Empire editorial: Venezuela's gift is an unhappy windfall

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2006

This editorial appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

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It's like a kick in the gut to open the newspaper and read that Alaskans are getting aid from the likes of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez.

But that's what the story headlined "Venezuelan firm to give fuel oil to Alaskans" said last week.

The aid consists of about a $5 million donation of heating fuel to Alaska villages with Native populations of above 80 percent. Each household in these 151 villages will get 100 gallons of fuel, providing heat for an estimated 12,000 homes. The program is expected to begin Nov. 1, administered by the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council with the help of regional Native nonprofit agencies.

With fuel costing more than $7 a gallon in some of these villages because of high shipping costs, the gift is certainly welcome, according to residents quoted by the Associated Press.

With the high price of oil everywhere, who couldn't use a little help with the heating bills this winter?

The catch is that the help comes from Citgo, a Houston-based oil company owned by Venezuela. And Chavez, addressing the United Nations General Assembly about the same time, called President George Bush "the devil." He then said that the podium where Bush had spoken still smelled of sulfur.

If Chavez wanted to get the public's attention, he certainly succeeded, judging from coverage on cable news shows. If he wanted to win friends in Alaska, he failed. You don't have to have voted for Bush to be offended by such remarks.

However, the Chavez sideshow is a distraction from the real issue, and that is poverty in rural Alaska. In a subsistence economy, wealth is not always measured in dollars. But most modern Alaskans cannot survive by subsistence alone. They need an opportunity to earn an income. And in the Bush, especially in the winter, for many that can be difficult.

It should be pointed out that the United States has had its own Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program since the 1970s. Alaska will distribute about $10 million in heating assistance to about 27,000 households this fiscal year.

Are some people not getting enough heating assistance? Possibly.

However, a tribal administrator was quoted by the Associated Press saying that the gift will free cash for gasoline so villagers can hunt more caribou and moose. In other words, there is not much extra cash to go around in the winter.

Alaska is not a poor state, nor is the United States a poor country, and if there is dire need in the Bush, surely short-term financial help could be found without the help of Venezuela. But in the long run, that is not the answer.

Native organizations should not be faulted at all for accepting the gift from Citgo, which ultimately comes from the people of Venezuela, not Chavez. What has long been recognized is rural Alaska economies need a boost.

One hundred gallons of free heating fuel will only help keep these residents warm for a winter. It does nothing to build economic self-sufficiency.

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