Poor residents and nonprofit groups in the South Bronx are about to receive a huge Christmas gift from Venezuela’s firebrand President Hugo Chavez: Eight-million gallons of heating oil at bargain-basement prices.
Two months ago, in an interview with the Daily News during his visit to the United Nations, Chavez first made the startling offer of cheap fuel for this winter from his oil-rich country to a handful of poor communities in the United States.
At the time, critics of the radical populist Chavez, the Bush administration’s biggest nemesis in South America, scoffed at his proposal.
But the Venezuelan leader is about to deliver.
“The first shipments of low-cost fuel from CITGO will begin arriving in my district by late next week,” U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-South Bronx) said yesterday.
CITGO, the Houston-based subsidiary of Venezuela’s national oil company, owns 14,000 gas stations and eight refineries in the U.S. Because of that, Chavez has a ready-made distribution system and doesn’t need any special approvals from the White House for his project.
“My constituents are facing some of the highest energy bills in recent history, even as oil companies are reporting the largest profits in recent memory,” Serrano said. “I’m very pleased to have helped broker this historic agreement.”
The Bronx congressman has been working feverishly for weeks to connect local nonprofit groups with CITGO and Venezuelan government officials. The South Bronx plan is similar to one announced yesterday in Boston for CITGO to supply 12 million gallons of discounted heating oil to 45,000 low-income families and nonprofits in Massachusetts.
Under the Chavez plan, CITGO will sell oil for way below the market price – about $1.35 a gallon instead of the current average of $2.25. The average Massachusetts homeowner would save about $180 for each 200-gallon shipment, enough to last about three weeks.
But the South Bronx project is a little more complicated because so many low-income residents live in rental apartments instead of individual homes.
“The Venezuelans want to make sure landlords don’t pocket all the savings,” Serrano said.
You can be sure, if there’s a way to do so, New York City landlords will find it.
That’s why Serrano recruited several local nonprofit housing corporations to be the first to join the discount-fuel program.
To assure that the bulk of savings are passed on to residents, not just to the nonprofit corporation, lawyers for CITGO are working out a pilot effort in which every renter will receive a cash voucher equal to the average fuel savings for each unit in the building.
“The idea is to make sure the financial help goes directly to the poor, not the middle man,” Serrano said.
Details are still being ironed out by lawyers for all sides, Serrano said, which is why he will not announce the specific housing groups and buildings to receive the first fuel shipments until a press conference late next week.
“We’ll start with a few groups, then expand it throughout the winter,” Serrano said. Homeowners aren’t the only ones eligible: Even schools in low-income areas could apply for the program.
In his interview with me two months ago, Chavez vowed to set aside 10% of all the oil that CITGO refineries produce for his oil-for-the-poor program.
His government is already directing hundreds of millions of dollars from its windfall petroleum profits to expand social programs for Venezuela’s own poor, and it has begun providing cheap oil to more than a dozen poor Caribbean nations.
To the people at the Bush White House and their buddies at the Big Oil companies, sharing the wealth with those less fortunate is a dangerous idea.
Santa Claus is for children, they say, and profits are for shareholders, and this Chavez guy is giving oil a bad name.
Juan Gonzalez is a Daily News columnist. Email: jgonzalez@ edit.nydailynews.com.