“A Kennedy!” The older ladies of Spofford Hills, a housing cooperative in
the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx, are brandishing cameras,
thrilled to see the son of Robert F. Kennedy outside their building on
this radiantly sunny day just before Thanksgiving. It doesn’t hurt that
Joe Kennedy is also president of Citizens Energy, a nonprofit providing
heating assistance to low-income Americans, and that he’s here to make a fuel delivery to Spofford Hills. But the real star of the
day–though absent–is someone even more famous: Hugo Chávez.

Through Joe Kennedy’s organization, the government of
Venezuela–and Citgo, a petroleum company in which that
country owns a controlling share–provides heating oil to poor and
working-class Americans at a 40 percent discount. The gathering in the
Bronx celebrated the program’s second year, as well as its expansion:
This winter, Citizens Energy and Citgo expect to deliver more than 100
million gallons of oil to more than 400,000 households in sixteen
states, more than doubling the scope of last year’s petro-philanthropy.
Beneficiaries also include 163 American Indian tribes, most of them in
Alaska.

The program has come under fire from the American right for its
association with Chávez, whom the Bush Administration has painted
as a dictator and even a terrorist threat. Recent TV ads promoting
it–in which Citizens Energy praises “our friends in Venezuela”–have
particularly infuriated the likes of Fox’s Sean Hannity and inflamed
conservative talk-show hosts, who are calling for a boycott of Citgo.
(According to Citgo president Felix Rodriguez, the
boycott and conservative attacks have had no effect on the company’s
revenues so far.) But Citizens Energy spokesman Brian O’Connor says
his organization has asked every major oil company and every OPEC nation
to provide such assistance to poor Americans; Citgo and Venezuela have
been the only ones to agree. “We are very much in solidarity with the
people of Venezuela,” says Blanca Ramirez, treasurer of Spofford Hills,
which was taken over by residents after a landlord abandoned it in the
late 1970s. “But in a way,” she muses, “they are even more in solidarity
with us.”

Spofford Hills is depressingly located across the street from a juvenile
prison. On this day, however, the mood was upbeat as a large green truck
drove up to the building and began delivering winter heating oil, a gift
likely to save each of the co-op’s sixty-two families about $200 this
winter. Like many poor Americans, especially in the country’s
northern regions, the residents of Spofford Hills–a mix of working
people, the elderly and public-assistance recipients–have in recent
years, with the soaring cost of fuel, struggled to stay warm during the
chilly season. “Last winter there were days we had to go without heat
and hot water,” says Ramirez, who is the mother of a 4-year-old. “We
couldn’t afford it! We had to use space heaters and extra
blankets–everybody tried to do the best they could.” For the many
elderly people in the building, the cold nights were a particular
hardship. “I was afraid for her,” Moryama Flores, a home attendant and
building resident, says of her mother, who also lives in the building.
“She was coughing a lot. She made many complaints.” Says Ramirez, “This
year, all these old people will probably not be suffering.”

The ceremony at Spofford Hills included speeches from Kennedy,
Rodriguez, Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez and New York
Democratic Representative José Serrano, who has been an active
force behind the program. Though it was undeniably unusual to see
Democratic politicians, mainstream nonprofits and multinational
corporations carrying out–and praising–the vision of a Latin American
socialist leader, the tone was that of a straightforward, feel-good
political event. Yet the proceedings began to take on a less-scripted
and zanier quality when, just as the official remarks concluded, a
couple of masked youth from the building next door dropped a big red
banner, yelling “Viva Hugo Chávez!” No one seemed to have any
idea who those guerrilla enthusiasts were. Undaunted and amused,
everyone feasted on a Caribbean spread of yams, chicken and pie, as the
hip-hop group Rebel Diaz played loud rap music, to which a smiling
Rodriguez, dressed in jeans and work boots, gamely danced.

Though most of the US media remain hostile to Chávez, the
fuel-assistance program is showing some Americans another side of the
man and his government. Patrice White, a vocational counselor to the
disabled who lives with her husband and three daughters in the Bronx’s
Mount Hope neighborhood, which began receiving Venezuelan oil last
winter, is impressed that Chávez delivered on his promise to help
poor Americans. “It was refreshing,” she says. “Hugo Chávez is
not an American politician. With our politicians, it seems like 80
percent of what they say doesn’t happen.” White was also
impressed by the program’s efficiency: “You’d think there
would be lots of red tape.”

