Workers moving into leadership of Venezuela oil industry

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Sun Jan 12 09:32:57 MST 2003

By SERGIO DE LEON, Associated Press Writer:
PUERTO LA CRUZ, Venezuela - Thanks to President Hugo Chavez, merchant
mariner Jose Luis Lozada now manages a key oil storage and loading facility
in this Caribbean port city.

Lozada is among those workers trying to jump-start Petroleos de Venezuela
S.A., Venezuela's state owned oil monopoly. Some 30,000 PDVSA workers have
been on strike since December to demand new presidential elections, nearly
closing the world's fifth largest petroleum exporter.

Chavez has fired more than 700 dissident workers and is hiring or promoting
striker replacements such as Lozada. He vows a rapid recuperation of one of
the world's biggest oil companies.

It isn't easy, as Lozada can attest.

When he took over the Puerto La Cruz terminal known as Jose on Dec. 22,
Lozada said he found that computers and communications systems had been
sabotaged. The terminal opened three years ago and was one of the most
technologically advanced in Venezuela, but loading must be done manually
until an automated system can be repaired.

"We rebuilt parts of the terminal to load cargo, hired experienced personnel
to fill storage tanks and were able to bring communications systems back on
line," Lozada said proudly.

Before the strike, 100 employees worked here. Now 60 do. The government
insists that's enough, much as it insists that PDVSA's headquarters
bureaucracy, a hotbed of dissent, needs to be trimmed.

Few workers were seen rambling throughout the surrounding Jose refining
complex, which normally employs 14,000 people.

Lozada assured reporters this week the terminal was working normally. All
that was lacking, he said, was oil.

The terminal, located 185 kilometers (110 miles) east of Caracas, the
capital, usually services 33 oil tankers each month. Only six have loaded
and sailed without problems since the strike began Dec. 2.

"The problem we have now is in the area of production," said PDVSA's western
region security superintendent, Felix Camargo.

Chavez has sent soldiers and civilian security guards to protect oil
installations from strikers. He's sent marines to board ships anchored by
striking crews. Navy sailors are now attending Merchant Marine Academy
classes to learn how to run giant oil tankers.

Shipping sources in Venezuela say Chavez has managed to raise production to
roughly 400,000 barrels per day, well below pre-strike levels of 3 million
barrels. PDVSA insists it's now 800,000 barrels a day. Strikers say it's
below 200,000 barrels.

The nearby Guaraguao terminal usually fills 70 tankers a month with oil,
gasoline and other products. Only 12 tankers have left during the strike,
said terminal supervisor Antonio Valladares, a tanker captain and 35-year
PDVSA veteran.

Offshore, two Venezuelan and six foreign-flagged tankers lie at anchor in
the Caribbean, their crews reluctant to dock for insurance-related safety

Valladares said he didn't understand their fears. His crews are safe and
professional, he insisted.

"We have loaded other vessels, even with half the normal number of people
working," he said. "Each of us is doing the work of five men."

Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez has denied claims by striking workers that as
many as 31 accidents have occurred during the strike. Some accidents have
happened, just as they did before the strike, he said.

Several oil spills in the western lake of Maracaibo prompted the opposition
governor of Zulia state to declare an environmental emergency.

Strikers also reported that a seal on a vacuum unit at the western El Palito
refinery blew Tuesday, causing a fire. The government at first denied there
was a fire, then blamed a sabotaged pump.

Environment Minister Ana Elisa Osorio pledged to clean up the spills and
noted that slicks have long been common in Maracaibo Lake, which is laced
with derricks and underwater pipelines.

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