Venezuela says it plans to offer help to Milwaukeeans

Associated Press

MILWAUKEE - The government of Venezuela plans to offer discounted heating oil and free eye surgery to Milwaukee's low-income residents, officials of the South American nation say.

Martin Sanchez, Venezuela's consul general in Chicago, said Thursday that Milwaukee and Chicago would be the first U.S. cities to benefit from the eye care program, which now flies patients from 24 Latin American and Caribbean nations to his oil-rich nation for cataract operations performed by Cuban doctors.

The heating-oil program, which is operated through Venezuelan-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp., is already in place in eight northeastern states.

Sanchez said that, as oil profits have fueled economic growth in Venezuela, the government there headed by President Hugo Chavez has pumped money into social programs and aid to small businesses.

Expanding charitable efforts to other nations helps build common ground for trade relationships, he said.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said after meeting with Sanchez and Venezuelan ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera that he was open to exploring both programs.

"The natural question is whether we would work with the Venezuelan government, which is not a close ally of the United States," Barrett said. "My view is that if we can improve communications and help our people at the same time, I would support that, with the emphasis on helping our people."

Citgo Petroleum Corp., a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company, had discount heating oil programs last winter in Massachusetts, New York, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware and the Philadelphia area.

Most of that aid was distributed through community organizations because "some local governments don't want to do business with President Chavez," Sanchez told Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editors and writers Thursday.

Representatives from Citgo will meet with Milwaukee city officials to determine the best way to run the program here, Barrett and Sanchez said.

Sanchez said Citgo is also negotiating to buy clean fuel from British Petroleum, resell it to the Chicago Transit Authority at a discount and buy bus passes for "the poorest of the poor" there.

A similar deal to the Milwaukee County Transit System would be considered by Venzuela, Sanchez said, but it wants to work out the issues with the Chicago authority first.