Venezuela’s reasons for running this program seem varied. Undeniably, it
represents a bit of self-promotion on Chávez’s part. More
important, there is the delicious opportunity to insult the Bush
Administration, which has close ties to leaders of the 2002 coup that
briefly unseated the democratically elected Chávez, and to
befriend those Americans who have the least reason to support
conservative Republicans like Bush. But the program makes an even
broader statement than that: By showing that the richest nation on earth
requires foreign “assistance” to meet its citizens’ basic
needs, Venezuela reveals our most profound failure as a system. As
Patrice White says, “It could be seen as a slap in the face to American
capitalism. But I digress!”

When I speak with Felix Rodriguez, probably the only Texas oilman to
pepper his conversation with words like “solidarity,” he’s full of kind
words for America and its people. But he politely implies that Citgo
wants to show Americans–and the world–another model of capitalism.
“When people say, ‘Citgo is a good company,'” he says, “we want that to
mean not just that we are profitable, and not just that we are
humanitarian. We want to–we have to–do both.”

Perhaps most important, though, the heating-oil program is what writer
and New York University historian Greg Grandin, who has spent time
in Venezuela studying the Chávez government, calls “grassroots
diplomacy.” It provides Venezuela a way of building relationships
with organizations that serve America’s poor and working-class people,
as well as with the people themselves.

In addition to the practical help, it is this last aspect of the program
that most interests Bronx community activists. “We didn’t want anyone
coming here just to make a point,” says Wanda Salaman, executive
director of Mothers on the Move, a group that fights to improve the
quality of life in the South Bronx, “but we understood the point.”
Intrigued by the opportunity to build a relationship based on
understanding between peoples, rather than simply swipes between
leaders, Mothers on the Move and other community groups established a
coalition called Petrol Bronx, not only to insure accountability–that
is, to make sure that Citgo’s program continues to benefit the people
it’s supposed to help–but also to use it as an opportunity to educate
their communities about Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” and to teach
Venezuelans about conditions in the Bronx.

RodStarz of Rebel Diaz, who lives in the building next door to Spofford
Hills, is working with Petrol Bronx to organize a hip-hop delegation to
Caracas. “Young people here are being incarcerated at an alarming rate,”
he tells me, gesturing at the prison across the street. “The system in
the United States is built for people like us to fail. Venezuela’s
trying to build something better.”

Venezuela has encouraged this citizen diplomacy by bringing
beneficiaries of the heating-oil program to Caracas. Along with sixty
other beneficiaries, Patrice White traveled to Venezuela last April.
Many other tenants in her building turned down Venezuela’s invitation,
spooked by State Department travel warnings branding the country as a
dangerous destination for Americans. Even White’s husband urged her to
stay home. But she’s glad she went. “I just fell in love with the
place,” she raves. “We all had a ball, and all of us want to go back.” A
guest on Chávez’s radio show, White was impressed by his respect
for his people’s intelligence: He spent four hours explaining how
Venezuelan oil reserves could be used to build stronger relationships
with people in other nations.

Annie Simoneau, a homeowner in rural Vermont and a mother of six (four
of her own and two foster children) who received Citgo’s
assistance last winter, also went on the April trip to Venezuela, with
her husband, an apprentice electrician. She was moved by the respect
they enjoyed–an unusual feeling for working-class people in the United
States. “They [Venezuela] put us up at the Hilton and made us feel on
top of the world,” she recalls. “I’m not so much into politics–I just
went over to thank him [Chávez].” But Simoneau says she also
wanted to see the country’s social programs and meet its citizens. She
expected that Venezuelans might be hostile to American visitors, given
relations between Chávez and Bush, but found none who were. “It
was person-to-person. They entertained us, gave beautiful speeches,
and for who?” She pauses, and marvels. “The poor people of America.”

Person-to-person diplomacy may be increasingly important as the American
right continues to attack Chávez. Having met Chávez,
White speaks of him as if he is a well-meaning friend whose actions
sometimes need to be explained to others. After the Venezuelan leader
called Bush “the devil” in a speech to the United Nations, for example,
several small Native Alaskan villages refused Venezuela’s oil assistance
(tribal officials did not return calls from The Nation). When White
heard about that speech, she says, “I laughed. I was surprised, but I
think he wears his heart on his sleeve and is a very genuine person.”
It’s easy to understand, she adds: After all, the United States
sometimes acts like a “bully.” Simoneau’s reaction to the
incident is similarly indulgent. “He’s very emotional,” she
says of Chávez.

Of course, not everyone will get the chance to travel to Venezuela,
and some remain puzzled by Chávez and his motives. But with
winter looming, even the skeptics are grateful for his help. “I hope
what Hugo Chávez is doing for us, he’s also doing for his own
people,” said Josephine Cruz, a Spofford Hills board member who works as
a secretary in New Jersey. “But we got the oil. That’s the main thing.”