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Winona LaDuke, Published March 16 2013

Letter: A song of praise for Hugo Chavez

‘Yesterday, the devil came here … Right here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today …” Hugo Chavez said, in 2006 comments at the United Nations. Then the Venezuelan president made the sign of the cross, brought his hands together as if in prayer and glanced toward the ceiling.

That is one reason Chavez was disliked by the U.S. government. To Chavez, the devil was George W. Bush. That’s what you get to say when you are a Third World leader who supplies maybe a million gallons of crude oil to an oil-addicted country every day. You get to say anything you want.

I was a great admirer of Chavez, thankful for his generosity, his courage, his leadership and his commitment to indigenous peoples.

My first memory of Venezuela, being an American-educated child, was dim. But, I remember pictures of native people in the Venezuelan jungle being gunned down, and hanging like deer from trees – the result of gold prospecting in their territories. The year was 1977. That is a stark image – one where humans are treated like game animals, and I have never forgotten it.

So, when the first indigenous president (Chavez’s mother was a Wayuu Indian) came to lead Venezuela, I celebrated our ascension to power and recognition. For the first time, we had some basic dignity, a vote and inclusion in the constitution and cabinet positions.

At age 44, Chavez became the country’s youngest president with 56 percent of the vote. When he became president, our people began to feel his generosity.

Heart to hearth

At a 2005 congressional hearing, oil executives were chastised when corporate earnings were compared to dire conditions in many communities. Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and Royal Dutch/

Shell reported total earnings of nearly $33 billion. In the meantime, many Americans were facing fuel poverty and hardship in keeping their houses warm. Twelve U.S. senators asked oil companies to donate some of their record-setting profits to people in need.

Citgo Petroleum joined with Citizens Energy under the leadership of Joseph Kennedy and began distributing fuel oil from the Bronx and Brooklyn to the Alaskan sub-Arctic. Our reservation was included. The first year, we received roughly $l.7 million in fuel assistance, and this continued for six years. Each year, tribes in northern Minnesota, North Dakota and elsewhere benefitted from the largesse of the Venezuelan government-owned Citgo. Citgo was the only company to respond to the senators, and it wasn’t even an American company.

Some politicians encouraged our people to turn down the money, but Wayne Bonne, attorney for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, commented, “To us, it would be a foolish move. We’re not a wealthy tribe. … We could make a political statement, but making a political statement while your people freeze is not very wise.”

“The program is not a political program, it is an assistance program,” the Venezuelan minister of petroleum explained. “You don’t have to be politically loyal to us to be part of this program.” Back in his own country, Chavez’s social programs won him enduring support: Poverty rates declined from 50 percent at the beginning of his term in 1999 to 32 percent in the second half of 2011.

But he also charmed his audience with charisma and a flair for drama. He was a king of the stage.

Venezuela’s oil is still flowing into America, although it’s rumored that the push for the Canadian tar sands is based on resistance to getting oil from Latin American left-wing political leaders. Chavez pointed out to an American politician that perhaps U.S. politicians do not control all people, or all countries in the Americas. I remember Chavez as a brave and generous man to native and poor people, in his life and in his passing.

LaDuke is an American Indian activist, environmentalist, economist and writer. She is executive director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota.