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Then Chief Jim Ransom introducing CITGO officials in 2006. Photo: David Sommerstein.
Then Chief Jim Ransom introducing CITGO officials in 2006. Photo: David Sommerstein.

Story 2.0: Mohawks give thanks to Venezuela's Chavez

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Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is stirring up as much controversy after his death as he did during his life.

Chavez was a strident opponent of the United States. But he also helped many poor people, even in the U.S.

Republicans slammed New York Democrat Jose Serrano yesterday for praising Chavez on this point. Under Chavez, Venezuela's national oil company, CITGO, donated 200 million gallons of home heating oil to low income Americans, including to Mohawks in Akwesasne.

David Sommerstein reported on the program in 2006. He checks back in for our Story 2.0 series, where we revisit stories from the NCPR archive.

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Seven years later, more than 3,000 homes on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation have benefitted from CITGO's heating oil. And the donations are still coming from Venezuela.

Carrie Benedict helps run the program for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. She says the program has helped people get through the cold winters, and that people are very aware that, in essence, Hugo Chavez was helping to pay their heating bills.

"What he's done has been a tremendous benefit to our community. People do associate him with the home heating program that they're benefitting from."

When the program first started in 2006, I went to the Akwesasne Senior center when CITGO officials came to visit. George W. Bush was President and U.S.–Venezuelan relations were plummeting. CITGO was controversial. Here's some of that story:

CITGO officials shake hands like celebrities. Even the wife and children of the Venezuelan ambassador are here. CITGO CEO Felix Rodriguez says the delegation is here to offer a gift of free heating oil, and he says he does it with a very happy heart. "

"In order to help to the community, it is social responsibility. Particular for me, it's a great opportunity for me [to] give something."

Ben Kelly is happy too. He's president of the Mohawk Senior Citizens Council. He says some elderly Mohawks have had to move into nursing homes for the winter because they can't afford to heat their own homes. "It's really tough," he says.

CITGO's offer doesn't come without complications. The most obvious are political. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez famously called President Bush "a devil" at the United Nations last fall. He regularly skewers United States foreign policy as imperialistic "exploitation and pillage."

Steven Dudley is Andean bureau chief for the Miami Herald. He says Chavez is waging an ideological battle right here in Akwesasne, between his "socialist model", and the United States' "capitalist model."

"So his intention is to illustrate, via the example of home heating oil, that his model is going to help more of the poor people."

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Now that Chavez has died of cancer and an election is coming in Venezuela, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe's Carrie Benedict says she doesn't know if the home heating oil donations will continue. (Read the latest information from CITGO on its 2013 heating program.)

But she does know 192 homes are getting a $240 check from CITGO this winter. And for that, she says Mohawks are thankful for Hugo Chavez' legacy.

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