Venezuela Up and Running Close to Normal without Bosses

Yoshie Furuhashi yoshie at
Sun Dec 29 00:09:15 MST 2002

New York Times  29 December 2002

Trickle of Oil Starts Flowing in Venezuela


PUERTO LA CRUZ, Venezuela, Dec. 28 — Nearly a month into
Venezuela's devastating national strike, all systems were
back up and running close to normal this week at the
refinery here that supplies gasoline to the eastern half of
this country. Night shift workers were bursting with the
pride of war heroes.

Félix Deliso, who has worked at Petróleos de Venezuela, the
state-owned oil company, for 12 years, stood watch over a
console with so many blinking buttons and computer screens
that it looked like the bridge of a spaceship. Mr. Deliso
monitors 3,000 machines and processes that turn crude oil
into gasoline. Though he has a high school education, he
has been trained to be a specialist here, and he considers
his job as delicate as disarming a live bomb.

Politics made his job even more explosive four weeks ago in
this country, which is the world's fifth-largest oil
producer. Most of the refinery's supervisors abandoned
Petróleos de Venezuela, which pumps the lifeblood of the
nation's economy, to join the strike that is aimed at
forcing the ouster of President Hugo Chávez.

Operations at the company, a chief supplier of oil to the
United States, ground to a halt. With support for Mr.
Chávez strongest among the country's poorer residents,
rank-and-file workers like Mr. Deliso weighed their

"We decided to stay on the job," he said, "Some of us are
Chavistas. Some are anti-Chavistas. But here, there are no

"Basically we are Venezuelans," added Cipriano Hernández,
who also has worked at the company for 12 years. "We love
our country and we do not want to see it fall."

With skeleton crews working lots of overtime, Mr. Chávez is
getting gasoline trickling back into Venezuela's pumps.
Officials here said that since the beginning of last week,
this refinery had produced 60,000 barrels of gasoline a
day, about 70 percent its normal capacity and almost a
fourth of the 225,000 barrels normally consumed by this
country each day.

Still, with domestic shortages mounting over the last
month, the gasoline produced here is only a drop in the
bucket of Venezuela's needs. The country remains far from
recovering its export capabilities, which provide up to 80
percent of its foreign currency. Economic aftershocks are
expected through the first few months of next year....

"They thought they could impose their illegitimate will on
this country, but they were wrong," said Alí Rodríguez,
president of Petróleos de Venezuela, referring to the
strike leaders. Then he heaped praise on the workers
standing before him. "Because of loyal workers like you,
the enemy is being defeated."

After suspending at least 90 striking executives, Mr.
Chávez assigned new management teams to take over crucial
oil installations. In raucous meetings with oil workers in
recent days, Mr. Rodríguez called the executives "traitors
to the nation," and said the government would press
criminal charges.

The refineries at El Palito, just east of here, are
expected to be operating at 70 percent of capacity within a

The government also regained control of several Venezuelan
tankers anchored off the coast by striking crews. In the
region that gave birth to this country's oil industry
around Lake Maracaibo, 22 million gallons of gasoline were
unloaded from the tanker Pilín León, which had been
stranded for nearly three weeks.

"We have made a situation that seemed impossible,
possible," said Edgar Ortiz, 46, the leader of a union
representing gas truck drivers in the Lake Maracaibo
region. "The crisis has not ended. But the government is
finding solutions."

The refinery here at balmy Puerto La Cruz has become a
showcase of the government's comeback. Almost all
high-level executives at the plant joined the strike. But
officials said fewer than 20 percent of the operators,
mechanics and technicians walked off the job.

"We are prouder now than ever," said Wilfredo Bastardo, a
17-year oil veteran. "We have shown our supervisors that we
can run this plant without them."

International oil analysts, however, are describing Mr.
Chávez's gains in gasoline production as a quick fix that
delays progress on more fundamental long-term challenges.
Most of the nation's oil wells remain closed, as does its
largest refining complex, at Paraguaná, which can refine
one million barrels of crude oil a day. Analysts report
that in the four weeks since the start of the strike, oil
exports from Venezuela dropped from 2.5 million barrels a
day to less than 2 million barrels last month, sending oil
prices rising above $32 a barrel.

Fareed Mohamedi, an economist with PFC Energy, a consulting
firm in Washington, said that in the wake of this political
crisis, Venezuelan oil customers might decide to take their
business elsewhere.

Still, political analysts said, it appears that Mr. Chávez
remains determined to ride out the storm. Winning the
support of oil workers is a crucial part of his strategy.
In a ceremony on Friday, he gave out medals to about 60 oil
workers and said that strikers are traitors.

"They wanted to stab the heart of Venezuela," he said. "But
thousands of workers have come to save the country from
their premeditated attack."...

After a meeting with Mr. Chávez last week, the American
ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro, said the risk of
violence was rising daily. Meanwhile, the night crew at
Puerto La Cruz downed espresso and tried to make light of
the tension. The maintenance chief, with 32 years on the
job, joked that he was one of the "inexperienced workers"
whom foes of Mr. Chávez called a threat to the company's
security. Other workers faked Cuban accents to poke fun at
charges by opponents that Mr. Chávez had allowed Communist
workers to infiltrate oil installations. Then they talked
about their colleagues who had joined the strike.

"To me, this is a political fight," said Willians Arevalo,
operations manager at Puerto La Cruz. "I have participated
in many strikes, to demand better pay or better conditions.
But I don't think I should use my job to try to force out
the president."

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