BOSTON — Citgo, the Venezuelan government’s Texas-based oil subsidiary, has suspended its free heating oil program for the poor in the United States, citing falling oil prices and the world economic crisis.
The joint effort by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Citizens Energy Chairman Joseph Kennedy — the eldest son of late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy — is a controversial program that provides fuel assistance to 400,000 households in 23 states.
In Maine, approximately 20,000 private households participated in the program last year, as well as a number of homeless shelters and about 3,000 American Indian households, according to a Citizens Energy spokesman.
Tammy Littlefield of Bangor, a single parent with a 13-year-old son, said the 100 gallons of heating oil she received from the program last year “was really helpful. A hundred gallons doesn’t get you through the winter, but it really helps when you need it.”
Without the assistance this year, Littlefield said Monday, “I’m hoping to borrow some money from my family and pay them back when I get my tax return.”
Started in 2005 with Kennedy’s Citizens Energy, a nonprofit group aimed at reducing the home heating costs of low-income and elderly residents, the program sent 100 gallons of free oil a year to eligible households but drew fire from critics who said it was just a ploy by Chavez to undermine the Bush administration.
Citgo donated 100 million gallons last year, according to Citizens Energy.
At a news conference held at Citizens Energy’s Boston headquarters, Kennedy said Citgo officials told him of their decision and he was forced to go public so that households expecting the assistance will know what’s happening.
“Citgo made it clear that this is not a cancellation of this program,” Kennedy said. “But at the end of the day, the tankers are not going to be in front of this building.”
Kennedy said “a couple of hundreds of thousands” would be affected by the Citgo suspension, including those living on dozens of American Indian tribal lands.
Bill Thompson, vice chief of the Penobscot Nation on Indian Island, said Monday that he had not heard about the suspension and remained confident that American Indian communities in Maine would receive their oil shipments.
“Native American tribes share a unique government-to-government relationship with the government of Venezuela,” Thompson said. The Penobscot Nation has participated in the program for the past four years, he said.
Representatives of the Houlton Band of Maliseets and the Aroostook Band of Micmacs said their applications to the program have been filed and there has been no indication the oil would not be delivered as in previous years.
A spokeswoman for the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point said the community has applied to the program in the past but did not apply this year.
Citizens Energy spokesman Brian O’Connor said in a telephone interview Monday evening that his organization worked “up to the eleventh hour to get clarification from Citgo” before announcing the program’s suspension.
About 20 staffers at Citizens Energy were told Monday they had been laid off as a result of the suspension.
Kennedy urged those who have been helped by the program to write to Chavez to share their stories. Kennedy said that Citizens Energy would continue to run some of its heating assistance programs for now, but the majority of its programs outside of Massachusetts would be suspended. “The big kahuna were those Venezuelan oil tankers,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy also said he was seeking a face to face meeting with Chavez.
Littlefield of Bangor said she would like to have received the free oil again this year.
“It’s a great program, especially when someone’s in a bind,” she said.
Even though heating oil prices have lowered recently, the fuel is still expensive, she said.
“You’d think that with the record profits they’re making they’d still come up with enough oil to give to help anyone that needs it.”
Littlefield has taken some energy saving measures such as putting vinyl sheeting around the foundation, hanging insulated drapes on the windows, and purchasing a digital thermostat to automatically lower the temperature certain times of the day when she and her son are out or in bed.
Still, Littlefield said she lives in an older home that is “always a task to keep warm.”
Citizens Energy was founded by Kennedy in 1979 in the wake of the energy crisis of the late 1970s with the goal of reducing the cost of home heating oil for the poor and elderly.
Kennedy drew fire from critics of Chavez when he began the fuel assistance program with Citgo. Critics charged that Chavez, a socialist and staunch U.S. critic who famously called President Bush “the devil,” was using the heating oil program as propaganda.
“It looks like the cost of bringing Fidel Castro’s brand of rich vs. poor politics to America just got to be too expensive for Venezuela’s bellicose president, but it’s hardly a surprise that he’s pulling out of our economy now that he’s crashed his own,” said Larry Neal, deputy Republican staff director of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Former U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla., once accused Kennedy of working with “a sworn enemy of the United States” and betraying the legacy of President John F. Kennedy, his uncle, who spoke of the perils of communism.
Kennedy has responded that critics should hold oil-exporting countries and other trade partners, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Russia and China, to the same standards.
On Monday, Kennedy also called out U.S. oil companies for not taking part in his efforts to provide heating assistance to low-income households. “This shouldn’t be the responsibility of another country,” Kennedy said. “I don’t get one barrel from one U.S. company. Not one.”
BDN writers Meg Haskell and Rick Levasseur contributed to this report.