Friday, August 22, 2003

PDVSA: the once and future Queen (II)
The secret kingdom
Friday 22, August 2003

If you drive from Caracas to San Felipe via Moron, you drive along El Palito, one of the main oil concerns of PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company. EL Palito refines some oil products and next to it there is one of the biggest thermal plants in the country, although it can work at barely 50% of its capacity.

The huge complex is separated from the road by a normal fence, and has several entry points. These days there is only one entry point that one can see clearly, and the fence has been lined by a concrete wall, recently painted in part with some allegoric figures supposedly drawn by the kids from the local Bolivarian schools. And at each end of this wall the slogan “Ahora Si Somos Venezuela!”, now we are Venezuela!

El Palito was one of the first concerns to shut down in April 2002, and December 2002. It carries a significant amount of complex and potentially dangerous equipment so it must be promptly shut if any trouble in supplies is forecasted. But since it is located near Valencia to provide the crucial center area of the country with gas and other products, the government targeted it first for forced reopening, trying even to physically force the strikers to work. Eventually they did grab a few local people and slowly but surely they did reopen El Palito.

But this reopening was not trouble free. Explosions were observed. Strange smokes are regularly seen, shown on TV while officials deny the mere existence of these likely toxic clouds. At least a couple of deaths have been reported. The National Guard locks everything up, leaving only one access as far as I can see from my regular driving in the area. Interestingly in February while the government was claiming “full” operation, El Palito seemed rather quiet from what I remembered. I suppose that eventually the amount of people either protesting or trying to film whatever was going on inside made the administration build that tropical version of the “Wall”, duly decorated now for the human touch.

Accounting is of course not forthcoming. The only TV ever allowed inside is the state TV. No reliable witness has been allowed in to say what really is going on, what really is working and producing. Not to mention what quality is being produced.

But things get out. Even myself who has nothing to do with the oil industry except putting gas in my tank and driving by has learned “stuff”. The son of Senora Altagracia, the lady that has done some curtains for me and waters my plants when I travel, did not go on strike because he was in a “safety” position. When the new management came in they wanted to skip some of the safety norms in their haste. The workers refused to go along. They were fired. Her brother in law, a Chavez supporter did cross the picket line. Now for the revolution he has done regularly 12 hours shifts and worked quite a few week ends. He gets paid in cash without any receipt and on occasion is bought out with some bogus performance bonus. In other words he could get fired tomorrow and would not have legal support to claim any severance package. But he is with the revolution so I suppose that he is willing to sacrifice himself, even if he bitches a lot these days, I was told. Incidentally his wife, Senora Altagracia’s sister, “has been told” not to criticize the “revolution” anymore by “visitors” in the supervision team of her husband.

The papers are rife with such stories, and speculations. But the government remains silent on that, just saying that all is great, targets are met, revolutionary workers are happy.

The Queen of Venezuela has become the silent kingdom.

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