[Marxism] Bolivarian revolution and the South Bronx

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Oct 21 11:13:05 MDT 2007

NY Times, October 21, 2007
Soft Spot for the South Bronx

Henry Lajara is mapping out where to install a rain barrel in his 
manicured South Bronx backyard, to show his neighbors how they can 
channel storm water to feed their gardens and keep runoff from flushing 
sewage into the Bronx River.

Lenard Ramsook, 20, glides down that river in a wooden boat, teaching 
local high school students how to row. He shows them the ospreys and 
leaping fish that share the estuary with concrete plants and expressway 
bridges, making the point that environmentalism is not just for the rich.

Across the South Bronx, residents are beginning cooperatives to create 
jobs and tend to their communities’ social needs and physical health. 
One will recycle demolition debris. Another sells fruit and vegetables. 
A third will provide child care for working families.

Behind all these projects is a man who has called President Bush “the 
devil,” embraced Iran’s firebrand leader as a fellow crusader against 
“the U.S. empire,” and vowed to help the poor and disenfranchised 
everywhere, even — or, perhaps, especially — in the world’s most 
powerful country.

That man, Hugo Chávez, the president of Venezuela, began his love affair 
with the Bronx during a visit in 2005. Since then, he and his socialist 
government have funneled millions of dollars of aid to the South Bronx, 
home to New York’s poorest Congressional district, through Citgo 
Petroleum, the American subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.

It is an unlikely flow of largess, from an oil-rich South American 
country where much of the population lives in poverty to one of the 
neediest pockets in the seat of American capitalism.

Citgo started its outreach in 2005 with a 40 percent discount on heating 
oil for poor households and expanded it in August to finance social and 
economic development. The company has committed to donating $3.6 million 
over the next three years to nine Bronx initiatives that would use the 
money to create jobs, foster community empowerment and clean up the 
urban environment.

The program has made Mr. Chávez the talk of the South Bronx.

“He came in here and took over — like a Spanish Napoleon!” Lucy Martinez 

Ms. Martinez, 57, said Mr. Chávez has helped the needy residents she 
meets while working the front desk at Nos Quedamos, a nonprofit 
community development corporation. But she knows, too, that his 
philanthropy has chafed some American politicians.

Patrice White-McGleese, 37, an employment counselor who saved $160 to 
$300 a month during the past two winters through the discounted oil 
program, said she knows why Mr. Chávez’s actions have rankled.

“It’s a sore point because it took what most people would consider a 
third world nation to help the U.S.,” she said. “Which is kind of a slap 
in the face because we’re supposed to be one of the superpowers; why 
can’t we help our own?”

Some people in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, have the same question 
for their own government, said Leopoldo López, mayor of the downtown 
district of Chacao and a leader of the Venezuelan opposition.

“Why is the government giving away money to the richest city in the 
world?” he asked.

Mr. López said Mr. Chávez should first tend to the needs of Venezuelans 
who lack shelter, sewage and drinking water.

He said Mr. Chávez was giving the money to the Bronx to win support 
around the world while distracting attention from his moves to crack 
down on the opposition at home.

So the program has made Bronx residents, who are trying to solve the 
most local of problems, party to a global dispute. They are caught 
between Mr. Chávez, who markets his populist platform as a counterweight 
to the worldwide influence of the United States, and the Bush 
administration, which contends that Mr. Chávez’s stress on racial and 
economic equality masks a dictatorship-in-the-making.

Mr. Chávez began clashing with Venezuela’s corporate leaders and the 
United States shortly after being elected in 1998. In 2002, military 
officers staged a coup to oust him. The Bush administration quickly 
recognized the new government. But Mr. Chávez returned to office days 
later after a wave of street protests, and he accused the United States 
of aiding the coup.

He turned his attentions to the Bronx in the fall of 2005, when he 
visited South Bronx community organizers with Representative José E. 
Serrano, the Democrat who represents the district. Those meetings led to 
the discounted heating oil program.

By the winter of 2006-7, the program had doubled to deliver 100 million 
gallons to 1.2 million people from Alaska to Vermont. Citgo said it 
expected to supply 110 million gallons this winter.

Some recipients bridled in September 2006, when Mr. Chávez stepped up to 
a United Nations podium — one that President Bush had used the day 
before — and declared that he smelled traces of “the devil.”

“It smells of sulfur still today,” Mr. Chávez added.

Said Mr. Serrano: “Was it tacky? Yes.” But, he said, Mr. Chávez was just 
being emotional.

