WASHINGTON – A Florida congressman's criticism over television ads praising Venezuela for providing discounted heating oil to low-income U.S. households is a "cheap ploy to try to get some publicity," former Rep. Joe Kennedy said Tuesday.
"If you want to conduct an embargo against Venezuela, then be straight up, don't just go after the little nonprofit that only has me to fight back," Kennedy told FOX News on Tuesday. "Why don't you take on Exxon? Why don't you take on BP? Why don't you take on Halliburton?"
Kennedy's salvo is the latest in an ongoing public relations battle that started with a testy exchange of letters on Monday between Kennedy and Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fla.
It began when Mack wrote Kennedy, head of Citizens Energy Corp., a non-profit energy company, to complain about television commercials that Mack says glorify Venezuela and Citgo, a Houston-based oil company owned by the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez, for contributing heating oil to low income senior citizens through Kennedy's company.
"I am Joe Kennedy. Help is on the way. Heating oil at 40 percent off from our friends in Venezuela at Citgo," Kennedy says in the commercial.
Mack calls Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez "a sworn enemy of the United States."
Kennedy said his program aims to help people, not support Chavez.
"Let’s just be fair about it. All we’re trying to do is provide some badly needed aid to those families that we need," Kennedy said.
But Mack doesn't agree.
"Since you believe that standing side by side with thugs like Chavez is a sound business practice, perhaps you'll be willing to explain to the American people the nature of the relationship between Hugo Chavez and Citizens Energy Corporation," Mack wrote in a letter sent Tuesday.
"Why are you allowing yourself to be used as a public relations prop for the Chavez regime?" Mack wrote. "Why won't you stop? And why won't you apologize to the American people for putting your self-interest above all else?"
Kennedy wrote Mack a letter on Monday suggesting Mack was being hypocritical in his criticism.
"If your moral indignation requires that we not accept the discount oil to distribute to our most vulnerable families, then that same high moral standard should require that you not drive your car because it, too, probably uses gasoline made from Venezuelan oil," Kennedy said.
Mack said Kennedy's link to Venezuela sends the wrong message of support for Chavez.
"Hugo Chavez is using Joe Kennedy in a charade to try to deflect attention from the fact that his own country economically and politically, is falling part," Mack told FOX News. "I don't know how, in good conscience, you can, as an American, stand up and support someone like Hugo Chavez."
Chavez, a self-avowed Communist and friend of Cuba's Fidel Castro and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, won a vote in his country's congress to rule by decree over the next 18 months. That's on top of moves already made to nationalize many of the country's industries
Chavez has also tried to provoke the United States. Last year, he stood at the dais during the United Nations General Assembly opening session and called President Bush "the devil."
After the United States raised concerns over the decision to allow Chavez to rule by decree. Chavez retorted: "Go to Hell, gringos."
The Citizens Energy Oil Heath Program, established in 1979, delivers oil to homes around the United States. Last fall, the company announced it was partnering with Citgo Petroleum to allow families to purchase one-time deliveries of up to 200 gallons of home heating oil at a 40 percent discount.
Citizens Web site promotes the program as a tool to aid the poor and elderly.
"This unique program helps protect needy families from volatile heating oil prices, which often leave households having to choose between heating the home and paying for other life essentials, such as food, health care, or clothing," the Web site reads.
In his letter to Mack on Monday, Kennedy admitted he has disagreements with Chavez, but asked in his letter: "What are we supposed to do in the absence of adequate help from the federal government or of any help from other oil companies — turn down the fuel for those in need?"