right choice to make,” said Mr. Gunderson, whose village on the Bering Sea can dip to temperatures of minus-15.

While scores of Alaska’s Eskimo and Indian villages, where many are poor, say they have no choice but to accept heating-oil money from Citgo, Dimitri Philemonof, president and chief executive of the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, said taking the aid would be “compromising ourselves.”

“I think we have some duty to our country, and I think it’s loyalty,” said Mr. Philemonof, whose nonprofit organization would have handled the heating oil donation on behalf of 291 households in Nelson Lagoon, Atka, St. Paul and St. George.

The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association rejected the offer because Mr. Chavez has repeatedly denigrated Mr. Bush, calling him “the devil” in a speech to the United Nations last month and referring to him as a terrorist.

About 150 native villages in Alaska have accepted money for heating oil from Citgo, the Venezuelan government’s Texas-based oil subsidiary. The oil company does not operate in Alaska, so instead of sending oil, it is donating about $5.3 million to native nonprofit organizations to buy 100 gallons this winter for each of more than 12,000 households.

“When you have a dire need and it is a matter of survival for your people, it doesn’t matter where, what country, the gift or donation comes from,” said Virginia Commack, an elder in the arctic village of Ambler, an impoverished Eskimo community.

The donation to Alaska’s native villages has focused attention on the rampant poverty and high fuel prices in a state that is otherwise awash in oil — and oil profits.

For years, Alaska natives have accused the state and federal governments of sending too little money to their tiny, far-flung communities, where fuel and grocery prices are bloated by the high costs of delivery by plane and barge.

An editorial last month in the Anchorage Daily News criticized the Legislature’s rejection in March of an $8.8 million state supplement to a federal program that helps poor Alaskans with home heating costs.

“It’s hard to blame villagers for accepting the gift,” the editorial stated.

John Manly, a spokesman for Gov. Frank Murkowski, said the governorthought Mr. Chavez’s donation was a ploy to undermine Americans’ faith in their government. But he said it was up to each village to make its own decision.

Over the past two years, Citgo has given millions of gallons of discounted heating oil to the poor in several states and cities — including New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts — in what is widely seen as an effort by Mr. Chavez to embarrass and irritate the U.S. government and make himself look good.

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