Meanwhile, Citgo and Venezuelan officials made follow-up visits to the 
Bronx. During one of them, Mrs. White-McGleese said she wanted to thank 
Venezuelans for their generosity. Within weeks, in April 2006, she and 
62 people who had received the discounted oil were on a plane to Caracas 
as Mr. Chávez’s guests.

A band met them at the airport. They watched an African-Venezuelan dance 
performance. And they visited Mr. Chávez at Miraflores Palace, the 
president’s official residence. A few of the American guests — including 
Pamela Babb, a vice president of the Mount Hope Housing Company, a 
nonprofit group that provides low-income housing in the Bronx — appeared 
on Mr. Chávez’s weekly television show.

“It was pomp and circumstance,” said Ms. Babb, 47.

She said she remained suspicious of Mr. Chávez’s efforts to expand his 
presidential powers. (“I question that,” she said.) And a Mount Hope 
tenant, Lenice Footman, noticed children playing in garbage on Caracas’s 
streets and came away “grateful for what we have.”

But many of them were impressed when a Philadelphia woman told Mr. 
Chávez of the lack of jobs and services in her neighborhood and the 
Venezuelan leader declared it was time to aid development in poor United 
States communities.

“And all these ministers started writing things down,” Ms. Babb said. 
“It shows you what happens when a visionary person starts to do 
something. And I was there.”

Ms. Babb said Citgo officials visit the Bronx more often than the other 
corporate donors she works with. They have asked community groups what 
kinds of grants they need, awarding one to Mount Hope for a child care 
cooperative. And they celebrated with the locals in Hunts Point 
Riverside Park over Venezuelan food — arepas and carne mechada — and 
Latin American music.

The Citgo donations are a tiny percentage of its annual budget. It does 
not have to disclose financial statements because it is not a publicly 
traded company. Citgo, which sold 25.1 billion gallons of petroleum 
products last year, estimates that last winter’s oil program cost it $80 
million, according to a Citgo document provided by Bernardo Alvarez 
Herrera, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States.

That is about the same amount that Exxon Mobil — the largest publicly 
traded oil company, with roughly 10 times the revenue of Citgo — 
reported spending on philanthropy in the United States in 2006.

“We are not trying to impose,” Mr. Alvarez said, “or to intervene in the 
politics here.”

United States petroleum industry officials are not happy, however, with 
Citgo’s program.

It is “designed to embarrass us,” Larry Goldstein, the president of the 
Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, an industry-supported analysis 
group in New York, said when it was launched in 2005.

“It’s not designed to help poor people,” he said. “Chávez is astute, 
clever, with a major political agenda, largely to get under our skin, 
and he does that everywhere and anywhere he can.”

On the ground, Citgo’s money seems to come without strings — or even 
much branding.

At Rocking the Boat, the Bronx River education program, Mr. Ramsook, who 
left behind a fisherman’s life when he moved to the Bronx from Trinidad, 
said he could not place Mr. Chávez’s name. “It sounds familiar,” he 
said. He was more enthusiastic about taking seniors from Bronx Guild 
High School on the water to learn the history of the river.

“There’s no sharks, right?” asked Shawnisha Roebuck, 19, as she settled 
into the stern. On shore, an iron claw lifted metal scraps from one pile 
to another. But on the river, gulls stalked the banks, and the movements 
of small fish made the water flicker. An osprey plunged to the water, 
but came up empty.

Citgo’s $210,000, three-year grant has allowed the group to expand the 
high school program and hold free Saturday rowing lessons that have 
drawn 500 people since August.

A $230,000 grant is helping Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice build 
rain barrels, plant rooftop vegetation and reshape gutters to feed 
sidewalk trees. And the South Bronx Food Co-operative will use its 
$49,000 to open a storefront to sell affordable produce.

Anna Vincenty of Nos Quedamos, who is working on a program to improve 
the diets of elderly residents, said she takes Mr. Chávez’s good will, 
like she does with all politicians, with a grain of salt.

“He says he wants to help people over here,” she said. Yet her 
Venezuelan friends have told her that “some of the people over there are 
afraid of him.”

On the other hand, she said, in the United States, “one of the most 
generous countries in the whole world,” pervasive inequality is on display.

But no matter what one thinks of Mr. Chávez, she said: “If your child is 
cold and hungry and someone offers to help, do you care if it’s Moe or 
Larry or Curly? I don’t think so.”

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