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2005-12-01

Rep. Jose Serrano: One of Three Congressmembers to Vote for Immediate U.S. Troop Withdrawal from Iraq, One of Two to Accept Venezuelan President Chavez’ Offer of Cheap Oil to Poor U.S. Communities

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We speak with Rep. Jose Serrano (D–NY), one of only three Congressmembers out of more than 400 who voted for an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. He’s also one of the two to take up an offer by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez for cheap oil here in the United States. [includes rush transcript]

We turn to the issue of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his offer of cheap oil for poor US communities. New York Congressmember Jose Serrano is one of the few members of Congress promoting this effort. He’s also one of the few to have voted last month for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and we want to talk to him about that first.

Last month, Democratic Congressman John Murtha sparked an intense debate on Capitol Hill after he introduced a bill calling for the deployment in Iraq to end "at the earliest practicable date." He also called for a rapid reaction force to stay in the region.

In response, the Republican leadership introduced a non-binding bill that proposed "the deployment of United States forces in Iraq be terminated immediately." It was rejected by 403 to 3.

The only three House Democrats to vote for the bill were Serrano, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Robert Wexler of Florida.

  • Rep. Jose Serrano (D–New York), he represents the South Bronx.
    Website: House.gov/Serrano

Poor residents in the South Bronx section of New York City and in Boston, Massachusetts will be receiving a huge gift this winter–inexpensive home heating oil from Venezuela. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently completed historic agreements with Congressmen Jose Serrano of New York and William Delahunt of Massachusetts.

Under the agreements Citgo, the Houston-based American subsidiary of Venezuela’s state owned oil company, will provide 8 million gallons of discounted home heating oil to residents of the South Bronx and 12 million gallons to low-income residents of Boston.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to benefit from the deals, which could produce savings of more than $20 million dollars.

The deal comes as Chavez continues to fiercely criticize President Bush. Last month, at the Latin American Summit in Argentina, he led a rally of 25,000 people to protest Bush and his economic policies in the region. The deal also comes as U.S oil companies have come under scrutiny for their record high profits while at the same time, oil prices are expected to reach record highs this winter.

Congressmember Serrano told the New York Times that the Citgo deal "sends an incredible message to other oil companies. It tells them that if these people in Venezuela can share their profits with poorer communities, then they should too."

Chavez first made the offer in August in Caracas. He made it again two months ago during an interview with Democracy Now. At that time Chavez said the Venezuelan company Citgo has 14,000 gas stations and eight refineries in the U.S. He went on to outline his offer of cheap oil.

  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez interviewed on Democracy Now!
    Check out the full interview with Chavez: Part 1 || Part 2

Congressmember Serrano joins us one line from New York.

  • Rep. Jose Serrano (D–New York), he represents the South Bronx.
    Website: House.gov/Serrano

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: New York Congressmember Jose Serrano is one of the few members of Congress promoting this effort. He’s also one of the few to have voted last month for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and we want to talk briefly to him about that before we get into the oil situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congressmember Serrano.

REP. JOSE SERRANO: Thank you so much, Amy and Juan, for having me on the show.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you on with us. In just a minute, we’re going go to the issue of cheap oil for poorer communities in this country. But given the series of speeches that President Bush is giving on why the U.S. should not withdraw from Iraq immediately, you’re one of three Congress members to have voted for immediate withdrawal; why?

REP. JOSE SERRANO: Well, first of all, because it’s something I have been saying. If you look at your file on Serrano press releases, you’ll see that on something like six or seven occasions, I have said immediate withdrawal. And I’ve been accused of being irresponsible. But I have said the same way we got in, without asking any questions of anyone, we should get out, and immediate withdrawal means exactly that. So even though it’s been reported and we know it to be true that what you saw a couple of weeks ago in Congress was really a sham by the Republicans to put up and try to embarrass Jack Murtha’s withdrawal proposal, which I support in terms of — I support any withdrawal proposal. But I would rather have one yesterday or this morning. So I voted for it, because I felt that that proposal, even though it was put up for them as sort of an insult to Murtha, was a sham; it was still exactly the language that I want.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And yesterday, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also apparently backed Congressman Murtha’s position, so that you’re seeing more motion now, apparently, on the Congress more toward more voices calling for withdrawal.

REP. JOSE SERRANO: I think what you’re seeing is a situation where the most respected person, in terms of supporting the military, has come out and said, 'We can't win this. We’re not doing the right thing. We have to get out. Our presence creates the problem.’ And so, you know, with all due respect for myself, I could yell it from the top of a mountain, and people say, 'Well, that's the usual Serrano peace movement.’ But with Jack Murtha, who’s a highly decorated soldier and who has always been supportive of military action and the military, says we can’t win it, the fact that he agrees with what we have been saying for years is not the issue. The issue is that when he says it, people begin to listen. And he gives a lot of people sitting on the fence a lot of cover, because it’s hard to attack him, although Republicans have tried that.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Serrano, we have to break. When he come back, we want to ask you about Venezuelan oil in the South Bronx.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: You got it, Frank Sinatra singing "My Way," I think an appropriate song for our guest, Congressmember Serrano, one of three Congress members to vote for a total withdrawal from Iraq immediately and one of two to accept Venezuelan President Chavez’s offer of cheap oil. Poor residents in the South Bronx section of New York City and in Boston, Massachusetts, will be receiving a huge gift this winter: inexpensive home heating oil from Venezuela. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently completed historic agreements with Congressmember Jose Serrano of New York and William Delahunt of Massachusetts. Under the agreement, Citgo, the Houston-based American subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, will provide eight million gallons of discounted home heating oil to residents of the South Bronx and 12 million gallons to low-income residents of Boston.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Tens of thousands of people are expected to benefit from the deals, which could produce savings of more than $20 million. The deal comes as Chavez continues to fiercely criticize President Bush. Last month at the Latin American summit in Argentina, he led a rally of 25,000 people to protest Bush and his economic policies in the region. The deal also comes as U.S. oil companies have come under scrutiny for their record high profits, while at the same time, oil prices are expected to reach record high levels this winter.

Congressmember Serrano told The New York Times that the Citgo deal, quote, "sends an incredible message to other oil companies. It tells them that if these people in Venezuela can share their profits with poorer communities, then they should, too." Chavez first made the offer in August in Caracas. He made it again two months ago during an interview with Democracy Now! At that time, Chavez said the Venezuelan company, Citgo, has 14,000 gas stations and eight refineries in the U.S. He went on to outline his offer of cheap oil.

PRES. HUGO CHAVEZ: We want to use these infrastructures to help the poor populations. We have made some progress. We have given instructions to the president of Citgo, Felix Rodriguez. We want that up to 10%, we refine here. We supply every day to the U.S. 1.5 million barrels of oil, crude and product. And we refine here close to 800,000 barrels a day, refined here in the U.S., so we would like to take 10% of what we refine, those products, and to offer these products in several modalities to the poor populations.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaking on Democracy Now! in September. As we continue our conversation with Jose Serrano, there’s a full-page ad in The New York Times today. It says, "How Venezuela is keeping the home fires burning in Massachusetts." And there is an ad for Pedevesa and Citgo on the bottom. Well, Jose Serrano, tell us about why you’ve taken up the Venezuelan president on his offer.

REP. JOSE SERRANO: Well, first of all, let me just take one second to thank you and Juan both for giving me my daily dose of Frank Sinatra, which I must have to continue my work. And I thought that was very cute and very appropriate. I don’t know how much Juan had to do with that?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we know you’re a big fan.

REP. JOSE SERRANO: I’m a fanatic. The word is "fanatic." But that’s another issue for another day.

When Hugo Chavez was scheduled to come to New York for the U.N., I, as you know, have been a strong supporter of his attempts at bringing social justice to Venezuela, and I have been a strong critic of our administration’s desire to undo his government and to try to overthrow and who knows what else. So I thought it was a great opportunity to invite him to the Bronx. And he wanted to meet with community organizations, and you all reported on that visit. It was a wonderful visit.

As part of the visit, he mentioned different things: student exchange programs; assistance with a greenway that we’re building in the Bronx; some ecological, environmental issues; having parents go to Venezuela and deal with parents who are organizing over there; all kinds of things. And the oil issue came up. And, of course, I thought it was a wonderful opportunity.

