[Marxism] Bolivarian revolution and the South Bronx
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Sun Oct 21 11:13:05 MDT 2007
NY Times, October 21, 2007
Soft Spot for the South Bronx
By ANNE BARNARD
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
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
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
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
“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
United States petroleum industry officials are not happy, however, with
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
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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