The thin times
This is the time of year when DB's blogging output and waistline become inversely proportional (and this, unfortunately, doesn't mean more blogging). Apologies.
But very quickly, the strings of the plan—now known as PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—began to show. Starting in 2004, the U.S. recommended—and by 2006 required—that 33 percent of all prevention funding be earmarked for abstinence and fidelity programs. Condoms could be recommended only for high-risk groups, not for sexually active people in general. No funds would be provided to groups that don't explicitly condemn prostitution. Finally, the Bush administration seemed to be spreading a significant share of AIDS funding through faith-based groups.
Meanwhile, the AIDS pandemic has been rapidly feminized over the past 15 years. But PEPFAR—underpinned by the political and religious philosophies of the Bush administration—often doesn't take into account the facts of life for women in the countries it serves.
"The gender dimensions of the epidemic are completely ignored," says Beatrice Were, a Ugandan mother of three who has devoted herself to AIDS activism since 1993. "We know very well that women don't [always] have control [over sexual decisions]. There is rape in marriage. … Many women can't make a decision on whether to have protected sex or not, even whether to have sex or not, because it's their husbands [who] make the decision."
In Uganda polygamy and promiscuity among men is both significant and socially acceptable. "This [PEPFAR] approach places a huge burden on a woman to abstain and, when she's married, be faithful," says Were. "Personally, I did all of that, but I still got infected, too. It just doesn't work."
And joining us now from Boston, the former Congressman Joe Kennedy. He is the CEO of Citizens Energy Cooperation.
Congressman, thanks very much for doing this.
I guess the logical question, how comfortable are you dealing with Hugo Chavez, given his record?
KENNEDY: Well, Wolf, first of all, first and foremost, I should just point out that Citizens Energy has been in the business of delivering inexpensive heating oil and natural gas, electricity, and a range of other services for 25 or 30 years to low-income people in many states all across the country, not just in Massachusetts.
But, in all the years that I have been doing this, I have never once been able to buy discounted oil. The only country that ever offered us that was Venezuela. And for those people who say that this is simply a -- some sort of propaganda item to try and offset the speech that -- the famous speech that he gave last fall, I would point out that we were running this program with the Venezuelans all last year. And nobody mentioned it that -- at that point.
And I further would point out to those who say these -- you know, that I'm being used as a propaganda arm of -- for the Venezuelans, look, at the end of the day, if you have a problem with the fact that the Venezuelans are providing the poor of the United States with inexpensive heating oil, first of all, the Bush administration has supported it.
Secondly, we should recognize it. If that's what your problem is, then, you should have a problem with the entire 588 million barrels of oil that the Venezuelans sell to the United States every year.
BLITZER: Here is the problem that some Americans have. And...
BLITZER: And I'm not referring to a conservative or Republican. I'm referring to Charlie Rangel, a man you used to serve in the Congress with. He's a very liberal Democrat.
BLITZER: He's going to be the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, a veteran. He represents a poor district in Harlem, as you also know. And they're grateful for any breaks they can get on heating oil.
But he issued a press release condemning Hugo Chavez because of this attack on President Bush, his personal attack, comparing him to the devil. Then, he was on this program, here in THE SITUATION ROOM, and he made this point.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE SITUATION ROOM") REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: This is one country, whether we're Democrat or Republicans. And to come here, at the invitation of our people, and insult the president of the United States, you insult the flag; you insult the president; you insult the country; and you insult my constituents.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: So, he is pretty angry about all of this.
KENNEDY: Well, I mean, no one -- I'm certainly not going to defend the speech that President Chavez made in -- at the U.N.
I also don't, you know, support the fact that the Bush administration was -- had its hand in the attempted coup against President Chavez. I don't condone the -- that fact that one of President Bush's major contributors and supporters in this country called for President's Chavez assassination, long before those speeches.
So, there is a lot -- at the end of the day, Wolf, there's a lot of rhetoric that's way too hot on both sides. We have to remember, Venezuela -- in the OPEC oil embargoes against the United States, the only country that -- the OPEC country that continued to support the United States was Venezuela.
In our own revolution, they...
BLITZER: Well, that was long -- that was long before Hugo Chavez became the president.
KENNEDY: Well, but my point is that -- just that, that the relationship between the United States and Venezuela is a lot deeper than...
BLITZER: It used to be a very strong relationship.
KENNEDY: But it is -- it still is.
No, Wolf, wait. Hang on. Last year, GM and Ford sold 300,000 cars in Venezuela. We have imported 588 million barrels of oil. Should we say -- if you have got a problem with this, then, you should say, oh, no, Ford and GM, you can't sell any more cars down there. Oh, and, by the way, we shouldn't drive any cars that are using Venezuelan gasoline. We shouldn't fly any jets, whether they be "The Wall Street Journal"'s or anybody else's, that is using Venezuelan jet fuel. We shouldn't be using any trucks.
