A Bright Shining Sign?

Citgo, the US-subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company, is building bridges in Boston with the recent investment of $1.5 million to restore an old landmark--the neon Citgo sign that watches over the Red Sox's Fenway Park. With US-Venezuelan relations quickly souring, both countries should follow Citgo's lead and rekindle a relationship that is in their mutual interest.

THERE’S NOTHING sweeter for a Red Sox fan than watching the home team pound a towering home run over the Green Monster.

For four decades now, those suspenseful Monster shots have taken flight against the backdrop of a Boston landmark, a sign that’s become part of the fabric of Kenmore Square and Fenway Park. Any member of Red Sox Nation can identify the company sponsoring the sign. But how many New Englanders know that Citgo is the US subsidiary of the Venezuelan national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, and is wholly owned by the government of Venezuela?

When the sign was first erected, a 26-year-old pup named Carl Yastrzemski was playing left field for the Red Sox. Just a few years later, a proud Venezuelan named Luis Aparicio was manning shortstop beneath its glow. Now Yaz is eligible for Social Security and Citgo is celebrating its 40th anniversary. But the sign is still there — a national historic landmark and folk art icon, associated everywhere with Boston and our World Champion Red Sox.

The old Citgo sign looking over Fenway Park in Boston was in need of repair.
Credit: Boston Globe – Lane Turner

As it aged, the sign fell into disrepair. At the behest of Mayor Menino and as a gift to the people of Boston and the United States, Citgo invested $1.5 million to refurbish it. On Friday evening, the mayors of Boston and Caracas — joined by Aparicio, the only Venezuelan in the Baseball Hall of Fame — will flip the switch on the gleaming new Citgo sign.

The sign is a symbol of friendship and cooperation, not to mention one of America’s most enduring commercial relationships.

Few nations in this hemisphere are as critical to the US economy. Venezuela, with the largest energy reserves of any country outside the Middle East, is the fourth-largest foreign provider of energy supplies to the United States, accounting for nearly 15 percent of our oil imports. It is our 16th largest trade partner overall — bigger than Spain or Australia — and one of our fastest-growing. It has invested more than $12 billion in the United States through its refineries, terminals, and related facilities.

The neon of the old sign has been replaced with much brighter LEDs, after a $1.5 million investment by Citgo, that officials hope will withstand the New England weather.
Credit: Boston Globe – John Tlumacki

Venezuelan investments have created more than 150,000 US jobs. Likewise, US companies have roughly $25 billion invested in the Venezuelan energy and manufacturing sectors. So both countries need each other, and a poor relationship bodes ill for Americans and Venezuelans alike.

But our bilateral relations have deteriorated at an alarming pace. President Chavez, who seeks greater power and influence for the developing world, is bitterly opposed to Bush administration foreign policy and has pulled no punches when criticizing it. This causes enormous discomfort in the State Department.

Three years ago, the administration actually endorsed a failed coup attempt against Chavez — a breathtaking contradiction of the White House crusade for shining the light of democracy in the darkest corners of the globe. Meanwhile, the chronic stridency from Caracas – sometimes in shrill, personal attacks on President Bush — is no more constructive.

The fact is that Chavez is the democratically elected president of Venezuela, a sovereign nation. He is entitled to speak his mind just as bluntly as Bush. I respect his efforts to use Venezuela’s energy wealth to improve the lives of the Venezuelan people, particularly through health and education initiatives for the poor that former President Jimmy Carter believes are replicable elsewhere. And the Bush administration squandered much of its moral authority to pass judgment on Chavez when it blessed the 2002 coup against a freely elected leader.

Unfortunately, both governments seem to delight in using incendiary rhetoric and taking offense at slights so minuscule that they might be imaginary. This does nothing but inflame tensions. Given the degree of interdependence between our two economies, it’s also short-sighted and foolish.

We have managed to come to terms with China, with Vietnam, even with Libya. It’s time for the governments of both the United States and Venezuela to acknowledge our significant differences and then reconstruct a discourse based on mutual respect. This week, here in Boston, Venezuela is making such a gesture.

The lighting of the Citgo sign, a small step in the grand world of international politics, presents a golden opportunity to rekindle a semblance of civility between our two nations. The sign will illuminate more than just our shared passion for ”beisbol,” the national pastime of both countries. It will also reaffirm the ties between our two nations and set the stage to strengthen a historic relationship from which we can all benefit.

US Representative Bill Delahunt of the 10th District serves on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere of the House International Relations Committee.

Source: Boston Globe