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Venezuelan-Owned Citgo Faces Congressional Inquiry For Offering Discounted Oil to U.S. Poor

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Republican Congressmember Joe Barton of Texas has launched an investigation into one of the world’s major oil companies–Citgo. The Venezuelan-owned company announced a discounted gas program for poor Americans last year. We speak with Democratic New York Congressman Jose Serrano, one of the few members of Congress promoting this effort. [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to a story that Juan Gonzalez has been covering in the New York Daily News.

In Washington, Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas has launched an investigation into one of the world’s major oil companies. But he is not investigating whether any of the oil giants are engaging in price gouging at a time when gasoline and heating oil casts are skyrocketing. Instead Barton has set his sights on the only oil company that actually dared to lower its prices last year–at least for the poorest Americans. Last week Barton demanded the Venezuelan-owned company Citgo produce all records, minutes, logs, e-mails and even desk calendars related to the company’s novel program of supplying discounted heating oil to low-income communities in the United States. The Citgo program, which began late last year in Massachusetts and the South Bronx, provides oil at discounts as high as 60% off market price. We hear an excerpt of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He first announced the discounted gas program during an interview with Democracy Now! on September 16, 2005.

  • Rep. Jose Serrano, (D-New York)

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

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss this, we’ll be joined in a few minutes by New York Congress member Jose Serrano, but first we’re going to turn to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He first announced the discounted gas program during an interview on Democracy Now! when we went to the Venezuelan ambassador’s home, the ambassador to the United Nations in New York, and interviewed the Venezuelan President.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: After many meetings with the U.S. citizens, we decided to propose a scheme for poor populations and low-income populations in the U.S. We’ve seen that poverty in the U.S. is growing everywhere. It’s close to 11 percent poverty, according to some estimates. And instead of the figures, you have to go deeper into it, because if you see Katrina and you saw what’s happened, 100,000 people were abandoned, and they are abandoned, and they’re just surviving.

So here, we have Citgo, this oil company. We have the Citgo company here in the United States. This is a Venezuelan company, so let’s have a look at the U.S. map, the distribution area of Citgo in the U.S. We are present in 14,000 gas stations in the U.S., and here we have different refineries, asphalt refineries, eight refineries that we have in the U.S., the plants for filling units, the third, refineries, terminals, and so on.

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 ten percent 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 ten percent of what we refine, those products, and to offer these products in several modalities to the poor populations.

And the pilot project will be starting in Chicago. We are already operating in Chicago. Well, let’s hope that there’s not going to be any obstacle by the government opposed to this project being implemented, but we will be working in those poor populations. We have some allies.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaking to Democracy Now! last September, when Juan and I interviewed him. Now, joining us on the telephone is Democratic Congress member Jose Serrano of New York. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Congress member Serrano.

REP. JOSE SERRANO: Thank you for your invitation, and good morning to you both.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what Joe Barton, the energy Congress member from Texas is doing? What is he calling for?

REP. JOSE SERRANO: I think they’re being obscene. There’s no other way to describe it. I mean, for years, we’ve begged Congress to look at the oil companies, and now I may have to put on my resume that with a program that helps the poor, we’ve been able to get Congress to finally look at a oil company, except that they’re looking at the wrong one and for the wrong reasons. This is blatantly political to ask if the program is here to serve the poor or it’s part of a larger political agenda, which was part of what the letter said. I think what’s happening — and it’s obvious to me — that the oil companies are embarrassed, and they are asking their friends in Congress, mostly Republicans.

And as you guys know, I try, when I’m on this show, to be as nonpolitical as possible, but there’s no other way to put it. The Bush administration has a serious problem with President Hugo Chavez. They don’t like the success he’s having, both in his country and throughout Latin America. They don’t like what’s happening in terms of governments moving to the left. So they’ve made him the demon that they have to destroy, and now when he pulls off something that is helping people in my community in Boston, Chicago, in Maine and Vermont and other places, Rhode Island, it’s spreading throughout the country, they’re going to now start to investigate and harass them, and that’s what it’s all about.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I called Congressman Joe Barton’s office earlier this week to ask what prompted this, and the response of the Chief of Staff of the House Energy Committee was that Hugo Chavez was interfering in U.S. — in the United States government oil policy, and that therefore they wanted to investigate whether there was actually some antitrust violations occurring. Your response?

REP. JOSE SERRANO: Well, I think the only thing he is interfering in in Citgo is in the usual rip-off of the poor and the working class by the oil companies in this country. As you know, their profits have been outrageous, and no one is looking at that. They were asked by members of the Senate to do something. They totally ignored it. Citgo was the only one that stepped up.

And I think this goes into some dangerous grounds here, because, for instance, when they ask for logs, phone conversations and so on, which they’re asking voluntarily now — and they may go and try to do it in an official subpoena way — what are they saying, that they also want minutes of any meetings that I had with Citgo, that Joe Kennedy had with Citgo, that Bernie Sanders had with Citgo, and other members of Congress, Charlie Rangel, Gregory Meeks? Well, that goes into a dangerous area, because they’re not investigating serious ethics violations in Congress, and here they’re going to try find out what kind of conversations we had, but the conversations are public. They were basically a great program that we were all trying to get in our communities.

And I tell you, with all due respect to my colleagues — I am not going to give out names — but if I give you the list of about 60 members of Congress from all parts of the country who are asking me, “Can I set up a meeting with Citgo?” to see if they can get this kind of program in their district.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now Congressman Joe Barton, of course, has a long record of defending oil industry interests, at least of the major oil companies, in Congress. He’s also, as I noted in my column, in the last election cycle, received more money than anyone else in Congress, except Tom DeLay, from the oil industry and has received over $2 million in the 20 years he’s been in Congress from the oil and electric utility industry. Your assessment of his role as Chair of the Energy Committee?

AMY GOODMAN: And we should say, by the way, we did invite Congressman Barton to be on the program, and he declined.

REP. JOSE SERRANO: Well, you know, I don’t do too much analysis of where folks may get their campaign contributions, because in many cases, it doesn’t sway in any way, but what is bad here is that it doesn’t — you don’t have to really do too much analysis to realize that Katrina, that the oil crises this summer — this winter — that all the things that could be looked at, in terms of the oil companies in this country, are not being looked at.

And then, this whole gripe with President Chavez and following on the heels of Condoleezza Rice, once again, trying to undo what Chavez is doing in Latin America, by now suggesting that she’s going to go — and she said this publicly on behalf of the administration — to different countries in Latin America to try to create a front against Hugo Chavez. Well, this is what just sticks out as a sore thumb. It’s sickening. So I’d rather just continue to look at why — how, not why, we know why — but how can the Republicans get away with singling out one oil company and not looking at their profits, interestingly enough, not looking at how much they’ve been charging Americans, but looking at why they discounted their oil up to 60%, as you said, and why are they giving help to the poor? I mean, it’s ridiculous.

And I think this time it may backfire because it’s not just the South Bronx or eventually Harlem or East Harlem. It’s the home-owner communities composed of working class and senior citizens, white folks throughout this country, who are benefiting from this program. And they’re going to scratch their head and say, “I don’t get it. Why are you going after these guys and not the other guys?”

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