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BOSTON -- CITGO Petroleum Corp., the United States arm of Venezuela's state oil company, suspended its program to provide free heating oil to hundreds of thousands of low-income U.S. families, according to a report by Reuters.
The move was attributed to the sharp drop in the price of oil, as well as the spreading world economic crisis, said Joseph Kennedy, chairman of Citizens Energy, which distributed about $100 million worth of Venezuelan oil for each of the past three years.
"The current economic meltdown has just forced them to reevaluate all the assistance programs they provide," Kennedy, a former Congressman, told reporters. He said CITGO officials told him they plan to resume the program in the future, but it’s not clear when.
CITGO spokesman Fernando Garay declined comment to Reuters, but said the company would be releasing a statement soon regarding its heating oil aid programs.
Houston-based CITGO, with support from Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, said its program benefited as many as 235,000 U.S. families in 23 states.
Chavez, who considers U.S. President George W. Bush his opponent, widened the heating oil aid program as prices surged in recent years, while accusing the Bush administration of neglecting the U.S. poor. Chavez described the program as "humanitarian aid," even though average U.S. incomes are about 10 times those in Venezuela.
Kennedy questioned why no U.S. oil companies have stepped up to fill the gap. "What about U.S. oil companies?" asked Kennedy, the nephew of slain U.S. president John F. Kennedy. "How come I can't get one barrel of oil from U.S. oil companies?"
Citizens Energy is encouraging U.S. families to write directly to the Venezuelan president and ask that CITGO continue to provide the U.S. poor with "much-needed" heating oil aid. Meanwhile, Citizens said it would continue its own heating oil assistance programs in Massachusetts, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.