LIANE HANSEN, host:
We're going to turn now to Massachusetts, where another Democratic congressman is causing a stir. But it's not over the Iraq War; it's over Venezuelan oil. Congressman William Delahunt has brokered a deal with the government of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to provide discounted home heating oil to low-income families in Massachusetts. Citgo, which is a US subsidiary of the Venezuelan national oil company, will begin shipping 12 million gallons of oil to the Bay State. Boston Globe reporter Raja Mishra joins us from his office to tell us more.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. RAJA MISHRA (The Boston Globe): Oh, glad to be here.
HANSEN: How did the congressman manage to arrange this deal?
Mr. MISHRA: Well, he had a meeting--I mean, he's been active in Latin American affairs for some time now. And he had a meeting with President Chavez recently in which this issue, by and by, came up. And apparently, my understanding is that President Chavez made the offer and Congressman Delahunt accepted.
HANSEN: Really? And what does the president of Venezuela get out of this?
Mr. MISHRA: You know, that's a good question. It's not clear. I mean, we know that he's had a history of sort of tweaking the Bush administration using oil, you know, donations as a tool for that. But you know, on the other hand, you know, Citgo is forgoing some profits in order to do this, so there is actually some clear benefit that's being delivered to the folks here in Massachusetts. So I don't know. I'm not certain what the--he's getting out of this.
HANSEN: Describe the event today in Quincy.
Mr. MISHRA: Well, I mean, it was interesting. I mean, you had Joe Kennedy, the former congressman, son of Robert Kennedy who is now running Citizens Energy, which is a low-income energy provider here in New England. He pulls up in an oil truck. You know, he's driving, he pulls up and he gets out and all the congressmen don utility gloves and they haul out a gas line and hook it up to this woman's house to symbolically make her the first to benefit from this program, so it was, you know, an interesting little event for the cameras.
HANSEN: What does this say, though? I mean, the fact that the congressman seems to have been able to end-run the federal government and the State Department to broker a deal with a foreign government?
Mr. MISHRA: You know, I'm not sure what it says other than that, you know, there is--I mean, there's clearly a need here given, you know, where gas prices are going and given, you know, how the winters are here in general. And you know, with federal fuel assistance cut and, you know, folks running through their supplies fairly readily through the course of the winter--the demand is here, so it seems like the congressman was able to, you know, help some folks out. Politically what it means--I'm not quite sure about that.
HANSEN: You know, anyone who's been to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park sees that giant Citgo sign that...
Mr. MISHRA: Right.
HANSEN: ...looms over it. I mean, do you think people are aware that Citgo is not an American company, but it's owned by Venezuela?
Mr. MISHRA: Yeah, I know, absolutely not. I mean, that's an iconic landmark here in Boston, and you know, I think the vast majority of people have no idea that it's connected to Venezuela and to Chavez at the moment, so, you know, he essentially sets the policy in the company is what...
HANSEN: Do you think this can set a precedent? I mean, can you imagine, say, a congresswoman from Minnesota brokering a deal with Saudi Arabia?
Mr. MISHRA: Yeah, that's an interesting question. I mean, at the press conference there was some grumbling that, you know, Venezuela--I mean, the--you know, in response to criticism of brokering a deal with Venezuela, the congressman said, `Well, none of the other, you know, major oil producers have stepped up in this way.' So there is this sense that it's not likely going to happen, but you know, it's possible that maybe publicity around this agreement and any goodwill it, you know, generates toward Venezuela might give folks in, you know, Saudi Arabia an idea. I don't know. But I mean, there's no real precedent for this. I'm not sure where it goes from here.
HANSEN: What's your sense about how the people in Massachusetts are reacting to this?
Mr. MISHRA: Well, I mean, it's a little early to say because, I mean, the news has sort of unspooled this week. But I mean, I think, you know, whatever qualms folks have with Venezuela--I mean, the heating oil issue is a real serious one here. It's one that, you know, people can really relate to given our cold winters and, you know, so I think at least they think it's a pretty interesting arrangement, although I'm sure some folks will, you know, take issue with dealing with Chavez. But you know, it remains to be seen really.
HANSEN: As far as you know, is the deal just for this winter?
Mr. MISHRA: Yes, it's just for this winter. It's about 12 million gallons of heating oil, which will help about--well, it's going to be divvied up among institutions and homes. It should help roughly 40,000 households get extra oil--low-income households get extra oil and three million gallons will be reserved for institutions such as hospitals, school, etc., that serve low-income constituencies.
HANSEN: And briefly, who decides who gets the oil?
Mr. MISHRA: Well, basically you have to qualify for federal fuel assistance, so when your fuel assistance runs out, then you would be able to tap into this, and it's being administered here locally by Citizens Energy, which is Joe Kennedy's outfit as well as Massachusetts Energy, which is going to deal with some of the institutions. But basically it's the federal fuel assistance threshold, which is 200 percent of poverty--the poverty line.
HANSEN: Raja Mishra is a reporter for The Boston Globe and he spoke to us from his office there. Thanks a lot for your time.
Mr. MISHRA: Oh, my pleasure.
CONAN: And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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