Hugo Chavez steps up for American Indians and the poor

Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)

American Indian journalist Jodi Lee Rave of Lee Enterprise Newspapers was recently lambasted in a letter to the editor to a Rapid City, S.D., daily for having the temerity to laud the donation of funds for heating fuel for the very poor Indian nations of the Northern Plains.

The criticism was initiated by the fact that the donor was the Citgo Petroleum Corp. based in Houston and headed by the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, the man reviled by many Americans for referring to President Bush on the floor of the United Nations as the "devil."

How did it happen that the president of Venezuela reached out to help the poor and the indigenous people of the United States? After two major hurricanes devastated the southern United States, a group of U.S. senators sent out a plea to the major oil companies to help low-income families with energy assistance. Most major oil companies were coming off scandalous profits because of the sharp rise in fuel costs. Only one company heeded the plea of the senators and that was Citgo.

Federal and state funding for low-income energy assistance programs has dropped dramatically in the last few years. A late winter blast in the Northern Plains hit at a time when most of the federal dollars for low-income energy assistance had run out. The late winter freeze left many indigenous people in dire straits. When it comes to a matter of surviving, Indians and other impoverished people reach out to any assistance available. Olympic fold medalist Billy Mills, an Oglala Lakota, used his non-profit Running Strong Foundation to raise energy funds for some low-income households, but even his generosity could not fill the need.

Many tribes in Montana and North and South Dakota were advised to attend a meeting in Polson, Mont., on Dec. 13, 2006, to listen and discuss how they could avail themselves of the money for heating assistance. Rafael Gomez, vice president of Citgo, and Brian O'Connor of the Citizens Energy Corp. of Boston attended the meeting. O'Connor's non-profit organization administered the program last year and would be charged with administering the program for the Indian tribes.

Although major oil corporations like Exxon had reaped more profit last year than at any time in their history, they declined the invitation to lend a helping hand to the poor people of America. Hugo Chavez stepped in to fill the gap. What motives would prompt him to do this? Certainly it would not help him politically, at least not in America where one of this nation's top religious figures, Pat Robertson, called for his assassination.

Some of the very poor Indian tribes like the Chippewa Cree of the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana, the Cheyenne River and the Oglala Sioux Tribes in South Dakota needed the funds in order to keep their people from freezing to death and accepted the donation from Chavez willingly. Where was the rich casino owning tribes? Busy counting their money I would guess.

There is an old saying out here that goes, "You will know me better when you walk a mile in my moccasins." Hugo Chavez is a member of an indigenous tribe in Venezuela. He has been called "Indio" and worse while growing up as the child of very poor parents. He has walked in the moccasins of the indigenous people.

In America it is very easy to hate someone who verbally attacks the president of the United States. Chavez has never held his tongue even among his own people or in criticizing other nations in South America. I am told that he was appalled when the major oil companies in America did not step forward to help their own poor and low-income people when called upon to do so. He saw this as the kind of colonialism he has grown to despise.

Chavez is not alone in his mistrust of America. In fact, America's status is at an all-time low in many Central and South American countries. Chavez did not create this situation and he is not above using it as a tool to annoy Bush and his administration.

Hugo Chavez is a controversial figure to America, especially amongst its politicians. But he has done much to improve the living conditions, the health care and the educational opportunities for his own people in Venezuela, especially for the very poor and the indigenous. As a matter of record Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani's law firm lobbies for Citgo. Does he keep his fingers crossed behind his back when he attacks Chavez?

However, if the profit-mongering oil companies of this nation had stepped forward when called upon, there would have been no reason for Chavez and Citgo to step up.

There is a lot of respect for Chavez among the Indian nations of this country. He didn't make promises that he couldn't or wouldn't keep, but instead put his money where his mouth is. American Indians appreciate that form of directness.

Go to some of the blogs and you will find all sorts of names for President Bush and most of them are considerably worse than "devil." Chimp and Chimpy are two that come to mind. But, I suppose most Americans feel it is their inherent right to speak out against their president, but they would damn to hell any outsider that does likewise.

Jodi Lee Rave didn't think of the politics of the low-income energy assistance offered by Chavez. Instead, she thought of the people who would have suffered unnecessarily if Citgo had not been willing to do what the American petroleum companies and the U.S. government refused to do. She didn't have to read about the plight of the indigenous people of America to understand it because like Hugo Chavez and me, she has lived it.



Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, is the founder and first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at najournalists at His new book, "Children Left Behind," is available at





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