The Citgo sign blinks and beckons, a warm and nostalgic emblem on the Boston skyline. Meanwhile, the majority owner of Citgo, the government of Venezuela, operates an oppressive dictatorship where citizens line up daily in long queues for the chance to buy rice and eggs.
Citgo profits support a government that starves its people. Boston needs to find a way to stop celebrating Citgo and get real about the sign. It doesn’t need to be dismantled. But it does need to be changed.
Venezuela’s citizens are routinely dying not only from a severe lack of food but also from a medical system that has unraveled because of a shortage of basic medicines. But Venezuela refuses outside help. Nicolás Maduro, the country’s president, has rejected most foreign aid, calling it a US plot to destabilize the country. Venezuelans can’t legitimately vote to remove Maduro (he has effectively replaced the legislature with hand-picked political puppets and a recent national election was labeled a sham), but they can vote with their feet.
Thus 2.3 million citizens have left the country since 2014, and neighboring countries are dealing with a massive influx of migrants, some so poor they couldn’t afford a bus ticket, so they set out on foot. Crime is rampant. Hyperinflation has rendered the country’s currency practically worthless.
Yet Boston officials are rapidly moving to sanctify the Citgo sign in perpetuity. Despite Venezuela’s horrendous economy, human rights record, and the growing number of its citizens who have fled its oppression and moved here, the Boston Landmarks Commission has recommend designating the sign as a historic landmark. Such a move would render the sign untouchable, a city-maintained icon that would codify the Citgo logo, and all it stands for, for generations to come.
This is a classic conflict between hometown sentiment and the harsh geopolitical realities of the world at large. But there’s a reasonable compromise — a win-win for the city. Keep a colorful neon sign as a beacon atop Kenmore Square. But remove the endorsement of a cruel, corrupt regime that is starving its citizens.
A local Venezuelan native has a creative solution. Franklin Marval is an artist and a high school teacher in Roxbury who wants to remove the Citgo letters but keep the rest of the sign and turn it into something that’s more aligned with what Boston represents today. To Marval, the Citgo sign is deeply distressing. He recently returned from Venezuela, where he “only saw misery.” When he looks at the sign he thinks of the empty supermarket aisles in his native country.
“I don’t want to get rid of the sign,” Marval told me. “I think we just have to change it. People just have to let go. What’s on that sign should reflect all of Boston. It’s better we’re known for who we truly are — a diverse and multicultural city.”
Marval’s idea: a heart, the symbol of love, lit with the same alternating shades of red that color the current triangle in the Citgo sign. “What is a more positive sign than a heart? Nothing. It has no religious or political meaning,” said Marval, who moved to the area about 10 years ago.
There’s no question Boston’s skyline is constantly changing, and an amended Kenmore Square sign could easily be part of the evolution. Tradition is one thing — callous indifference is another. At some point, looking the other way as blatant international crises boil over makes the city look absurd, a parochial town that would rather preserve a colorful sign fully intact than recognize it is a tacit endorsement of wide-scale suffering and death.
Marcela García is a Globe editorial writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.