Here is today's multiple choice question: Who recently provided 1.15 million gallons of low-cost heating oil to thousands of poor and working class families in seven East Coast states, including 25,000 people in Philadelphia, and did so with the words,"No one should be forced to sacrifice food, shelter, or medicine to stay warm" ?
a.) King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia b.) Felix Rodriquez c.) George W. Bush d.) Oprah Winfrey e.) 10 major U.S. oil companies.
The correct answer is "b" and Rodriquez is the CEO of Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-run oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA). On behalf of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, he also distributed free heating oil to dozens of homeless shelters from Maine to Delaware.
Venezuela, with the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East and the world's fifth largest oil producer, also sold oil at far lower costs to fifteen poor nations in the Caribbean and Central America. Even Native Americans in Maine were recipients, and Chief Bill Philips of the Micmac tribe thanked Pres. Chavez: "He is a fellow Native from the Americas, and we appreciate Chavez trying to bring low-cost heating oil for our elderly."
The 10 U.S. oil companies did not respond to requests to help the poor. Just one of them, Exxon, reported record profits of $36 billion in 2005.
Can the twice democratically-elected Chavez be the same fellow that Pat Robertson wants the CIA to assassinate, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has likened to Adolf Hitler; and official and semi-official types have placed on the White House "enemies list," labeled a "red devil," as "lethal as Osama bin Laden," and a "madman"? Further, the U.S. supported a unsuccessful military coup against Chavez in 2002 and Condoleeza Rice has called the Venezuelan government a "major threat to the region."
Assuming for the moment that preventing Pennsylvanians from freezing to death hasn't prompted this venomous rhetoric, what could account for it? Perhaps the answer lies in some evil deeds done by Pres. Chavez back in Venezuela. What mischief has he been up to there?
The challenges are daunting in Venezuela where 80% of the population is poor and some 1 million children scratch out a bare subsistance in the major cities. After four decades of indifferent upper-class rule, Chavez, a 51-year-old former army paratrooper, was elected president in 1998 and again in 2004.
According to Washington-based economist Mark Weisbrot, "The tangible improvements for those living in Caracus' poor barrios have been noticed in the rest of Latin America, a region with the most outrageously unequal income distribution in the world." Here are a few highlights of his tenure:
* For the first time time, universal health care is official state policy and peasants are living longer due to accessible health care. * Elementary schools are providing three free meals a day to all students, drawing some million new students to school. * misiones (missions/government projects) are extending vital social services like literacy training, food subsidies, and rudimentary health care to the poor. * Indigenous Venezuealans, homosexuals and women are now protected in the constitution. * Land reform is redistributing idle land to landless peasants.
* Operation milegro (miracle), a joint venture with Cuban doctors, has restored eyesight to thousands of blind people in the region.
Venezuelan elites, who despise Chavez and call him a "monkey," have tried mightily to sabotage the economy for eight years but it grew at a respectable nine percent in 2005, the highest in the hemisphere.
Venezuelan oil has made this possible but only Chavez acted on the clearly subversive and radical notion that his country's vast resources should be used to benefit the country's people and even those beyond its borders.
Oil was nationalized in 1976, but according to all accounts the oil bureaucracy operated as a "state within a state," refusing to function on behalf of the citizens. The system remains imperfect but Chavez finally excercised effective control over PSVSA in 2001. State oil profits were over $25 billion last year and the petrodollars are now staying home in the form of high social spending, faithfully reflecting social ownership of this natural resource. Something must be working because his approval rating stands at 77%, the highest in the Americas.
And of course this begins to explain why Chavez is viewed as a threat, as a "virus" that might "infect" others. An alternative development model where the citizens, not private U.S. foreign investors, are the primary beneficiaries of government policy is feared by U.S. elites. As Latin American expert Prof. Rosa Maria Pegueros observes, from Washington's perspective the real threat is that if Chavez succeeds, he may "create an eqalitarian society that has the power to resist United States hegemony." Who knows where this virus may appear next. To help it spread, I'm filling my tank at the Citgo station from now on.
Gary Olson, Ph.D. is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem,PA. Contact:email@example.com