The signs of cultural change can be subtle and hard to read, but now, an unmistakable signifier has emerged from the muddle: the United States has become a recipient of charity from other nations.
This fall, Senators from both parties urged oil executives to take part in winter fuel assistance programs by donating a percentage of windfall profits. The only company to respond was Citgo, the U.S.-based subsidiary of Petroleos de Venezuela, a state-controlled corporation. Citgo is a highly profitable oil company, although by no means the wealthiest; this year, it earned third-quarter profits of $94 million in comparison with the aggregate $33 billion in profit received by the top five oil companies in the same period.
Yet Citgo has been sharing its profits with those in need, donating and selling discounted oil to its Latin American neighbors. Now it has sold heating oil at a 40 percent discount to three nonprofit housing corporations in the Bronx, benefiting 8,000 tenants in 75 buildings. Public and nonprofit agencies in Massachusetts, Maine and other cold-winter states are negotiating with Citgo to take advantage of the program, for which Citgo has earmarked up to 15 percent of its heating oil production, up to 45 million gallons. The negotiations are lengthy because Citgo’s directive is to ensure that the economic benefit goes to tenants (e.g., through rent reductions) rather than landlords.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has accused President Bush of attempting to overthrow or assassinate him; and Bush has denounced Chávez as a dangerous leftist. So for those who tend to see politics as nothing more than power-plays, this development is a chance to speculate about Chávez’ motives. When I heard Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuelan ambassador to the U.S., interviewed by Maria Hinojosa on Latino USA, she honed in on this point, repeatedly asking the ambassador to come clean, to admit that Chávez had offered help merely to embarrass Bush.
Granted, a political point is being made here: the world is changing so that even the mighty United States needs a helping hand and even Venezuela is in a position to give it; or in the words of the prophet Isaiah 5:15, “And bowed down is the low, and humbled the high, And the eyes of the haughty become low.” But so what? There is a political point encoded in every government action, in our own government’s acts of charity as in those of Venezuela’s. I felt moved by Ambassador Alvarez’s explication of his nation’s motives beyond the pursuit of political advantage.
“After Katrina,” he said, “we were in Venezuela and President Chávez started looking at the news and we saw the disaster. First he instructed us to do whatever we could to help people in New Orleans….Then, when President Chávez was visiting New York in September for the United Nations, we had a visit to the South Bronx and we started thinking of extending the program of energy cooperation we have with the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean to the low-income communities in the U.S.”
“Our companies are making huge profits, as you know,” Alvarez continued, “Why don’t we use part of that profit just to give some relief and to alleviate the situation of our customers? They are human beings. There is a whole crisis in the energy market in the U.S. Poor people were suffering because prices were very high…Imagine what would happen with these low-income families when you are cutting by 40 percent what they have to pay for heating oil. Probably you are giving them the chance to pay the rent or to buy the medicine.”
Every time Alvarez paused, Maria Hinojosa pushed him harder to ‘fess up to political motives. Finally, he said this: “We are putting together a program to help low-income families in the United States. Does it have a political impact? Probably it does. But this is not the intention. I mean, you could do other things with oil if you want to accumulate power…Why don’t we sit down and try to look at the common problems we have, including poverty and social exclusion? …President Chávez got very shocked with what he saw in the United States. I believe this is part of a new humanitarian approach, the human face of relationship between two countries…
“Imagine for a second that all leaders…started looking at the human face of the corporation. Do you have any idea how many things we could do together if we just put together all the resources? We have oil, you have technology, other countries have food, and then we try to address real, human problems and we try to address them right now.”
Hugo Chávez is a strange, grandiose Fidelesque character, with mixed motives like all humans; I recommend Alma Guillermoprieto’s fascinating profile in the New York Review of Books for a glimpse of what makes him tick. But whatever his motives, his generosity earns merit. The 12th century sage Maimonides articulated eight levels of charity, each greater than the next. The highest level is to strengthen someone’s ability to become self-supporting, to make it possible for a person to no longer live in need. The lowest level is to give grudgingly. Smack in the middle, at the fifth rank from the bottom, is charity given by a known benefactor to unknown recipients, as by Hugo Chávez to people who live in the South Bronx.
A question is often asked as a teaching device: Is it better to give a dollar in charity with an open, willing heart, or ten dollars grudgingly? Some people are tempted to say it is better to give the smaller amount freely. Their focus is on the spirit and comfort of the giver. But the traditional answer (and clearly the higher wisdom) is that it is better to give the larger amount regardless of attitude, because when it comes to extending help, nothing matters more than aiding those in need, and ten dollars can buy more groceries than one.
I doubt that American oil companies, having reaped such unconscionable profit and such political advantage from the misery of disaster victims, will voluntarily mend their ways. But I hope they will be made to feel the rebuke Chávez has delivered by example. The world is changing; we are no longer sitting on top of it. If we don’t choose cooperation because it is right, perhaps we’ll choose it for our own survival.