By Ken A. Epstein
As millions of Venezuelans mourn the death of 58-year-old President Hugo Chavez, a number of local residents remember the controversial leader’s efforts on behalf of the poor in his country and the U.S.
Under Chavez, the CITGO – Venezuela Heating Oil Program has provided low-cost heating oil to 1.7 million people in the colder parts of the U.S. and free heating oil to Native Americans living on tribal lands since 2005.
The program helps 153,000 households a year and 252 tribal communities.
The program began when Jesse Jackson was visiting Chavez, and the two were watching the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. Shocked by the disaster, Chavez asked Jackson what Venezuela could do to help.
Venezuela opened CITGO’s petroleum company’s warehouses to be used as shelters in affected areas. Chavez later started providing heating oil to 25 states, which included Harlem in New York City and Washington, DC.
Many people in the U.S. do not realize that an estimated 67 percent of the population of Venezuela is mixed race, including President Chavez, who often spoke of his African, indigenous and Spanish roots, according to Martín Sánchez, an East Bay resident who was formerly consul of Venezuela in San Francisco and is a member of an organization in Venezuela: The Network of Afro Venezuelan Organizations.
The network lobbied for a law to promote the rights of Afro Venezuelans, which passed in 2011.
“The law actually aroused people to file lawsuits against employers and owners of housing,” said Sánchez.
According to statistics, education and medical care has improved, and poverty in the country fell from 67 percent in 1997 to 27.4 percent in 2011.
Among U.S. celebrities who made many visits to Venezuela to meet with Chavez are Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte and Oliver Stone, said Sánchez.
Courtesy of the Oakland Post, March 8, 2013 (www.postnewsgroup.com)