September 28, 2006
BOSTON - For 42 years, Agnes Crosson has lived in the same three-bedroom house in Quincy, Mass., where she's often visited by her 14 grandchildren. Heating her high-ceiling home during New England's long, cold winters has become increasingly expensive for the former social worker.
Enter Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Last winter, Crosson enrolled in a heating oil program backed by CITGO Petroleum, controlled by the Venezuelan government, to fill her 250-gallon heating oil tank. She saved $200 on the purchase.
Despite the savings, Crosson is having second thoughts about re-enrolling this year after reading about Chavez's speech last week at the U.N. General Assembly. Chavez called President Bush "the devil" and U.S. policies "genocidal."
"I'm not a Bush person, believe me," said the trim, 75-year-old widow, "but I really resented that."
Chavez has said his comments were directed at Bush and not at the American people, but many of the program's beneficiaries are wondering if the CITGO initiative is a tool in Chavez's anti-Bush crusade, as many Chavez critics believe. Still, their condemnations are tempered by growing nervousness over how to pay for heating, and most hope that the program continues.
Last winter, CITGO distributed more than 4 million gallons of discounted heating oil to 50,000 households in Massachusetts - a big chunk of the 16 million gallons delivered in eight states, according to the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. Households get a 40 percent one-time discount on 200 gallons purchased.
CITGO has a long-running presence in Massachusetts, where it employs 3,500 and controls 300 gas stations. The CITGO sign in Boston's Kenmore Square, visible past the left field wall at Fenway Park, is considered a local landmark.
Controversy over CITGO and its oil program was stoked by Chavez's U.N. speech. One local politician even proposed replacing the CITGO sign with a U.S. flag.
Venezuela denied that its initiative is a political ploy.
"The program is a humanitarian outreach to people hurt by events beyond their control," according to the Venezuelan Embassy. "It is not intended to embarrass the United States or be seen as a geopolitical move."
Chavez and CITGO have relentlessly promoted the program, taking out full-page ads in U.S. newspapers and producing a glossy booklet, "From the Venezuelan Heart to the U.S. Hearts," with testimonials by grateful politicians and beneficiaries.
In April, 63 beneficiaries were flown to Caracas, Venezuela, to discuss the program with Chavez in a televised event.
And the day after his U.N. speech, Chavez went to a Harlem church and, as TV cameras whirred, announced the program will expand beyond its Northeast core to reach 450,000 households - almost tripling the previous total - in 17 states this winter, including Virginia, Alaska and Wisconsin.
Venezuelan officials are also considering setting aside 30 percent of the revenue from heating oil sales to fund community programs.
Many Boston beneficiaries are grateful. Yushanna Eutsay, a 30-year-old mother of three, said Chavez seemed "like a very nice man" who was "doing more for his people than Bush is for us."
Still, the U.N. speech has cost Chavez support. Rep. Bill Delahunt, the Democrat who represents Quincy and a backer of the heating oil program, co-wrote a letter with Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., condemning the "gratuitous personal attack" on Bush as "a direct insult to the people of the United States."
John Baldacci, the Democratic governor of Maine, which received 8 million gallons of discounted heating oil last winter, said that "based on current events," he won't renew his agreement with CITGO.
But some heating oil beneficiaries, the poor people Chavez says he wants to help, are perplexed by his outburst, which included repeated references to the smell of sulfur around the podium where Bush had spoken earlier.
"He stepped out of line," said Linda Kelly, 45, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. She was a member of the delegation that visited Caracas in April.
The ceremony launching the CITGO program was held at Kelly's home on Nov. 22, as a delivery truck pumped heating oil into her tank.
She worried that the controversy will end the CITGO initiative.
"The important thing is that our children are warm at night," she said.
Concern over winter heating bills have triggered hundreds of calls inquiring about the CITGO initiative, said Brian O'Connor, a spokesman with Citizens Energy Corp., a nonprofit group run by former Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II of Massachusetts. Citizens Energy helped set up the program.
The price of a gallon of heating oil jumped from $1.65 a gallon in 2004 to $2.61 a gallon last year. It now sells for about $2.50 a gallon.
Other U.S. oil corporations, noted O'Connor, have declined to participate in similar programs despite large profits.