We immediately ran into one little problem, and that is that President Chavez, himself, thought that we were talking about homeowners. And I explained to him that, for the most part in my district, we have tenements, we have housing groups, and that we have landlords, as such. I have probably a very small, if not the smallest, amount of homeowners. So that’s what’s kept us from getting this off the ground as quickly as we wanted to.

What we did as part of the pilot program, we went out and we selected three housing corporations — which Juan has been very strongly trying to get the names from, and he will have them soon — three corporations, not-for-profit, who oversee x amount of buildings, and they will receive the oil that then will be administered to these buildings, with the understanding — and please understand that this was put forth by the Venezuelan government — with the understanding that the 40% savings will be returned to the tenant and to the community organization, to the tenants in forms of either food vouchers that they can use at local supermarkets and/or rent reductions; and the other part of that 40% to go for human infrastructure, repairs in the housing stock, as is. So no one makes a penny on this, and no one is supposed to save any money. They’re supposed to reinvest it in the community corporation that runs these buildings.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And are there plans, as far as you know, to expand this? The advertisement in the Times does suggest that there may be an expansion, beyond just Boston and the South Bronx, to the project.

REP. JOSE SERRANO: Well, first of all, there are plans to expand it within the South Bronx, for instance, as soon as we get all of the kinks out of it. And somebody may say — and you have — you know, ’What’s the holdup?’ It’s not really a holdup. It’s just that it’s not every day that a South Bronx not-for-profit group signs a deal with an international corporation, so everything had to be looked at carefully. But we intend to, if it works properly, expand it in the Bronx.

And, yes, there’s talk about Chicago, and there’s talk about other communities. In fact, in Chicago, there’s talk about the bus lines that operate in the poorer neighborhoods. So it’s really an open issue as to how much help they can give us.

And I think it’s important for all folks to understand, because I think the biggest confusion is, you know, Chavez is taking this out of Venezuela. No, this is from the resources that has been allocated already to be sold in the United States. So all that you really are seeing is an American corporation based in the United States doing what others refuse to do, which is reducing their price.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you received pressure or has Congressmember Delahunt received pressure from the Bush administration since they’ve made him, well, perhaps after Iraq and a few other countries, the number one enemy of this country, Chavez?

REP. JOSE SERRANO: No, no pressure. I think what’s happening, I heard a report on NPR where they were asking this professor from Boston how should they handle it, and they said the best thing the administration should do is leave it alone, because you can’t win this argument. You cannot attack Hugo Chavez for doing what all corporations should be doing in this country.

And again, what people need to know is that Citgo may be owned by Venezuela, but it has operated as an American corporation under our laws. They pay taxes here. They get tax breaks the way other corporations get it. So, and, number two, when Citgo put forth, I think it was, $10 million for Katrina and opened up a center of relief, the administration didn’t complain about that and did not demand to return the money. And Citgo employs, I believe it’s over 4200 residents of this country in their different refineries that they have in their distribution. So, it’s totally legitimate, and I think the administration is best served if they just leave it alone.

Now, the press has been coming after us, of course, you know, some even suggesting that he’s buying members of Congress. Well, for the record, before I even knew they could give us oil, I was a strong supporter of his government and his revolution.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Also, at least one Republican has embraced the idea. Mayor Bloomberg, the Republican mayor of New York, was asked recently if oil was made available to some of the public schools, which my understanding is that President Chavez has said it might include schools in poor communities, the mayor was asked would he accept the oil. He said he would be glad to accept discounted oil from wherever he could get it to cut the school costs for New York City.

REP. JOSE SERRANO: And it’s something that we are going to be presenting to the embassy and to the Venezuelans. You know, with all due respect to the mayor, I don’t know if he said that tongue-in-cheek, sarcastically, or straight up. If it is, then, again, you know, this could start — the big deal here is will other corporations pick up on it. As you have well reported and other people have reported, these people are making more money than anyone else in the country right now. Their profits go beyond anything you can image, to the point where a Republican-controlled Congress has brought up the possibility of asking questions about their profits. So, there’s plenty of money for reductions in prices.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressman Jose Serrano, we have to leave it there. You said you support the revolution in Venezuela. We’ll see if it starts a revolution here in the United States around the issue of cheaper oil.

REP. JOSE SERRANO: Thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you, Congressmember Jose Serrano, joining us from Washington, represents the South Bronx.

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