Venezuelan Firm Seeks to Help Immigrant Workers; Critics See Political Motives
By Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008; Page D08
Citgo, the Venezuelan-owned oil company, is making a $1.5 million donation to the Silver Spring nonprofit group CASA of Maryland to help fund educational, training and economic development programs for low-income and immigrant workers.
The contribution is the latest effort by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to reach out to the poor in the United States in what critics call an attempt to curry favor with low-income Americans and embarrass President Bush.
The donation will be spread over three years to help fund the group's $4.4 million vocational training and economic development program. It will offer day laborers and other low-income workers skills courses in the construction trades, counseling to small business owners and access to social services. One of the programs encourages the formation of worker-owned cooperatives. Chávez has encouraged such cooperatives as part of his so-called Bolivarian Revolution.
Chávez's alliances with countries such as Iran and Cuba and his bellicose rhetoric against Bush -- whom he referred to as the "devil" in a speech to the United Nations -- have heightened tensions between the two countries. CASA accepted the money despite the strain, said Kim Propeack, advocacy director for the group, because few corporations have stepped up to make similar donations.
"Citgo is a large corporation, and it is all too rare in this world that large corporations have a responsibility to the community from which they garner their profits," Propeack said.
Others focused on Chávez's political goals. "He is committed to creating this constituency in the United States and also to embarrassing the United States," said Michael E. Shifter, vice president for policy at Inter-American Dialogue, a policy forum on Latin America-U.S. relations. "That here is this Third World country that is really taking care of social problems in the United States that the United States is not able to deal with -- I think that is politically what Chávez tries to do."
Bernard Aronson, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, said that it is understandable why groups like CASA, which he called a "worthy" organization, would take the money. He said that while the donations are part of a larger attempt by Chávez to influence policymakers in this country, he is skeptical of their power.
"How they conduct themselves in the region, and the nature of democracy internally and their relations with Iran -- I think those things are going to weigh more heavily than the modest donations they have made to domestic groups," Aronson said.
Citgo began its advocacy efforts in 2005 by offering a 40 percent discount on heating oil for poor households in Massachusetts through the nonprofit Citizens Energy Corporation, founded by former congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II. Citgo expanded to other states, including in the Washington area two years ago, partnering with CASA of Maryland to help distribute the oil. Last winter, Citgo said it provided about 112 million gallons of discounted fuel to more than 224,000 households in 23 states.
The program received considerable media attention last year, when Citgo began running advertisements for the program, some of which featured Kennedy. Citgo has stepped up its advocacy efforts in other ways, particularly in New York's South Bronx, where it is funding social and economic development programs through nonprofit groups there.