BOSTON - Citgo, the Venezuelan government's Texas-based oil subsidiary, has suspended shipments of heating oil for poor families in the United States, citing falling oil prices and the world economic crisis, the nonprofit organization that distributes the fuel said Monday.
The controversial program gave fuel from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's government to 200,000 households in 23 states through Citizens Energy, a charity organization run by Joseph Kennedy, the eldest son of late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
Started as a discount oil program in 2005, beginning in 2006 the program sent 100 gallons of free oil a year to eligible households, including some in rural Alaska villages. The program drew fire from critics who called it a ploy by Chavez to undermine the Bush administration.
Citgo donated $100 million worth of heating oil 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" will be affected by the Citgo suspension, including those living on dozens of Native American tribal lands.
About 20 staffers at Citizens Energy also were told Monday they had been furloughed 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 will continue to run some of its heating assistance programs for now, but the majority of its programs outside of Massachusetts will 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.
Citgo didn't respond to requests for comment.
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-versus-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.
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."
Associated Press writers Andrew Miga in Washington, D.C. and Ian James in Caracas contributed to this story.