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Monday, February 13, 2006

Of Snow, Oil, and Politics

In case you didn't hear, Jersey got a ton of snow. Fortunately, temperatures are rising and it should melt away fairly soon. Fine by me. I'm not crazy about snow the first day, and nothing on earth looks as bedraggled as three-day old snow piled at the foot of a slush puddle.

Fortunately, I don't have to worry too much about heating bills. We have nice new double-paned windows that are doing a bang-up job of keeping winter outside. Plus, we have enough income that we don't have to make the decision as to whether we should heat the house or eat some food. Life itself is a blessing, but I consider many blessings in addition to that. This is definitely one.

As reported in Tammany on the Hudson, it so happens that the Jersey City Housing Authority was, at the time, considering an offer from Citgo for cheap heating oil. More details today indicate that it might be as much as a dollar per gallon discount. That's a pretty hefty discount.

Ordinarily, I'd have to think that even Hudson County would consider this a no-brainer and go with the incredibly lower price. I'm sure there are some technical problems with existing contracts that would have to be worked out, but that's what lawyers are for. The problem is the source of the offer and the geo-political games that have intruded on the governmental duty of serving its citizens.

Citgo, for those who don't know, is the national oil company of Venezuela. This is not like saying "Wal-Mart is an American company," simply because their headquarters are here. The government of Venezuela actually owns Citgo. Venezuela is currently headed up by a man whose name is Hugo Chavez.

Republicans here in Hudson County echo the concerns of President Bush concerning Chavez - but most of them are patently false (such as Hudson County Republican Chair Jose Arango's claim that Chavez is an "enemy" of the United States). The official Bush Administration position is that Chavez needs to be "contained". This is the position that prompted uber-wingnut Pat Robertson to call for Chavez' assasination.

I don't think Chavez is an enemy of the United States, but he's certainly no friend of George Bush and he's a loose cannon. As such, it would probably be best to consider him an immature and arrogant, possibly slightly insane, actor on the international front.

As a domestic leader, however, Chavez has done much to assist his country. He boosted spending on education programs aimed at wiping out illiteracy. He has taken up the cause of the cayapas, using the military to build roads, lay water and waste pipe, and improve general infrastructure. He has used money from the oil industry to help the poorest Venezuelans. If the wealthy are being hurt, then it is not immediately obvious.

This is not to say that Venezuela is a wonderland. There are problems throughout the economy that will keep it staggering along for many decades. It is also not to say that Hugo Chavez is an angel - he is not, nor does he claim to be. He is a soldier and he views the world, apparently, as a mission to fulfill. He is just as capable of becoming a perennial human rights violator as he is to raise his country from under-development. There is more than a little reason to carefully watch his human rights record.

The question in Hudson County, though, is not whether or not Hugo Chavez is a good man or a bad man. The question is: Does the offer help people in Hudson County? The answer to that is: Yes. Does it also help Hugo Chavez? Possibly. So long as he continues to spend on such efforts as universal education and healthcare and does not descend into a de facto dictator, there is little reason to not do business with him.

After all, our fourth-largest trading partner is China. It didn't stop us from importing 1,163 thousand barrels of oil per day from Nigeria, 641 thousand barrels of oil per day from Angola, or 273 thousand barrels of oil per day from Kuwait. Yet we enforce an embargo against Cuba - and are now apparently asked to do the same voluntarily against Venezuela. What is our schizophrenic point in this? If you speak against us, we will be snotty to you?

No, we should not appease him and let him dictate our policy. However, if any of the American oil companies want to match his offer - and cut into their record profits just a bit - I'm sure the market would put Chavez in a much less favorable light. However, the arguments for trade in China should apply as easily to Venezuela as they do to China - greater interaction will force greater open-ness and allow for greater influence on human treatment of dissenters.

Of course, we would need to implement those policies ourselves before we preach it to the world.

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