KENNEDY: Oh, no. Come on, Wolf.
BLITZER: I'm not...
KENNEDY: If it's goose -- good for the goose, it's good for the gander.
KENNEDY: So, don't just complain about a program that's helping the poor, and then give everyone that's helping the rich off the hook.
KENNEDY: That's the dilemma.
KENNEDY: And that is what is unfair.
BLITZER: I'm not complaining about anything. I'm just asking some questions.
KENNEDY: Sure. Let's go.
BLITZER: Let me read -- let me read to you -- and I'm sure you saw that editorial in "The Wall Street Journal."
BLITZER: "In his eight years in power, Mr. Kennedy's business partner has also polarized Venezuela with his class warfare. Freedom House now ranks Venezuela's -- Venezuela 34th out of 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere in press freedom. Only the Cuban press is more repressed. But Mr. Kennedy keeps on trucking."
I know you saw the editorial. It was a very nasty editorial, directly accusing of you, in effect, of being a propaganda tool of Hugo Chavez.
KENNEDY: You know, I have had so many negative editorials written about me by "The Wall Street Journal." It's like water off the back.
You know, I -- it -- the -- that isn't the point, whether or not they attack me personally, or anything else. The crucial issue is whether or not we're going to say, we have, as a nation, a problem with Venezuela, because of a speech that the guy made, and so, therefore, we're going to cut off all business relationships with the Venezuelans. Or is it somehow righteous to say, no, let's just focus on the one country that is actually providing a little help and assistance to the poor, to help them pay their energy bills.
And, if that's the problem, then, what we should do is, we should say, we're going to stop dealing with them altogether. And, in that case, we shouldn't be using their oil. We shouldn't be having our banks operate in their country.
But why is it that I am the only focus of this? How come these discussions -- how come "Wall Street Journal" doesn't go after its own? How come they don't go after all the corporations that are making so much money out of the Venezuelans? How come they only went after a program that is designed to help? And it's a nonprofit.
We don't make a dime off of this. Everything gets passed through to the poor. So, my only point is, it's duplicitous. It is, you know, people who have power who are threatened, those who have the capitalist system, who are threatened by a kind of compassionate capitalism that looks out after the poor and the vulnerable.
That's what we're trying to do with Citizens Energy. And, if we can get some help and assistance from OPEC -- you know, I don't see the Saudi Arabians offering us this. I don't see the Kuwaitis offering us this. But I sure see an awful lot of business that goes on with these countries.
Why is it that it's just the -- the Venezuelans that we -- that we are content to go after?
BLITZER: All right.
KENNEDY: We're content to do it because it's easy. That's why "The Wall Street Journal" did it. It's easy.
KENNEDY: It's -- anyway, Wolf, that -- that's obviously my...
BLITZER: I -- you know, I hear your argument.
You know, it's interesting. If you see behind you, near Fenway Park, you see a huge Citgo sign right behind you. It's a coincidence. We didn't deliberately put you in that location. But you can clearly see Citgo right behind you.
Why is it, though, that you have asked all these other oil companies, these oil-producing companies, to do what the Venezuelans, what Hugo Chavez and Citgo are ready to do, give a discounted price for poor people in the country? What is their response to you when you say, why not follow Hugo Chavez's lead?
KENNEDY: You know, Wolf, it really is eye-opening. They -- you get a letter back. I write to the CEOs of the companies. You get a letter back from a mid-level bureaucrat, saying, you know, that they're doing something to help out with some illness or some, you know, disease or something like that.
But, you know, Citgo gives $80 million to muscular dystrophy. Nobody is saying, hey, give the money back to muscular dystrophy. Then, when they give money to the Baseball Hall of Fame, nobody says, give money -- the money back to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
It's just when it helps the poor. Why -- Exxon Corporation, last year, in one quarter, made $10 billion. Their CEO himself made $1 billion. And, yet, what has he done? He's sat by and allowed the price of oil to skyrocket, from $25 a barrel to almost $60 or $70 a barrel. They haven't done a darn thing better.
BLITZER: All right.
KENNEDY: And, yet, what they're willing to do is take those profits, make themselves a boatload of money, and basically let the poor be damned. And that is just -- it doesn't feel right, Wolf. It just doesn't feel right.
BLITZER: Former Congressman Joe Kennedy, making his case, and doing it well, as usual, appreciate it very much.
KENNEDY: Nice to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, good.
KENNEDY: Thank you.
BLITZER: I suspect, though, the story is not going to go away.