- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 18, 2007


In a TV commercial, former Rep. Joseph Kennedy stands aboard an oil tanker moving across the Boston skyline and promises that millions of gallons of discounted heating oil are on their way to poor, shivering families, courtesy of “our good friends in Venezuela.”

What he doesn’t mention is that those “good friends” include Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a socialist and staunch U.S. critic who famously called President Bush “the devil” in a speech last year at the United Nations.

The reference to Venezuela has led to accusations that Mr. Kennedy is a shill for Mr. Chavez.

Rep. Connie Mack, Florida Republican, fired off a letter to Mr. Kennedy last week accusing him of working with “a sworn enemy of the United States” and betraying the legacy of former President John F. Kennedy, his uncle, who spoke of the perils of communism.

“Hugo Chavez is providing your company ‘low-cost heating oil’ not to help the American people, but rather to exploit his apologists in the name of public relations. Sadly, you have chosen to actively participate in his charade,” Mr. Mack wrote.

In an interview last week with the Associated Press, Mr. Mack went further, calling the ad “part of a propaganda message from Hugo Chavez.”

Mr. Kennedy fired back by saying that if Mr. Mack wants to create a moral litmus test for oil-exporting countries and other trade partners, the congressman should hold Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Russia and China to the same standard.

“Once we’ve followed the Mack Doctrine and refused oil from every country that fails to meet our disciplined moral standards, I’m sure you’ll enjoy your walks to Washington, because there certainly won’t be fuel to fly you there,” Mr. Kennedy wrote to Mr. Mack.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Kennedy defended his decision to refer to “our good friends in Venezuela.”

Mr. Kennedy said he approached other oil companies but only Citgo, the Venezuelan government’s Texas-based oil subsidiary, responded with an offer of aid. He said nothing in his contracts require him to publicly thank Citgo and Venezuela. That was his decision, he said.

“I think it would be the height of arrogance to accept the help and assistance of Citgo, the only oil company to respond to my plea to help, and never even mention them in the ad,” said Mr. Kennedy, who served in Congress from 1987 to 1999.

Although he declined to offer an opinion on Mr. Chavez, Mr. Kennedy did say he had “significant disagreement with the kind of personal politics that have characterized the relationship” between Mr. Chavez and Mr. Bush, on both sides. He also said “there have been many changes in Venezuela since I started going there 25 years ago, some of them for the better.”

Citizens Energy Corp. was founded by Mr. Kennedy in 1979 in the wake of an energy crisis with the goal of reducing the cost of home heating oil for the poor and elderly.

The corporation signed its first crude oil contract with Venezuela that year, and in its first 18 months, Citizens Energy had delivered more than 13 million gallons of home heating oil from Venezuela to families in Massachusetts. Citizens Energy has since expanded to 16 states and this year will deliver low-cost oil to between 300,000 and 400,000 households.

Washington resident Lucille Benjamin lives in one of those households. “It doesn’t matter to me where it comes from as long as it keeps me warm,” she said, “and right now I’m warm.”

This is not the first time Mr. Chavez has become entangled in Massachusetts politics. Last year, a Boston City Council member called for the demolition of the famous neon Citgo sign above Fenway Park to protest Mr. Chavez’s “devil” insult. The sign remains.

Mr. Kennedy’s energy-assistance program has won praise from some Republicans, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is running for president.

In 2005, Mr. Romney extended his thanks to “all of those around the world working to get lower-priced energy to us,” but refused to answer a question about the propriety of doing business with Mr. Chavez.

A spokesman for Mr. Romney said he is a staunch critic of Mr. Chavez, noting that Mr. Romney denounced Mr. Chavez as a “cartoon character” in a TV interview in August.

Mr. Chavez is “trying to play politics, of course, with oil prices,” Mr. Romney said in that interview. “The reality is we buy a lot of oil from Venezuela. We ought to get as much oil we can for as cheap a price as we possibly can and suck it dry if we possibly could.”

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