The nuances of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' stormy relationship with the United States means nothing to Iyonne Garreau of Eagle Butte.
Garreau, 75, is not interested in the critical scrutiny that swirls around Venezuelan-owned CITGO Petroleum and its partnership with Citizens Energy Corp., which this year alone funneled $21 million in heating assistance into 220 tribal communities in 13 states.
What matters to Garreau is that the $267 in heating assistance she received from CITGO bought her about 133 gallons of propane to heat her home.
"My, was I ever happy. I was really, really so thankful," Garreau said. "If I had a direct line, I'd sure thank them with a letter or something."
Speaking for hundreds of people like Garreau, tribal representatives from throughout the United States gathered Thursday at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel to extend their appreciation to the Venezuelan people and Citizens Energy Corp. for the help that arrived at a critical point in the winter.
The president of CITGO Petroleum, Alejandro Granado, Citizens Energy Corp. chairman Joseph P. Kennedy II and the ambassador of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Bernardo Alvarez, were honored by music and dance and showered with gifts.
Founded by Kennedy in 1979, Citizens Energy Corp. is a nonprofit agency that funnels profits from commercial ventures into charitable programs.
CITGO was the only major oil company and Venezuela the only OPEC nation that responded three years ago when Kennedy sought discounted fuel oil to help low-income American families with winter heating bills.
The first year, CITGO provided discounted home heating oil. Since then, the program has expanded to include direct financial assistance, with much of that going to Native American tribes.
Winter heating-assistance funds from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program were exhausted when CITGO sent $400,400 to the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa Indians, according to tribal Chairman David Brien of Belcourt, N.D. This was the first year his tribe has received the funds.
"It was 40 below zero," Brien said. "It was zero, and the winds were blowing 23 miles per hour."
The CITGO dollars helped many families coping with energy costs that are double what they were a year ago, he said.
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Joe Brings Plenty said 570 homes on the Cheyenne River reservation benefited from the $470,000 CITGO sent his people.
"During one of the coldest winters in the past eight years, and at a time of the greatest need, Citizens Energy, CITGO and the people of Venezuela came through," Brings Plenty said.
This is the second year that CITGO has provided energy assistance for Native Americans.
"So many tribes of people from all over the U.S. have come together because of us and this program," Ambassador Alvarez said. "It's a great experience and a lot of help that is truly needed."
The ambassador challenged others, including the oil companies, to join Venezuela and CITGO in helping low-income people with the most basic of human needs: a warm home.
"We are giving a significant amount, but it's not enough," he said.
The impact of escalating fuel costs on low-income Americans is being ignored, according to Kennedy, a nephew of President John F. Kennedy and the son of Robert Kennedy.
"No one is talking about it nationally," he said. "No one is having this conversation."
Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or firstname.lastname@example.org