By John Williams

In an effort to utilize its most lucrative resource to alleviate the high cost of energy in the United States, Venezuela is providing low-income Americans with two million barrels of heating oil at a 40 percent discount price.

The program is one of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s most recent efforts to use the country’s rich oil reserves to raise the quality of life for poor people in various Latin American countries, and now, the United States.

David McCollum is a representative for Citgo, an American oil company controlled by the Venezuelan National Oil Company (PDVSA in it its Spanish acronym).

"Last year, after the hurricane season with Rita and Katrina, we received a letter signed by six U.S. Senators that went out to many major oil companies, asking what we could do to help the American consumer," McCollum told City on a Hill Press (CHP) in a phone interview.

Citgo has been the only American oil company to respond to the government’s plea, which was made by a group including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Vermont’s newly elected socialist senator.

"With the incredible response to this program, we are doubling its size," McCollum said. The popularity may be due in part to Citizen’s Energy Corporation (CEC), an American company that distributes the oil inside the United States.

"Citizen’s Energy Corporation has been providing discount oil to the needy since the oil crisis of the 1970s," said Brian O’Connor, spokesperson for CEC, in a phone interview. "We work in a number of different sectors to fulfill needs from shelter to heating."

While such a program holds potential to ease the United States’ high energy costs, the majority of the discount oil goes to states in the northeast in the form of heating oil.

Both McCollum and O’Connor declined to comment on the United States’ tenuous political relationship with Venezuela.

"I don’t have any political comment on Mr. Chavez," McCollum said. "We just do business."

Chavez, who has been nationalizing Venezuela’s oil reserves in order to bring the country out of poverty, has been an outspoken critic of the Bush Administration since the United States allegedly supported an attempted military coup to remove him from office in 2001. He has since been democratically re-elected twice with little opposition.

Jonathan Fox, UC Santa Cruz professor of Latin American and Latino/a studies, believes that the oil policy shows Chavez’s willingness to deal with the United States despite his resentment of the president.

"The discounted oil is to make a political point: to make a distinction between the Bush Administration and the American people," Fox said. "It is also an attempt to score propaganda points by pointing out the existence of poverty in the richest nation in the world.

"The Venezuelan government has been pushing back to take more control of the oil sector from the control of American big business," Fox continued.

Will Glassberg, a first-year UCSC student who was in Burlington, Vermont when the first barrels of Venezuelan oil were delivered to a homeless shelter, told CHP that regardless of the political situation, "the town was happy to get the oil."