Houston’s Fourth of July celebration sponsor is causing controversy

A protester holds a sign with a drawing depicting Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and a message that reads in Spanish; "Get out klutz" during a march in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. Venezuela's opposition is vowing to keep up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro after flooding the streets of Caracas with demonstrators Thursday in its biggest show of force in years. Protesters filled dozens of city blocks in what was dubbed the "taking of Caracas" to pressure electoral authorities to allow a recall referendum against Maduro this year. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

This year’s edition of Houston’s annual Freedom Over Texas Fourth of July celebration is being sponsored by Citgo, the oil and gas giant owned by the Venezuelan government. A number of Venezuelan immigrants are protesting the sponsorship, pointing out that their former country has been under the control of a totalitarian regime for almost two decades.

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With over 10,000 expatriates in Houston, Venezuelans are among the more sizable and vocal immigrant communities in the city. Maria Manrique de Henning, a member of the local Venezuelan community and outspoken opponent of the current regime, called the sponsorship of a celebration of freedom by a dictatorial regime “absurd” and “makes no sense.” She also stated that Houston’s celebration of Independence Day “is the exact opposite of how the Venezuelan dictatorship approaches government.”

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Susan Christian, the city’s director of special events and one of the organizers of the Freedom Over Texas festival, emphasized Citgo’s origins as an American company and its importance as an employer of more than 1,000 workers in Houston. She said that Citgo “contribute(s) to the fabric of America” and that the company paid “several hundred thousand dollars” to sponsor the event through 2019.

Venezuela has been undergoing political turmoil since the death of dictator Hugo Chavez in 2013. Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, has watched as the country has been wracked with high unemployment, triple-digit inflation, and violent protests as oil prices have dropped and the country’s revenues have taken a steep decline.

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Gisela Carillo, another Venezuelan in living in Houston, considers the city’s acceptance of Citgo as a festival sponsor to be hypocritical. She said that festival organizers “take the money and excuse themselves for their actions,” while turning a blind eye to the problems occurring in Venezuela.

A petition to have the city remove Citgo as a sponsor has received over 5,000 signatures.

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