Cheap fuel for the Bronx, with love from Venezuela

One of New York city's poorest neighbourhoods is to be the beneficiary of "humanitarian aid" from the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, in the form of cheap heating oil to apartment blocks in the Bronx.

One of New York city's poorest neighbourhoods is to be the beneficiary of "humanitarian aid" from the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, in the form of cheap heating oil to apartment blocks in the Bronx.

As the first proper cold snap of the winter descended on the east coast, bringing snow and a bone cracking wind chill, officials from a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company announced they would sell fuel at a 40% discount to 75 apartment buildings in Mount Hope, a bleak wasteland of housing projects and discount supermarkets inhabited by some of the poorest people in the country.

The deal, which follows a similar arrangement to sell discount oil in Massachusetts, will benefit around 8,000 low-income residents. The Venezuelan government took out full-page advertisements in US papers last week, proclaiming, "How Venezuela is keeping the home fires burning in Massachusetts".

But it is also the latest chapter in the long-running spat between Mr Chávez and George Bush, which began when the Venezuelan president accused the White House of supporting a failed coup against him in 2002. The latest round of Mr Chávez's guerrilla diplomacy began with Hurricane Katrina, when he offered cheap oil and Venezuelan help but was rebuffed after calling Mr Bush a cowboy.

Larry Goldstein, the president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation in New York, said the programme was designed to embarrass the US. "It's not altruistic. Chávez is extremely clever and bright and looks to get under our skin at every opportunity he can and that is what he is doing here."

But for many residents of Mount Hood, the politics of the situation came a very distant second to the harsh reality of trying to pay for winter warmth amid rising fuel prices. "It's very hard as a single parent, trying to raise a child and on welfare. I'm just trying to manage," Yolanda Ayabarreno told Reuters.

Shaun Belle, the president of the Mount Hope group, told the New York Times that residents were not interested in diplomatic spats but wanted to cut their costs. "This allows us to save, depending on how the weather fares, $400,000 (£230,000) to $500,000 for the winter," he said. "We can save and then pass some of that on to our tenants."

Congressman Jose Serrano, who helped put the discounted heating oil programme together, said he was trying to do the best for his community. "To those folks who say that this is a way for Hugo Chávez to score political points, I invite every American corporation that wants to score points with my community, to start scoring points this afternoon," he told reporters at a ceremony to launch the cheap oil deal in the Bronx.

Mr Chávez visited the neighbourhood in September when he was in New York for the UN general assembly, and first offered his assistance then. "He's doing what he can," Shirley Manuel, 52, told the Associated Press. The Bronx resident said she had no reservations about accepting the "heartfelt" gesture from a leader who has been so outspoken about the US. "This kind of chance don't come along too often."


Jamie Wilson in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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