Friday, September 29, 2006

Four Western Alaska Villages Reject Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' Offer Of Free Heating Oil

Leaders from four Western Alaska villages have rejected an offer of free heating oil from the Venezuelan-owned, Texas-based Citgo oil company because Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez called President Bush "a devil" and made other inflammatory comments about the United States in a speech earlier this month. Original story published September 29th, 2006 in the Anchorage Daily News.

Venezuelan President Chavez had earlier directed Citgo to begin offering free heating oil to low-income Americans, while on the other hand vitriolically criticizing the Bush Administration. In response to Chavez' direction, Citgo had proposed to donate 100 free gallons of heating oil this winter to approximately 150 rural Alaskan villages, affecting more than 12,000 rural Alaskan households total. Since heating fuel prices can top $7 per gallon in the most remote villages, the gift to Alaska, valued at about $5 million, would be welcomed by many of their residents.

However, accepting this gift from a foreign president who deliberately and provocatively insults the United States at every turn proved too much for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA). In a statement released Thursday (September 28th), they stated, "Despite the critical need for fuel in our region, the Unangan (Aleut) people are Americans first, and we cannot support the political agenda attached to this donation". Other critics have also cited the obvious political motivation behind the gift, claiming that President Chavez wants to make it appear that President Bush and the U.S. government don't care about ordinary Americans. Chavez has also been criticized for supporting Iran's nuclear ambitions, even though Israel, in the same region, already possesses nukes.

Nelson Lagoon, Atka, St. Paul and St. George face heating fuel costs between $5 and $6 a gallon, APIA's press release continued. They were the only four villages in the region scheduled to receive fuel. About 290 households in the four villages were scheduled to receive the fuel.

However, some locals criticized the decision. Atka Mayor George Dirks said he didn't like the decision. "How stupid that is," he said. "We can use the fuel." He further stated that heating fuel is more than $5 a gallon in Atka (population of 90, located 1,200 air miles southwest of Anchorage), "and some people are just getting by". But tribal leaders and board members with APIA, the Native regional nonprofit, decided that supporting President Bush and the U.S. government was more important than free fuel, said Dimitri Philemenof, APIA president.

Philemenof called the decision strong and unified. "When you look at the desperation in our region, especially with the fishing seasons poor and high unemployment, I take my hat off" to representatives of the four villages who made the decision, he said by phone from Tucson, AZ, where he is on leave.

Philemenof further stated that he had refused to attend a Citgo press conference in Harlem, N.Y., last week announcing plans to expand the company's fuel offer to include 100 million gallons of cheap or free heating fuel to 1.2 million needy Americans in 17 states this upcoming winter. Some Alaska Native leaders, including Philemenof, had been invited to the press conference.

But what particularly torqued off Philemenof was when he heard media reports that Chavez, speaking before the United Nations on Sept. 20, called Bush a racist dictator, refeering to him as a "devil". Philemenof said he was personally offended and decided to seek input from other leaders in the region.

Officials with the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, a nonprofit representing Alaska's tribal governments, have been organizing the effort in Alaska. Under the program, which is slated to begin on November 1st, Citgo would not directly provide fuel, but would provide cash to Native regional nonprofits. The nonprofits would then purchase fuel for each qualifying village.

Steve Sumida, acting director of Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, said at the end of the work day Thursday that he had received no notification of the APIA rejection. He has not heard of any other organization or village backing out, he said.

Philemenof said he's confident the right decision was made. "People will say whatever they might want to say, but I feel from my heart and (others feel) also that this was the right choice because there's a lot of loyalty to the U.S. here," he said.

In a related story, 7-11 recently chose not to renew its contract with Citgo to be their fuel supplier. On their website, Citgo spun this decision as "part of Citgo's strategy to balance sales with refinery products". Uh-huh.

Commentary: While I would not criticize any Bush Alaska resident for accepting this subsidizing heating fuel, considering the prices they must pay, APIA's decision is particularly gratifying and is one of the most selfless acts of patriotism I've witnessed in recent memory (aside from our folks who serve honorably in the military). However, it's not surprising, since the Japanese invaded and occupied part of the Aleutians during World War II and this undoubtedly remains a part of the area's historical memory. Their decision also shows a commendable willingness to put behind them the unfortunate earlier history of interaction between Natives and Whites, a problem that has long since been solved legislatively and infrastructurally.

The Alaska Intertribal Council stirred up controversy earlier this year when on April 20th, they announced that they were taking the U.S. government to the United Nations to challenge our ownership of Alaska. They claimed that William Seward's purchase of Alaska in 1867 was invalid because the U.S. government questioned Russian sovereignty over Alaska beforehand, based upon an 1821 diplomatic communication from then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams questioning Russian ownership of Alaska. In the Council's opinion, this communication invalidated the $7 million purchase in 1867. So AITC's reluctance to jump aboard APIA's bandwagon was predictable.

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