Many poor Americans in colder climes will doubtless be dismayed to hear that shortly after ringing in the New Year, Congress and the president have decided to cut 25% from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, (LIHEAP) showing once again their preference to default on the needy and vulnerable rather than asking the most powerful and wealthy to make even the smallest sacrifices.
Far more welcome news came from Citgo Petroleum Corporation, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, which announced that it would be continuing its six-year-old program of providing heating oil to poor Americans free of charge. The contrast between the values displayed by the American and Venezuelan governments – the “good guys” and “bad guys,” respectively, of the American political consensus – could not be more striking.
$1.2 billion will be cut from LIHEAP, reducing its budget to $3.47 billion. Thankfully the initial requests of the Obama administration to cut the program’s funding to $2.5 billion were not carried out. In 2011, 8.3 million people were helped by LIHEAP, although there were more people eligible than the program was able to assist. According to the National Energy Assistance Director’s Association (NEADA) 90% of families participating in the program contain at least one “vulnerable” member, defined as the elderly, children, and the disabled.
The cuts come at a time when the cost of heating oil has reached $3.93 a gallon, up 57 cents from last year. This is a 22-year high, according to the Energy Information Administration. The escalating price of heat is especially threatening to people living on a fixed income, including the retired.
Citgo expects to help more than 400,000 Americans this year with a 100-gallon donation of heating oil and said that in addition to providing assistance to private citizens, Citgo would also provide assistance to 250 homeless shelters.
Venezuela’s generosity towards its northern neighbor began in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the Gulf Coast, when Citgo donated $1 million to disaster relief and President Hugo Chavez offered to send food, water, fuel, and other humanitarian assistance. Chavez was not taken up on his offer by the U.S. administration. That same year, in response to a call by 12 U.S. Senators for oil companies and oil producing nations to donate heating oil to help ease the pain of high prices caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Venezuela rose to the occasion once again. Despite criticism from the American government, the program has continued each winter since.
Heating oil is not the only humanitarian assistance promoted by the Chavez government. Over the last decade, Venezuelan doctors, many of them trained in Cuba, have provided free medical care, including surgeries all around Latin America. In New York's South Bronx, Citgo has donated millions to support community building organizations, including natural food co-ops, environmentally sound recycling programs, and youth groups.
Indeed, several days before Citgo announced its 2012 assistance program, President Obama criticized Venezuela’s ties to Cuba and Iran, saying "It is up to the Venezuelan people to determine what they gain from a relationship with a country that violates universal human rights and is isolated from much of the rest of the world." It is to the credit of Venezuela that it continues its relationship with one nation that often finds itself at odds with the rest of the world over human rights – the U.S. itself. Obama went on to cast aspersions on human rights and democracy in Venezuela – despite the fact that both have been strengthened immensely since the American-friendly two-party oligarchy that ran the country for decades was thrown out in Venezuela’s 1999 elections. No more are hundreds massacred in the streets of Caracas, nor do paramilitary death squads roam Venezuela murdering labor organizers – unlike in neighboring American ally Colombia.
As the U.S. continues to export warfare and empire on the backs of its increasingly-struggling citizenry, and Venezuela exports doctors and free heating, long-held and infrequently-examined assumptions about U.S. benevolence must be questioned.
Shame on Obama for leaving the most vulnerable Americans in the cold. The poor, retired, and disabled of this country deserve better than that.