Friday, August 22, 2003

PDVSA: the once and future Queen (I)
Revenge in Paraguana

As an oil country the fate of Venezuela has revolved around what dividends its state oil monopoly can provide. Until the 70ies foreign oil concerns ruled the show. By the late 70ies the Venezuelan government had nationalized its industry and from then on PDVSA, the holding state owned company, grew into one of the largest world companies. Surprisingly, it was run well enough, basing its directing principles on a minimum of competitiveness and professional management, a “meritocracy”. All was not rosy, after all the only stockholder was the state and the pressure for efficiency was not certainly what one would have seen in the private sector. Still, it worked well enough to finance the largest portion of the Nation’s budget.

This success of sorts was due by the tacit agreement of the Venezuelan political establishment to exempt PDVSA of the piñata rules that other state concerns and agencies were subjected too. In other words, it was understood that a stable source of income was needed if they wanted to be able to carry on their populists policies through the 80ies and 90ies, policies whose failure eventually brought Chavez into office.

Chavez brought to the country leadership positions a failed political class that was never able on its own to hold any significant share of power. The few allies with some real government experience and skill such as the MAS, a leftist party, had abandoned Chavez by December 2001. In the successful bid to seize all aspects of political and, eventually, economical controls there was only one leftover institution holding from the pre 1999 regime: the jewel of the crown, PDVSA, the Queen mother of all of us.

Certainly, Chavez through 3 directors in 3 years had tried to modify its functioning to make it more malleable to his goals. But the stubborn work ethic of its workers and the solidity of its plans and international engagements blocked an outright grab of the company. The naked attempt to seize control by firing all the principal managers in April 2002 was the trigger of the fateful events that followed. A strong show of support of Venezuelans for PDVSA ended up in bloodshed in front of Miraflores and the resignation of Chavez.

The return of Chavez only gave a truce. By October it was clear that maneuvering was under way and the certainty of that was one of the triggers of the general strike in December 2002. This time Chavez did not fail. Ruthlessly and at an incredible cost to the country he fired nearly 2/3 of the PDVSA staff and replaced them with all sorts of political hacks and technical underlings. The fired oil workers became one of the most active components of opposition through the groups Gente de Petroleo and Energia Positiva. Jobless, they are now of all lawsuits, all marches and rallies, trying to get back their jobs that they consider unjustly taken away. And they know how to manage things.

But this is not good enough for Chavez. Many things he cannot forgive, such as the fact that they were the excuse for his brief overthrow. But what he cannot forgive at all is that ex-PDVSA employees represent all the attributes that he and his followers resent, the symbol that Venezuela can be successful by other ways than what Chavez preaches in his passe leftist theories. Revenge for real an imaginary deeds is in order.

The first sordid act was to deprive them of all their workers right, rights existing for all Venezuelan workers that are fired, all of them. The excuse was the alleged sabotage of December 2002. This does not hold ground since the striking management properly closed the installations and notarized everything. To this day not a single serious lawsuit has been introduced in courts against the PDVSA ex-workers. The administration hides behind “moral rights” but is unable to build a case. With signs that things are not running well in the new PDVSA ex-workers are even more demonized. Even the structure that held the life time savings of the employees has been sequestered to the point that no one knows where the money went.

But he latest ignoble attack was on the living quarters of Paraguana. PDVSA in some of its big sites did build small urban centers for its workers. Since the firings are in appeal courts and so far these courts seem to be leaning toward granting at least some of the constitutional rights, the ex-workers have refused to vacate the housing unless the firing is done properly. Well, complacent judges can be found for eviction actions such as the one that took place today against Edgar Rasquin.

Edgar Rasquin is not your everyday oil worker. In his distinguished career he has managed the PDVSA oil compounds in Germany before becoming the manager in one of the 3 biggest refinery complexes in the world, Amuay and Punta Cardon in the Paraguana peninsula. He even is the subject for a prize winning opinion article by Ibsen Martinez reflecting on the fact that the only thing that matters for a Chavez appointment is fidelity to the “revolution”.

Edgar Rasquin has finally been evicted this morning, after having had his house surrounded by 200 National Guards. The military goons tried to enter into the house and were stopped by the neighbors and sympathizers that did not hesitate to sleep in the street. Eventually this morning with a suspiciously blessed tribunal eviction in spite of all sorts of counter appeal not resolved yet, the Guards managed to close in and in a very dignified move Rasquin left to avoid further damage. But he left as a new national hero, and even worse, as a bright poster-boy for international workers rights defense groups in front of all sorts of international courts. Yet another thorn in Chavez's side.

This is what petty revenge gets you.

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