Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Help from Hugo Chavez: Free Heating Oil for Needy U.S. Families

by Vicki Ekstrom, Special to

Close to 200,000 poor families in 15 cold-weather states — in every Northeastern state except New Hampshire — can thank controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for helping them heat their homes this winter.


The Venezuelan-controlled oil-refining company, Citgo Petroleum Corp., donated 45 million gallons of free home heating oil this winter in a move that bought good publicity for the country’s socialist leader, who famously called President Bush “the devil” in a 2006 United Nations speech.

But New Hampshire’s lack of participation in this year’s free-oil program shows that accepting oil from Chavez, a frequent critic of the U.S. government, touches a political nerve.

“There’s the thought that by participating we’re somehow helping Venezuela and Chavez and that it’s not something good for the U.S. government,” said Gale Hennessey, director of Southern New Hampshire Services, which works with the state to administer aid to low-income households.

Venezuela’s offer of free oil this winter came as the U.S. economy was slumping, federal assistance through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) had dropped and home heating-oil prices hit a record high at more than $3.50 a gallon, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration database of monthly prices since 1990.

The almost 200,000 American families helped by Venezuela this winter is small compared with the almost 6 million families helped through LIHEAP. But LIHEAP was able to help only about 16% of families needing assistance, so Venezuela’s program helped to fill a void until its supplies were exhausted early this winter season.

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