Some chilly Alaskans give Chávez cold shoulder
In Alaska's native villages, the punishing cold is already coming through the walls of the lightly insulated plywood homes, many of the...
The Associated Press
ANCHORAGE — In Alaska's native villages, the punishing cold is already coming through the walls of the lightly insulated plywood homes, many of the villagers are desperately poor, and heating-oil prices are among the highest in the nation.
And yet a few villages are refusing free heating oil from Venezuela, on the patriotic principle that no foreigner has the right to call their president "the devil."
The heating oil is being offered by Citgo, the petroleum company controlled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who called President Bush "the devil" in a speech to the United Nations last month. He has also called Bush a terrorist and denounced the war in Iraq.
Scores of Alaska's Eskimo and Indian villages say they have no choice but to accept Chávez's offer, but others would rather suffer.
"As a citizen of this country, you can have your own opinion of our president and our country. But I don't want a foreigner coming in here and bashing us," said Justine Gunderson, administrator for the tribal council in the Aleut village of Nelson Lagoon. "Even though we're in economically dire straits, it was the right choice to make."
Nelson Lagoon residents pay more than $5 a gallon for oil — or at least $300 a month per household — to heat their homes along the wind-swept coast of the Bering Sea. About one-quarter of the 70 villagers are unemployed.
The donations to Alaska's native villages have focused attention on the rampant poverty and high fuel prices in a state that is otherwise awash in oil — and oil profits. In 2005, 86 percent of Alaska's general fund, or $2.8 billion, came from oil from the North Slope.
The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, a native nonprofit organization that would have handled the heating-oil donation on behalf of 291 households in Nelson Lagoon, Atka, St. Paul and St. George, rejected the offer because of insults Chávez has hurled at Bush.
Dimitri Philemonof, president and chief executive of the association, said accepting the aid would be "compromising ourselves."
"I think we have some duty to our country, and I think it's loyalty," he said.
But Virginia Commack, an elder in the Arctic village of Ambler, an impoverished Eskimo community of 280, said, "When you have a dire need and it is a matter of survival for your people, it doesn't matter where, what country, the gift or donation comes from."
Village residents are paying $7.25 a gallon for fuel.
About 150 native villages in Alaska have accepted money for heating oil from Citgo. The company does not operate in Alaska, so instead of sending oil, it is donating about $5.3 million to native nonprofit organizations to buy 100 gallons this winter for each of more than 12,000 households.
Over the past two years, Citgo has given millions of gallons of discounted heating oil to the poor in several states, including New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.
A spokesman for Gov. Frank Murkowski, John Manly, said the governor thinks Chávez's donations are a ploy to undermine Americans' faith in their government. But he said it is up to each village to make its own decision.
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