Well-oiled irony

News Hits has been hoping for years to see a president with a highly developed sense of economic justice. Now that wish has been fulfilled, and Detroit could reap some benefits. The only thing is, it's not the Bushman coming to our aid, but Venezuela's prez who is trying to lend us a much-needed hand.

The Venezuelan government, via CITGO Petroleum Corporation, is offering deeply discounted heating fuel to low-income Americans. After hearing about the program in April, Detroit Councilmember JoAnn Watson asked the council's Research and Analysis Division to investigate how the city could take advantage of Venezuela's petrol largesse. Last week she got her reply.

"The majority of energy assistance provided to U.S. residents by CITGO has been in the form of heating oil," explains the report to council. Unfortunately, most homes in Detroit get their heat from burning natural gas.

But, the report adds, CITGO might still help the city save cash by providing low-cost diesel fuel for the Department of Transportation and other city departments. The Chicago Transit Authority discussed the same arrangement with CITGO in January, but dropped the plan when it became apparent the fuel offered wasn't compatible with their fleet's engines. Detroit will continue its study.

CITGO, based in Houston, is technically an American business. But its parent company, PDV America, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Venezuela's national oil company. In September 2005, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced that CITGO would provide discounted oil to poor U.S. communities. Some saw a truly populist move, while others saw it as a poke at U.S. President George Bush, who was essentially being vilified for not doing enough to assist his own country's lower classes. News Hits asks, can't both things be true at the same time? At least seven northeastern states have joined the program, receiving millions of barrels of oil discounted as much as 40 percent.

The relationship between the two national governments is strained. The White House has criticized Chávez's anti-Bush rhetoric and close relationship to Cuban President Fidel Castro. (And News Hits, for that matter, can't be completely gung-ho for Hugo after reading Amnesty International's take on his heavy-handed tendencies.) Meanwhile Chávez accused the U.S. government of "fighting terror with terror" in its recent wars — but the CITGO program has the U.S. government's blessing.

"We don't see this as a political issue," State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli told reporters at a press conference last year. "We see this as an issue of an American company helping American people, which is good and right and proper."

We thought about trying to get a statement from Bush himself last week, but then figured he was too busy signing into law an extension of tax breaks that primarily benefit America's wealthiest.

As The Christian Science Monitor pointed out, 80 percent of that $70 billion tax cut will go to the richest 10 percent of taxpayers. Consequently, as U.S. Rep. Sander Levin (D-Royal Oak) noted during a news conference, that means households with incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 get a whopping $110 break while those making $1 million will net more than $41,000.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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