No, no, no, we insist on PAYING you for your oil...

The Huffington post today has the story that Citgo is suspending its program of distributing free heating oil to impoverished US citizens, due to the international financial crisis. Citgo is a business subsidiary of the Venezuelan government of Bush-hater Hugo Chavez. Those feelings are mutual, and the Bush administration is, at least on Coffey St., presumed to have green-lighted the brief putsch that had Chavez out of office for some 48 hours a few years back. Their shared odium hasn't significantly altered Venezuela's importance as a supplier; the country is always one of the top five sources for US oil, and it is frequently in the number 3 spot. The US would love to impose a Cubanesque trade embargo on Venezuela, except that we need the dirty greasy juice that gushes out of the Orinoco basin much more than we actually care about punishing resurgent lat-am communist-populists.

Like Fidel Castro, who offered to send Cuban doctors to work pro-bono in Louisiana after hurricane Katrina, Chavez indubitably mines a rich vein of domestic propaganda from his free oil for poor Americans scheme, but two things struck me about the Huffpost account. One was that Venezuela last year gave away $100 Million worth of heating fuel in this country. That's direct aid, not the sort we dole out in Africa, vast proportions of which have to be rechanneled into the US economy through obligatory contracts and carefully selected supply chains. 100 million buys a lot of moral high ground, if you ask me. The program, administered by Joe Kennedy's NGO, helped 200,000 households in need.

The other observation strikes one as obvious. The program was "controversial." Critics called it "a ploy by Chavez to undermine the Bush administration." There isn't a direct quote to underline that assertion, but it seems perfectly credible to me. The arrogance of our perspective is evident. America is meant to be so big and powerful and independent and wealthy that the giving away of free heating oil anywhere within its borders is something that could only happen out of cynicism and self-interest. Of course we can take care of our own. This is preposterous, but couched within this argument are truisms that hold for all countries: to give aid is to cast aspersions at, if not attempt to undermine, the government of the recipient country. This is the unmentionable filthy truth of the international aid game. It is an insult to be aided. To aid is to disrespect, to patronize. It is a highlighting of failure. Apply this logic to the vast NGO industry operating across the globe and you begin to comprehend the Faustian dealings that make charity so very difficult, so not at all clear in its cost-benefit analysis.

No comments: