Chávez restores free home heating oil program to US poor

In an abrupt turn, the Venezuelan president reinstated the program two days after its suspension.

By , McClatchy Newspapers

The Venezuelan government reversed course Wednesday, announcing that its US oil subsidiary would continue to provide free home heating oil to poor Americans two days after the government announced that the program had been suspended.

Critics of President Hugo Chávez had pummeled him since Monday for suspending a program that he had milked for its maximum publicity as a champion of the poor, even in the US.

In the wake of Monday's announced halt, analysts had predicted this was only the first of Mr. Chávez's ambitious foreign assistance programs that would disappear, given the sharp drop in oil prices and the Venezuelan government's dependence on oil export income.

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Venezuelan government officials wasted no time in reinstating the program, which saved some 180,000 US households around $260 apiece in 2008. That covered about one month's heating bill.

Among the beneficiaries of the 100 gallons of heating oil per household were 65 Indian tribes, including those in Alaska, Montana, and South Dakota.

Alejandro Granado, the chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Citgo Petroleum, the Venezuelan government's Houston-based oil subsidiary, said he discussed the plan to renew the program with Chávez on Wednesday morning.

The decision "is the result of a strong commitment and a big effort on the part of Citgo and our shareholders in light of the current global financial crisis and its impact on the oil industry in general," Mr. Granado said in a press statement.

Venezuelan oil, which is a lower grade than conventional crude and trades at a lower price, peaked at $126 a barrel in July and now sells for about $40 a barrel. About 93 percent of Venezuela's export revenue comes from oil sales, mostly to the US.

Granado made his statement in Boston alongside Joseph P. Kennedy II, the chairman of Citizens Energy Corp., the Massachusetts-based nonprofit that manages the program.

"Chávez is trying to save face," says Dennis Jett, a former American ambassador who's now a professor of international affairs at Penn State University. "He decided he needs to hide the fact that he's having a cash crisis."

Monday's announcement also had prompted critics to have a field day with Mr. Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy and a former Democratic congressman. Kennedy had announced that 20 staffers would be laid off.

"For Joe, all that remains was sullied family honor and no fuel," Investor's Business Daily wrote Tuesday. "He'd been used by Chávez during the boom, thrown overboard as excess baggage during the bust, and finally realized it Monday."

Kennedy appeared to have had the last laugh, at least on Wednesday.

Kennedy said he's "personally aware of President Chávez's genuine concern for the most vulnerable, regardless of where they may live."

Kennedy added, "This decision is a clear, direct message from President Chávez of his desire to strengthen relations between his country and the United States, particularly at this time, when a new US administration is scheduled to be sworn-in within the next few weeks."

Brian O'Connor, Citizen Energy's spokesman, said Citgo will serve as many customers in 2009 as the year before, but will spend less than last year since oil prices have declined. The program cost Citgo $100 million in 2008.

People unable to pay their heating bills can call a toll-free hotline number, 1-877-JOE-4-OIL, as of Jan. 19.

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