“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.”