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Venezuelan firm will buy fuel oil for villagers
Anchorage Daily News


September 21, 2006

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A Venezuelan-owned oil company will warm 12,000 rural Alaska homes this winter with an enormous gift of heating fuel that some elated residents in the bush call a godsend - and ironic.

The donation from Houston-based Citgo will buy 100 gallons of fuel for every household in 151 villages. But the gift worth roughly $5 million comes courtesy of a country whose leftist president is pals with America's enemies and supports Iran's nuclear ambitions.




Hugo Chavez also calls our president mean things, such as "genocidal murderer" and "madman."

Margaret Williams, of the remote town Hughes, said it doesn't matter who's providing the heating fuel, which costs about $6 a gallon in the Koyukuk River village of 69.

"We sure could welcome it," she said. "As long as we don't have to pay."

In the Kobuk River village of Ambler, heating fuel is running more than $7 a gallon.

Residents in the village of 283 and surrounding villages are ecstatic, said tribal administrator Virginia Commack. "It's a miracle," she said.

Each household will save more than $700 in fuel costs this winter, freeing cash for people to spend on gasoline so they can hunt more caribou and moose, she said.

The donation will especially help the elderly, who live on fixed incomes and can't travel to gather wood, she said.

Daniel Ellanak, a Navy veteran who works for the tribal government on Ouzinkie near Kodiak Island, is inadvertently responsible for the gift, which could provide a couple of months of heating fuel for many homes.

In May, he gave a presentation at a tribal environmental conference near San Diego that touched on village fuel woes, he said.

A representative of Citgo, an oil refiner owned by Venezuela's national oil company, was in the audience and approached him. He told Ellanak about the company's effort to provide fuel to poor people and offered to help Alaskans.

"His point was big oil is not without compassion," said Ellanak.

Ellanak is torn between the good fortune for struggling villagers and Chavez's possible political gamesmanship.

The other day, "I was watching the ticker tape on the news and Hugo Chavez was partnering with Iran and I was like 'Oh my god,' " he said.

Experts on Latin American policy are divided over whether the gift is genuine generosity or a political ploy meant to bring Chavez more support on the world stage.

The program began last year after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans and Chavez toured poor neighborhoods in the Bronx, said David McCollum, Citgo spokesman

"He wanted us to do everything we could to assist people," said McCollum, reached in Houston.

Last year, Citgo sold 40 million gallons of heating fuel - with a 40 percent discount off the wholesale price - to households in states along the East Coast, he said.

Now, Chavez wants to help out Alaska Natives and tribes in the Northwest, he said.

Abraham Lowenthal, an international relations professor at the University of Southern California, said Chavez is "trying to show up the U.S. government and the Bush administration for not being as responsive to the needs of American citizens as Venezuela can be."

By doing so, Chavez gains support from countries that don't like Bush or his policies, Lowenthal said.

Chavez, who sits on one of the world's largest oil reserves, has also turned his "petro-dollar windfall" into humanitarian programs in several Latin American countries, Lowenthal said.

He wants those countries to support Venezuela's bid to gain a seat on the United Nations Security Council, and thereby increase its influence, he said.

Larry Birns, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, said Chavez is just being generous.

"He feels that nations with wealth have an implicit responsibility to help their neighbors and maybe those Alaska oil companies will get the same idea," Birns said.

Venezuela's U.S. ambassador in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment this week.

Most rural residents don't care about the politics, said Steve Sumida, acting director of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council. They just want to stay warm this winter, he said.

The council, a nonprofit representing Alaska's tribal governments, agreed to spearhead the program in Alaska with help from regional Native nonprofits. The money is intended to buy oil and all help has been volunteer.

Sumida hopes the program will begin Nov. 1, with nonprofits receiving Citgo money and buying fuel for villages with more than 80 percent Alaska Native populations, he said.

Diesel-powered communities have struggled to keep their lights on, Sumida said. Fuel is shipped to most bush communities by barge or plane, which greatly increases the costs.


E-mail Alex deMarban at ademarban(at)
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