Hated outside the confines of the country he led with a passion almost equal to the devotion shown to him by legions of followers in Venezuela, Chavez remains as much of an enigma now as he was when he first assumed power in 1999. An outspoken champion of the poor and downtrodden, he also had a habit of being his own worst enemy. Chavez opted for inflammatory rhetoric far too often to curry favor with the United States. At the same time, he didn’t seem to give a rat’s patootie. This made him even more fascinating to anyone trying to figure out on which side of the good guy/bad guy fence Chavez belonged.
Ultimately, that mindset would prove hopelessly simplistic and ill-suited for gaining real insight into such a complex man. Perhaps, like so many leaders before him, Chavez would prove impossible to pigeonhole. In the end, as someone who has never set foot in Venezuela, it’s not my place to judge. Instead, I’d like to offer a different take on Hugo Chavez and one, I think, that makes a fitting epitaph.
Citizens Energy, founded by by former U.S. representative Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-MA), is a Massachusetts-based non-profit. Among it’s many pursuits is the Citizens Energy Oil Heat Program (CEOHP) which delivers discounted heating oil to the poor and elderly in 25 states and on Native American tribal lands in nine additional states. The program itself is a partnership with CITGO, a wholly owned subsidiary of the national oil company of Venezuela.
When Kennedy approached the petroleum industry regarding a collaboration that would eventually become the CEOHP, only CITGO offered to help (see PSA video below). While critics of Chavez derided the effort as a propaganda campaign against the Bush Administration, the program has been an unqualified success. Since starting work together in 20o5, Chavez and the people of Venezuela have donated more than 200 million gallons of home heating oil to the poorest of Americans through the CEOHP. Most of the recipients would have gone without heat during the coldest months of the year, dooming many to not surviving the winter.
Propaganda? Social activism? Humanitarian outreach? Where Chavez is concerned, his part in the CEOHP is probably a combination of all three. Though the number of critics has dwindled since 2005, some still look at the collaboration as a bad thing. I prefer to view it as a success and a blueprint for ways businesses, governments and non-profit organizations can work together across borders and political divides. Certainly other major oil companies had an opportunity to step up. None of them did and none of them have jumped on the bandwagon since. If Chavez did score propaganda points back home, so be it. The lives of poor and elderly Americans helped by the donations from CITGO through the CEOHP seem more than worth the price.