Venezuelans make a run for the border



POP QUIZ: What socialist country in South America famously sent oil to Alaska villages back when some rural heating fuel was going for nearly $10 a gallon?

(The answer is easy for Must Read Alaska readers, who are a smart bunch, after all: Venezuela.)

And yes, a number of villages in Alaska readily accepted the offer from the nation that was sticking it to President George W. Bush.

Awash in oil and hubris, Citgo, the Venezuelan oil company owned and run by the Venezuelan government, provided 15,000 Alaska households with 100 gallons each of heating oil over two winters, to help low-income families in places like Noatak, where people where locking their oil tanks against thieves.

It was a media-savvy — if expensive — way to shame President Bush, who then-President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela called “the devil” during a now-infamous speech at the United Nations.

The oil-for-shame project was cheerfully reported in the Arctic Sounder at the time, “Scores of local residents squeezed into the local Nullagvik Hotel’s modest dining room on the morning of Nov. 30 to meet the visiting Venezuelans, who included Felix Rodriguez, president and CEO of Texas-based Citgo Petroleum Corp., and the wife and children of Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States.

“I’d like to thank the Venezuelan people for helping the people in all of Alaska,” said Willie Goodwin, a Kotzebue elder and master of ceremonies during what promoters dubbed a “low-cost heating oil signing ceremony” recognizing Citgo, Venezuela, and its head of state.

Oil giant Citgo is owned by Petroleos de Venezuela, a state-owned company. The heating oil program, promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, this winter is doling out some $5 million worth of free fuel oil, or about 1.2 million gallons. That’s 100 gallons each to some 12,000 homes in more than 150 rural Alaska communities with a population of at least 80 percent Alaska Native, according to company officials.

Venezuela is an overwhelmingly Catholic, Spanish-speaking country located in the northern portion of South America. Venezuela gained independence from Spain in 1821. Venezuela’s national sport is an American game: baseball.

Venezuela’s indigenous tribes constitute only about 1.5 percent of the country’s 25 million people, or exactly the same proportion of Native Americans among the 300 million people in the United States, according to U.S. Census figures. Alaska Natives-Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts-constitute about 18 percent of approximately 660,000 Alaska residents. In recent years constitutional reforms under Chavez, who himself claims indigenous heritage, were designed to elevate indigenous peoples in Venezuela.

“The Natives need to go to other countries worldwide for solidarity,” said Citgo CEO Rodriguez, explaining that Venezuela’s constitution directs his nation to create bonds with other indigenous peoples worldwide.

“You (Alaska Natives) are very important in the world,” said Rodriguez.

At the time, four Alaska villages rejected the oil because of Chavez’ devilish remarks. Nelson Lagoon, Atka, St. Paul and St. George said no to Chavez, but John Schaeffer, vice president of a local elders’ council in Kotzebue, took his own shot at Bush while thanking the Venezuelan socialist government of Chavez who was about to be re-elected: “Our president will not be with us for very much longer, so we don’t expect him to give us any (oil),” said Schaeffer, who passed away in August at age 77.


What a difference a decade makes in an oppressive economic model. Today, Venezuela is the leading country in numbers of people requesting asylum in the US.

As the oil-dependent economy crashed, more than 18,000 Venezuelans asked the U.S. for asylum in 2016, which is six times the level of 2014. Venezuelans want out, and they want to come to America.

China, with 17,745 asylum requests, came in second.

Venezuelans in the middle class who seek asylum face a more-than-two-year delay for their applications to be processed, just to get a work visa for short-term employment.

(Read more at Voice of America.)


Meanwhile, a Venezuelan embassy worker in Bagdad, who fled his post in 2015, claims his country is selling fake passports to terrorists.

Misael López Soto, who now lives in Spain, said Ambassador Jonathan Velsco gave him money, passports, and visas and said to “take care of this.” Soto has spoken to CNN of instances where workers at the Venezuelan embassy have tried to sell Venezuelan visas to Syrians for $10,000 apiece.

Now that oil is cheap and the Venezuelan government has run out of other people’s money, perhaps passports are the next great export. What can possibly go wrong?