Chávez’s Citizen Diplomacy

Chávez’s Citizen Diplomacy

Venezuela’s controversial program to provide heating oil to impoverished American communities exposes the inability of the richest nation on earth to meet the needs of its poor.


“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.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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