Politics or Not, Bronx Warmly Receives Venezuelan Heating Oil

By Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 8, 2005

NEW YORK -- A green Citgo tanker truck chugged up a hill with a grim view of tenement buildings, elevated subways and treeless sidewalks to deliver Venezuelan heating oil, a "humanitarian" gift from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Moments before the orange-gloved worker snaked the hose to a Bronx tenement, Eartha Ferguson, a manager and resident of a low-income building, said: "I call it a gift of survival. It comes at a good time, a very needed time."

Chavez's gift, which arrived on Tuesday and is being distributed this week, may be nothing more than a chance to tweak the nose of the Bush administration, which has long opposed the South American leader. But few residents in the South Bronx, where 41 percent live on incomes below the federal poverty line, are inclined to worry about international politics.

Citgo Petroleum Corp., which is controlled by the Venezuelan government, signed a deal with three Bronx housing nonprofits to sell 5 million gallons of heating oil at 45 percent below the market rate, an estimated savings of $4 million. The discounted oil will heat 75 Bronx apartment buildings, housing 8,000 low-income working poor and elderly tenants.

Officials with Mount Hope Housing Co., Fordham Bedford Housing Corp. and VIP Community Services -- which have organized tenants and rehabilitated low-income apartments for several decades -- say savings from the cheap oil will allow them to reduce rents temporarily and invest in neighborhood social programs.

"A lot of families are struggling," said Lenice Footman, who hopes her $600 monthly rent will be reduced. Neighbor Dionne Morales agreed, saying she is overlooking the criticism directed at Chavez. "If he can give oil to my country and help the lives of my community, I'm impressed," she said.

Chavez has sold the discounted oil in two U.S. markets, New York and Massachusetts. Citizens Energy Corp., a Boston-based nonprofit cooperative, bought 12 million gallons at a steep discount after U.S. oil companies ignored its written plea for help. Similar oil deals are in the works for other parts of New York and some New England states.

Americans face record prices for heating oil this winter, with a gallon selling for $2.41 -- a 38 percent increase from this time last year. Congress declined to provide additional funding for the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and Citizens Energy and other housing advocates expect that families, especially in the Northeast, will exhaust their benefits by Christmas.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a recent briefing that the Bush administration expects the recently passed energy bill and efforts to expand capacity to help address the shortfall. "All of us have a role to do to help address high energy prices," he said. "And we are taking action to do so."

But on the second snow day in the Bronx, where scrawled graffiti warns pedestrians of rats, fleas and maggots, it did not escape the notice of tenants that a foreign government stepped in after Congress did not.

"The government should have done it," said Shirley Manuel, 52, a tenants' rights activist, wrapped up tightly in her wheelchair. "This is their country, this is their people -- they should be taking care of their own."

Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), who brokered the oil deal, brushed aside suggestions that Chavez was playing petro politics.

"To those who say this is to score political points," he told a shivering crowd when the first oil arrived, "I invite any American corporation that wants to score points with my community to start this afternoon."

But, in fact, politics is very much part of this deal. The Bush administration has made no secret of its dislike for Chavez and his populist, left-wing politics, nor of its desire to see him turned out of office. Chavez, in turn, was a featured speaker at a demonstration in Argentina this year, in which he denounced President Bush's policies in Latin America.

Last week, Citgo bought full-page ads in The Washington Post and the New York Times, lauding Venezuela's role in heating the homes of the nation's poor. El Diario/La Prensa, New York's major Spanish-language newspaper, published a front-page photo of Chavez wearing a Santa Claus hat above the words, a "Gift from Chavez to the Bronx."

In September, Chavez traveled to the Bronx and spent several hours with 17 community groups. Flanked by Serrano and Jesse L. Jackson, Chavez proposed selling heating oil at below market rates and laid out plans to invest some of Venezuela's oil revenue in health and environmental programs in the Bronx.

"I fell in love with the Bronx and New York," Chavez said that day. "I have met the soul of the American people."

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