Venezuela's free heating oil about to flow in Alaska villages

ANCHORAGE — Millions of dollars in free heating fuel will flow through Alaska villages early next month courtesy of a controversial giveaway program paid for by the Venezuelan government.

The sooner the better, say many villagers and rural nonprofits who appear more concerned about their towering energy bills than international politics.

"The whole town, we've been waiting all winter," said Margaret Schaeffer of Kiana, a Inupiat village of about 380 people where heating fuel costs $6.64 a gallon.

Some Alaska village families, along with people in other economically depressed areas of the United States, have come to count on the extra fuel from the Venezuelan-owned oil company, Citgo. Schaeffer said she uses it to heat her home for roughly six weeks each winter.

Opponents see the Citgo fuel program as a political ploy by Venezuela's socialist president, Hugo Chavez, to make the United States look bad. An outspoken critic of the U.S., Chavez has referred to former President George Bush as "the devil" and on Sunday called President Barack Obama an "ignoramus."

"I know they're bickering with each other down yonder," Schaeffer said. "We're so far away and cold, we don't pay attention to it."

This is the third year Citgo has donated heating fuel to rural Alaska. Usually, the company pays for 100 gallons of heating fuel for each household, though it says that number may be smaller this year.

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