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Crackdown presents challenge to Citizens Energy, Joe Kennedy II

The wife of imprisoned Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López accepted an important recognition on his behalf at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government last weekend. López was awarded the school’s alumni achievement award, for those who have “significantly improved the human condition.” When accepting the honor, Lilian Tintori told the crowd in Spanish: “What an irony and how impressive that the best university in the world is awarding this honor to Leopoldo for the values he learned here. And today, he is in jail in Venezuela exactly for being a progressive leader, and for dreaming of a better country.”

Tintori was referring to the worsening crisis in Venezuela, where President Nicolás Maduro has been cracking down on anti-government protests and arresting hundreds of people in the past three months, prompting widespread allegations of human rights abuses. This has led to sharp calls for sanctions from Capitol Hill, as the State Department considers whether to impose economic constraints as well. But as the US government considers how best to pressure the Venezuelan government, it’s time for one of its allies in Boston — former US Representative Joe Kennedy II’s Citizens Energy Corp. — to do the same.

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By now, most Massachusetts residents have seen the homespun ads that show Kennedy delivering oil in person to a needy family during the cold winter. Kennedy often concludes the ads for his heating oil assistance program, Joe-4-Oil, and by thanking “the people of Venezuela” for making it possible.

For almost 10 years, Kennedy’s Citizens Energy has parlayed a relationship with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Citgo into over 200 million gallons of low-cost oil for the needy. It’s an impressive record, but it’s a relationship increasingly fraught with moral complications.

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In an interview, Kennedy recognized that it’s been “heartbreaking to watch a country . . . be literally torn apart by the incredible poverty that always has existed in Venezuela [and] by the lack of economic opportunity.” Kennedy said he has tried to contact the Maduro administration repeatedly to offer his assistance during this crisis. But he also fiercely stood by his hallmark program and turned defiant when confronted about the optics of Joe-4-Oil.

“I have asked every single oil company, and not one of them has given me a gallon to help the poor,” he said. “Is the Venezuelan government worse than the Saudi Arabian government? Is it worse than the Russian government? Don’t be telling me that I’m in some kind of collusion with the Venezuelan government when they’re the only ones who have showed some willingness to help our poor.”

But it is an embarrassing irony: An impoverished and deteriorating country supplies charity oil to the United States. From its inception, the gift from the Venezuelan people was an act of geopolitical grandstanding started by the country’s now-deceased leader, Hugo Chavez, and continued by his successor, Maduro, who won last year’s presidential election by a small margin. Chavez was a fiery populist whose anti-American rhetoric created a backlash in the United States. But that was mostly a war of words. Today’s ongoing domestic unrest against Maduro has a decidedly different weight. In the three months since students began the uprising to protest a deepening economic crisis, a growing crime rate, and basic goods shortages and rationing, more than 40 activists, students, Maduro supporters, and bystanders have been killed; nearly 800 have been injured; and about 3,000 people arrested. A recent report by Human Rights Watch documented 45 cases involving more than 150 victims in which the government violated the rights of protesters.

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Now, Kennedy rationalizes his relationship with Venezuela on the basis that violence and human rights abuses exist in countries like Iraq and “in all sorts of countries where just our for-profit oil companies operate,” and argues that he’s being unfairly singled out: “You only go against the nonprofit who’s giving the oil away to our poor here. None of us here at Citizens Energy make a single dime off of the Venezuelan oil.”

But Chavez’s cheap oil came with a price from the beginning: Kennedy provided public validation for Chavez, even as Chavez’s economic programs hollowed out a once-thriving economy. Even as the economic situation in Venezuela worsened — the country’s economy is expected to contract 0.5 percent this year, compared with growth of 1.4 percent in 2013 and 5.6 percent the year before, according to Bloomberg — Chavez increased the supply to oil to the US, which now reaches well beyond Massachusetts to more than 20 states. The country is also contending with rising inflation: Venezuela’s consumer prices rose 5.7 percent in April, after jumping from 4.1 percent the month before.

Citizens Energy has provided a winter lifeline to more than 1.8 million people. If it gave up its deal with Venezuela, many of those families would face far higher heating costs. But American interests aren’t the only ones at issue. In López’s Harvard award acceptance letter, he urged Americans to speak up about what’s happening in his country: “You have an opportunity to send a far different message: that the weight of the global community is on the side of human rights and dignity.”

As one of Venezuela’s most prominent backers, Kennedy has a real opportunity to send a message to Maduro’s government and openly articulate his disapproval. But if it continues not to take his calls, Kennedy should be prepared to suspend his program for as long as the Maduro regime continues its abuses.

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