CARACAS -- Venezuela said yesterday it will expand a program to provide discounted home heating oil to poor Americans, bringing savings to low-income families in Vermont and Rhode Island, as well as four Indian tribes in Maine.
Venezuela's Citgo Petroleum Corp. has already begun selling millions of gallons of discounted fuel in Massachusetts and the Bronx in New York City as part of a plan by Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, to aid poor communities that he says are neglected by Washington.
Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, said he will sign an agreement Thursday in Maine to start providing heating oil to four Indian tribes -- the Penobscot, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians.
''The Penobscot Nation is very grateful," tribal chief James Sappier said by phone from the reservation near Bangor. ''This is probably one of the greatest decisions for our tribe in years."
Many in the tribe of 2,261 people are facing tough times economically as jobs have moved out of the area, and the discounted fuel could save a family $1,000 or more this winter, he said.
Residential heating oil in the United States has been selling at more than $2.40 a gallon recently, and Venezuela estimates participants will save 60 to 80 cents per gallon.
Alvarez said Venezuela also will extend the deal next week to Vermont and Rhode Island. Other communities in New York City -- Harlem, Queens, and Brooklyn -- will soon begin benefiting, he said.
Chávez's opponents accuse him of using Venezuela's oil wealth to win friends while trying to one-up President Bush, whom he calls a ''madman." But Chávez's supporters defend the heating oil program as another example of a generous deed by a president leading a socialist revolution for the poor.
Alvarez was accompanied by a group of American activists on a tour of a state-funded cooperative in Caracas where the poor receive free healthcare and hundreds work in textile and shoemaking shops.
The visitors included singer Harry Belafonte, actor Danny Glover, Princeton University scholar Cornel West, and farm worker advocate Dolores Huerta.
''It was impressive for everyone to see that progress is being made," said Tavis Smiley, who joined the group and hosts a talk show on PBS television.
Belafonte, who has praised the heating oil program, said the group came to learn about the situation in Venezuela. He was sharply critical of the situation in the United States, noting poverty and a huge prison population.
West, a professor of religion and author of the 1993 best seller ''Race Matters," spoke admiringly of Chávez's programs, saying they show ''this revolution is real; it's not something that people are just talking about."
When asked about US funds channeled to opposition-aligned groups, he said it should be expected that ''covert funds" are being sent.
''The only thing that stands in the way of the United States undermining" Chávez's revolution, he said, ''are institutions like this [cooperative] that are able to convince people to come together and stand with dignity."