- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2009

BOSTON

Citgo, the Venezuelan government’s Texas-based oil subsidiary, has suspended shipments of heating oil for poor families in the United States, citing falling oil prices and the world economic crisis, the nonprofit organization that distributes the fuel said Monday.

The controversial program gave fuel from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s government to 400,000 households in 23 states through Citizens Energy Corp., a charity organization run by Joseph P. Kennedy II, the eldest son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Started in 2005, the program sent 100 gallons of free oil a year to eligible households but drew fire from critics who said it was just a ploy by Mr. Chavez to undermine the Bush administration.

Citgo donated 100 million gallons last year, according to Citizens Energy.

At a news conference at the organization’s Boston headquarters, Mr. Kennedy said he was forced to make the announcement so that households expecting help would be aware of the situation.

“Citgo made it clear that this is not a cancellation of this program,” Mr. Kennedy said. “But at the end of the day, the tankers are not going to be in front of this building.”

Mr. Kennedy said “a couple of hundreds of thousands” will be affected by the Citgo suspension, including those living on dozens of Native American tribal lands.

About 20 staffers at Citizens Energy also were told Monday that they had been laid off as a result of the suspension.

Mr. Kennedy urged those who have been helped by the program to write to Mr. Chavez to share their stories. Mr. Kennedy said Citizens Energy will continue to run some of its heating-assistance programs for now, but the majority of its programs outside of Massachusetts will be suspended.

“The big kahuna were those Venezuelan oil tankers,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Mr. Kennedy also said he was seeking a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Chavez.

Citgo didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Citizens Energy was founded by Mr. Kennedy in 1979 in the wake of the energy crisis of the late 1970s with the goal of reducing the cost of home heating oil for the poor and elderly.

Mr. Kennedy heard from critics of Mr. Chavez when he began the fuel-assistance program with Citgo. They charged that Mr. Chavez, a socialist and staunch U.S. critic who famously called President Bush “the devil,” was using the heating oil program as propaganda.

“It looks like the cost of bringing Fidel Castro’s brand of rich-vs.-poor politics to America just got to be too expensive for Venezuela’s bellicose president, but it’s hardly a surprise that he’s pulling out of our economy now that he’s crashed his own,” said Larry Neal, deputy Republican staff director of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Former U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, Florida Republican, once accused Mr. Kennedy of working with “a sworn enemy of the United States” and betraying the legacy of President John F. Kennedy, his uncle, who spoke of the perils of communism.

Mr. Kennedy has responded that critics should hold oil-exporting countries and other trade partners, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Russia and China, to the same standards.

On Monday, Mr. Kennedy also criticized U.S. oil companies for not taking part in his efforts to provide heating assistance to low-income households. “This shouldn’t be the responsibility of another country,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I don’t get one barrel from one U.S. company. Not one.”

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