INDIAN ISLAND, Maine — The death Tuesday of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is not expected to affect the Venezuelan-sponsored humanitarian program that has provided energy assistance to low-income Maine people since at least 2006, according to an official familiar with the program.
Among those who have benefited from the heating aid provided by Citgo Petroleum Corp. — the national petroleum company of Venezuela — are households throughout the state that are eligible for the state’s Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, and members of Maine’s Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet tribes.
Citgo has provided more than $30 million in heating assistance to Maine over the last eight years, according to Citizens Energy spokeswoman Priscilla Brandao.
More than $27 million has been disbursed to more than 60,000 Maine households since 2005, she said, adding that oil deliveries are still being made to households this season so the actual number likely is higher.
During the same period, the state’s homeless shelters have received more than $300,000 in heating aid, she said.
Maine’s Indian tribes have received more than $3 million since entering the Citizens Energy Oil Heat Program in 2007, Brandao said. Before that, the tribes had individual agreements with Citgo so the actual level of assistance is higher.
“This year’s program is up and running,” Debbie Francis, the Penobscot Indian Nation’s assistant director of social services, said Wednesday.
She said that in 2013, the tribe received nearly $38,000 in aid. The disbursement will provide 155 households $240 each in heating assistance, or the equivalent of close to 60 gallons of heating oil.
According to Debbie Francis, the amount of home heating assistance the tribe receives in Citgo heating aid, which is disbursed by Boston-based Citizens Energy Corp., varies from year to year.
The level of assistance, however, has dwindled over the years, she said. When the tribe first began receiving assistance about a decade ago in the form of direct disbursements, households received 300 gallons of oil, she said.
In addition to heating oil, eligible tribal households can use their benefits to help pay for heating systems that run on natural gas, propane and electricity.
“Right now, we don’t have any indication that anything will change. Next year is a whole different ballgame,” Debbie Francis said.
The Penobscots’ tribal chief, Kirk Francis, agreed, adding that what happens beyond this year hinges on what Venezuela’s future leadership sets as priorities.
On Wednesday, Francis said the Penobscot people are grateful for the assistance they have received from Citgo, Chavez and the Venezuelan government.
“It’s been a great relationship. It’s our hope that it will continue,” he said.
“This has made a difference in terms of our community,” he said, adding that while the assistance from Citgo doesn’t cover households’ entire heating tab, it does help fill some of the gaps in services.
“We’re obviously very saddened by his death. He really understood the issues and the importance of overcoming centuries of poverty,” the chief said. “He was genuinely engaged in this process. [The Venezuelans] worked with us on a nation-to-nation level,” he said.
The Penobscots began developing a relationship with the Venezuelan government in 2004, according to previous Bangor Daily News reports.
James Sappier, a former Penobscot Indian Nation chief, played a central role in creating the original agreement with Venezuela, under which Citgo agreed to sell discounted oil and provide some free fuel to the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes in Maine.
On Wednesday, Chief Francis noted that the connection between Maine’s Indian tribes and Chavez and Venezuela go beyond cheap heating oil.
In October of 2006, the Penobscot Nation was chosen to represent the indigenous people of the United States at the Caracas International Tourism and Trade Fair, where they presented their basket- and canoe-making skills, demonstrated traditional dances and shared aspects of their culture with indigenous tribes from all over the world.
In January 2006, Citgo made headlines in Maine when it worked out a $5.5 million agreement with then-Gov. John Baldacci that provided $100 in additional benefits for each of the 48,000 Maine households enrolled in LIHEAP as well as 120,000 gallons of home heating oil to more than 40 homeless shelters in Maine.
Baldacci said at the time that the state’s agreement with Citgo was an attempt to meet the needs of Maine’s most vulnerable residents during the coldest period of the year. The state’s LIHEAP account was flat-funded by the federal government this year despite a 25 percent increase in heating oil costs.
The agreement, however, was somewhat controversial in that Chavez was a fierce critic of President George W. Bush and insisted the U.S. government had systematically sought ways to overthrow him in order to seize Venezuela’s vast oil reserves.
U.S. officials denied that and accused the Cuban-allied Chavez of posing a threat to democracies in the region.
The negative comments made by Chavez led Baldacci to reconsider his administration’s agreement with Venezuela and there were no subsequent deals.
Citizens Energy Chairman Joseph P. Kennedy II issued the following statement after Chavez’s death:
“President Chavez cared deeply about the poor of Venezuela and other nations around the world and their abject lack of even basic necessities, while some of the wealthiest people on our planet have more money than they can ever reasonably expect to spend.
“There are close to two million people in the United States who received free heating assistance, thanks to President Chavez’s leadership,” he said, adding, “Our prayers go out to President Chavez’s family, the people of Venezuela and all who were warmed by his generosity.”