ANCHORAGE, Alaska – In Alaska's native villages, the punishing winter cold is already coming through the walls of the lightly insulated plywood homes, many of the villagers are desperately poor, and heating-oil prices are among the highest in the nation.
And yet a few villages are refusing free heating oil from Venezuela, on the patriotic principle that no foreigner has the right to call their president "the devil."
The heating oil is being offered by the petroleum company controlled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, President Bush's nemesis. While scores of Alaska's Eskimo and Indian villages say they have no choice but to accept, others would rather suffer.
"As a citizen of this country, you can have your own opinion of our president and our country. But I don't want a foreigner coming in here and bashing us," said Justine Gunderson, administrator for the tribal council in the Aleut village of Nelson Lagoon. "Even thought we're in economically dire straits, it was the right choice to make."
Nelson Lagoon residents pay more than $5 a gallon for oil — or at least $300 a month per household — to heat their homes along the wind-swept coast of the Bering Sea, where temperatures can dip to minus-15. About one-quarter of the 70 villagers are looking for work, in part because Alaska's salmon fishing industry has been hit hard by competition from fish farms.
The donation to Alaska's native villages has focused attention on the rampant poverty and high fuel prices in a state that is otherwise awash in oil — and oil profits. In 2005, 86 percent of the Alaska's general fund, or $2.8 billion, came from oil from the North Slope.
The Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, a native nonprofit organization that would have handled the heating oil donation on behalf of 291 households in Nelson Lagoon, Atka, St. Paul and St. George, rejected the offer because of the insults Chavez has hurled at Bush.
Chavez called Bush "the devil" in a speech to the United Nations last month. He has also called the president a terrorist and denounced the war in Iraq.
Dimitri Philemonof, president and chief executive of the association, said accepting the aid would be "compromising ourselves." "I think we have some duty to our country, and I think it's loyalty," he said.
Over the past two years, Citgo, the Venezuelan government's Texas-based oil subsidiary, has given millions of gallons of discounted heating oil to the poor in several states and cities — including New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine — in what is widely seen as an effort by Chavez to embarrass and irritate the U.S. government and make himself look good.
Maine Gov. John Baldacci, who approved an agreement last winter to buy discounted oil, said he had no plans this year to seek a similar arrangement. In Boston, a City Council member wants a landmark Citgo sign near Fenway Park taken down and replaced with an American flag. In Florida, a lawmaker asked the state to cancel Citgo's exclusive contract to sell fuel at turnpike service stations.
About 150 native villages in Alaska have accepted money for heating oil from Citgo. The oil company does not operate in Alaska, so instead of sending oil, it is donating about $5.3 million to native nonprofit organizations to buy 100 gallons this winter for each of more than 12,000 households.
"When you have a dire need and it is a matter of survival for your people, it doesn't matter where, what country, the gift or donation comes from," said Virginia Commack, an elder in the arctic village of Ambler, an impoverished Eskimo community of 280 where residents are paying $7.25 a gallon for fuel.
For years, Alaska natives have accused the state and federal governments of sending too little money to their tiny, far-flung communities, where fuel and grocery prices are bloated by the high costs of delivery by plane and barge.
An editorial last month in the Anchorage Daily News bashed the Legislature's rejection in March of an $8.8 million state supplement to a federal program that helps poor Alaskans with home heating costs.
"It's embarrassing that residents in a state with so much oil wealth should be looking to a foreign nation for help," the newspaper said. "It's hard to blame villagers for accepting the gift."
A spokesman for Gov. Frank Murkowski, John Manly, said the governor believes Chavez's donation is a ploy to undermine Americans' faith in their government. But he said it is up to each village to make its own decision.
"It seems like a very strange irony that we produce the oil and yet every year there seems to be a chronic problem in getting the fuel to people that need it," Manly said.
Joan Eddy, principal and teacher at Nelson Lagoon's school, said most buildings in town were erected 30 to 40 years ago, which makes them pretty old, considering how they get battered by the constant 20-25 mph wind coming off the ocean. Their heating systems are aging, too.
She noted the fuel barge is late arriving this year, and said residents are turning on their furnaces for only a few hours in the morning and at night.
"We're conserving as much as we can because we are concerned. It looks like it's going to be a snowy winter and cold," she said.