As the city of Houston prepares for its annual Freedom Over Texas Fourth of July celebration, many in the area’s Venezuelan community are incensed the city has refused to cut ties with the event’s title sponsor, Citgo.
They charge that Citgo is an inappropriate choice to sponsor the event since its parent company is owned by the Venezuelan government, which has for months violently suppressed protests throughout the country during an unprecedented economic crisis.
“Everyone must know that the city of Houston is taking money from a dictatorship to celebrate Freedom Over Texas,” said Maria Manrique de Henning, a member of the local Venezuelan community. “The irony is so absurd.”
Houston officials announced in May that Citgo would be the title sponsor of the city's annual Independence Day celebration, which includes concerts and a fireworks show over Houston's downtown. Freedom Over Texas is the largest single-day event the city holds each year. (Several other businesses are also sponsors of the event, including the Houston Press.)
Venezuelans in greater Houston — who number more than 10,000 expatriates, many of whom fled the socialist government that has been in power since 1999 — worry about the message Houston is sending in selling such a high-profile sponsorship to Citgo. Houston officials insist they can decry Venezuela's atrocities while simultaneously recognizing Citgo's role as an employer and corporate leader in Houston.
Citgo is an American oil firm that is wholly owned by Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA (PAY-duh-veh-suh), which itself is owned by the Venezuelan government. Corruption within PDVSA is so widespread it has spilled into the United States, especially in Houston and Miami, where large populations of Venezuelans live. The Department of Justice is currently prosecuting at least ten Venezuelan businessman in Texas in Florida in one of the largest Venezuelan corruption schemes ever uncovered in the United States, which was the subject of our April cover story, “Hiding In Plain Sight.”
Graft within the oil industry, coupled with the ongoing oil bust and incompetent government, have plunged the once-wealthy Venezuela into Latin America’s worst recession in a generation. Food and medicine shortages affect all but the wealthiest Venezuelans, and the socialist government under President Nicolás Maduro has delayed elections and jailed a leading opposition figure. At least 75 people have been killed in antigovernment protests since April. Many Venezuelans in Texas have relatives who are trapped back home, and send food and supplies when they can.
Mayela Rivero is one of these lifelines. Rivero must send staple goods to her 88-year-old mother in Venezuela, who is too frail to stand in line for hours for a liter of milk — a daily exercise that has become common. She was shocked to learn Citgo would sponsor Freedom Over Texas, since the Fourth of July commemorates the American ideals of freedom, liberty and respect for human rights.
“There is nothing more contrary to the values of Citgo than those ones,” Rivero said.
Manrique de Henning echoed Rivera's view. She sees Citgo’s sponsorship of a premiere event in the fourth-largest city in the United States a propaganda coup for the Venezuelan government.
“The Fourth of July is the celebration of independence, and that is the exact opposite of how the Venezuelan dictatorship approaches government,” she said. “It makes no sense. So it’s clearly, in our view, hypocritical.”
So why does the city of Houston want to slap Citgo, a public face of the Venezuelan government in the United States, onto its Independence Day celebration?
Susan Christian, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s director of special events, said while the strife in Venezuela is horrific, the city welcomes Citgo as a sponsor because of the company’s long ties to the United States, where it was formed in Oklahoma in 1910 (Venezuela purchased the firm in 1990). She noted Citgo is headquartered in Houston and employs more than 1,000 people here.
“They contribute to the fabric of America,” Christian said, adding that Citgo was an anchor sponsor, a rung below title sponsor, the past two years. Christian declined to reveal exactly how much Citgo paid for the new title sponsorship, which runs through 2019, or provide the contract the city signed with the company.
“We consider it proprietary, but I will tell you it is several hundred thousand dollars,” she said.
Asked about the perception that Houston is playing an unwitting part in a Venezuelan propaganda campaign, Christian said city officials believe they can laud the jobs and philanthropy Citgo has provided in Texas without endorsing the misdeeds of its owners, the Maduro government.
“Yes, it is America’s birthday, and I would say the reason we partnered with them are for all those things, not for what’s going on in Venezuela,” she said.
To Gisela Carillo, another Venezuelan in Houston, this is a distinction without a difference. She argues that Citgo, PDVSA and the Maduro government all represent the Venezuelan state, and offered a theory behind Houston officials’ defense of the sponsorship deal.
“They’re probably telling you that because it is convenient for them to look at one side and not the other, to take the money and excuse themselves for their actions,” Carillo said. “They say, ‘You know what? They’re killing their people. They ran the country into the ground…But gee, [Citgo] is doing these few things that are good.’”
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The Houston-area Venezuelans the Houston Press spoke with said they want Houston to dump Citgo as a sponsor. A petition urging Mayor Turner to reject Citgo's sponsorship has more than 5,300 signatures.
Christian said her office began receiving complaints about the Citgo title sponsorship only after making the announcement in mid-May, and that Houston is not considering cutting ties with Citgo. The company's media relations department in Houston did not respond to a request for comment. Nor did Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Rivero said Houston's refusal to reconsider Citgo’s sponsorship is an example of how public officials shrug off the concerns of the Venezuelan community here.
"There is a lack of respect for an important community in this country,” Rivero said. “There’s an acceptance that they don’t care about human rights, and they don’t care about the installation of a dictatorship in other countries.”