Last week, a man whose determination to embarrass the American government extended to helping US citizens when their own government wouldn't died, reportedly suffering a heart attack.
In 2006, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez made a laughingstock of George W. Bush by taking advantage of climbing oil prices to do something Bush would not. At a time when Bush was refusing to release supplies from the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve and Congress was resisting granting additional funds to help poor people with heating costs, Chavez stepped in.
Through Citgo, whose owner is the Venezuelan government, Chavez ordered discounted heating oil supplied to needy Americans. At the time, Maine Governor John Baldacci hailed the offer — of a 40-percent discount for 8 million gallons of heating oil to low-income Mainers, Native American tribes, and homeless shelters — as filling a gap left by the federal government's inaction.
According to Citizens Energy, the non-profit led by Joseph P. Kennedy II that has been a US coordinator for Venezuelan oil subsidies to this country, Maine has received more than $30 million over the past eight years, including $27 million in heating aid directly to 60,000 households (an amount that is still growing because the heating-season-long assistance program is still running). Maine shelters have received more than $300,000 in help, and Maine tribes have gotten more than $3 million in assistance.
Kennedy issued a statement after Chavez's death that should have caught more attention in Washington DC than it actually did:
"President Chavez cared deeply about the poor of Venezuela and other nations around the world and their abject lack of even basic necessities, while some of the wealthiest people on our planet have more money than they can ever reasonably expect to spend. There are close to two million people in the United States who received free heating assistance, thanks to President Chavez's leadership. Our prayers go out to President Chavez's family, the people of Venezuela, and all who were warmed by his generosity."
Whether the program will carry on in the future will depend on the Venezuelan government. It seems likely, though, that American citizens will continue to require this sort of direct foreign aid — unless Congress suddenly finds the ability to provide for the American people, as opposed to multinational corporations.
• In related news, if you want CHEAP GAS, mark your calendar for April 20. And no, this isn't a US government program; Citgo's involved again, as is a somewhat higher authority.
Next Level Church, an ecumenical Christian church with branches across the country (including at 1053 Forest Avenue), is bringing gas prices down below $3 per gallon on that day, at one gas station: the Citgo Xtra Mart at 865 Brighton Avenue in Portland. It'll only be for 2500 gallons, but that's enough to make a big difference.
Apparently, starting at 11 am and running until the 2500 gallons are gone, the price at the pump will drop to $2.99, with donations from the church making up the difference between that amount and whatever the current market price is. A similar effort last month in Epping, New Hampshire, resulted in nearly 300 people getting discounted gas.