The spoils of oil

Ivan Briscoe

Somewhere between the oil riches gurgling from the earth and the desperate poverty of the people who live on it, something has gone terribly wrong in Venezuela. This, at least, is the conviction of President Hugo Chávez and his supporters. At the heart of their programme of social transformation lies the oil industry, the source of more than half the Government’s budget. Paradoxically, this same industry has fostered a mentality that ignores all sense of public interest and treats the land like local people do their empty coconut husks.

It took neither a feat of science nor a stroke of luck to find the riches sitting under Venezuelan soil. Indigenous people and Spanish colonialists had for centuries scooped up the dark liquid bubbling through mangroves around the vast lake of Maracaibo, using it for medicinal ointments or candles. When an oil company first arrived in 1914 it discovered that carbon molasses spouted from its first well without any need for drilling.

A century later and the lake is infested with the refineries and pipelines of a high-tech oil industry, crossed by a sparkling suspension bridge, its shores dotted with sprawling concrete cities. No longer is the oil so easy to find. But its imprint remains everywhere. ‘We came to look for work,’ explains Gilberto Paz as he lies in a hammock on a stiflingly hot afternoon, gazing at the shreds of weed and the dust rising from his front yard. ‘But nothing happens round here.’

The 27-year-old, a Wayuu Indian, occupied the plot of land two years ago. He and his young girlfriend have installed two massive refrigerators and a television inside their tin-built sheds. But there is no electricity. Neither is there running water. A barrel containing 200 litres of water costs $0.50 – money they do not always have. One single connection is assured – a flame of natural gas, stolen from a nearby pipeline, burns constantly in the kitchen, even when there is no water to boil.

Their tale of escaping a hard life in the countryside – made harder in recent years by the incursions of Colombian armed forces and guerrillas from across the nearby frontier – is not uncommon. The Mara district of Maracaibo where they now live is rife with unemployment, poverty, dengue fever and tuberculosis. Three years ago it emerged that, on average, a child was dying here every day from malnutrition. Though Mara is only 10 miles from the city’s latest air-conditioned shopping mall, the authorities ignore the shack-dwellers.

‘Oil is an enclave economy. It doesn’t incorporate labour – it saves it through technology. And all the extraordinary profits flow away to the centre of the country,’ explains Bolívar Sáenz, deputy head of Rafael María Baralt University in Cabimas, one of the region’s premier oil towns. Legend has it that this lakeside settlement of 200,000 people sits atop a vast seam of oil. ‘Maybe we will all have to move. Or blow up,’ muses Sáenz.

For the moment, however, he is trying his best to make the town a bit more habitable. He is busy getting 2,000 doctors trained. They will eventually replace the Cubans in the Barrio Adentro health programme. He is considering taking out a loan to buy some farmland, enough to employ 15 people in a co-operative.

But he worries about the violence of his students, brought up by big families in small, lushly painted bungalows that catch the stench of gas and sulphur from the oil. Lemon and mango trees hang over narrow streets. This looks like a Caribbean idyll – but it is also the town’s most dangerous suburb, Tierra Negra (‘Black Earth’). Two or three people, says Sáenz, are murdered each weekend in rivalries sparked by drugs, prostitution or revenge.


Not far away, beyond a tall wire fence, the streets widen and grass lawns replace littered patches of waste ground. Hollywood, as the suburb is known, rolls out in an ordered procession of green-roofed, whitewashed villas. The buildings belong to PDVSA, Venezuela’s national oil firm. Each employee is assigned a flat or a house, one or two storeys high, maybe a garden, depending on their rank.

Yet all is not well in Hollywood. In early March judges and police began to evict residents who had been sacked from PDVSA during a two-month strike that began in December 2002. Many left the country, but others stayed on, clinging to the last relic of privilege – their company homes.

‘The nobles left the company. The workers and the technicians kept on,’ argues Rafael Parra Zabala, head of oil studies at Zulia University and an ardent supporter of the Chávez revolution. ‘The economists and the children of so-and-so, who knew how to prepare dinners with 24 places and select the finest wines, they left. It was a revolt of the slaves.’

Thousands of fervent opponents of Chávez gathered at the Maracaibo lakeside when the tanker Pilín León – named after a Venezuelan Miss Universe – with 44,000 million litres of oil aboard, dropped anchor across the sole exit to the sea during the strike. Over in Caracas, mass protests, shootouts and a vicious media war mirrored the strife in the corridors of PDVSA, where strikers – allegedly co-ordinated by Intesa, a firm with connections to the CIA – sabotaged the company’s vital computer systems.

Juan Fernández, one of the strike leaders and a former top financial manager in PDVSA, vividly recalls those febrile weeks. ‘We had gone to speak with the head of the company, Ali Rodríguez, to express our concerns about political surveillance within PDVSA and the likelihood of a strike. He said that if blood had to flow, then let it flow.’

In the end, Rodríguez – a former guerrilla leader and one of the Government’s most respected intellects – was proven right. Decisive action by the security forces, and sheer exhaustion, sapped the protesters’ morale. Fernández was among 18,000 fired employees. Charged with treason and incitement to rebellion, he left to work in Europe.

For those who protested, the fall in oil production – still below pre-strike levels – has vindicated their warnings against political meddling in the delicate work of exploration and extraction. They berate ‘politburo-style’ management, gross underinvestment and a string of accidents resulting from the incompetence of newly drafted employees.

‘At present, showing loyalty to the supposed revolutionary process is the way to get into top and medium-level posts,’ argues Fernández. ‘Talent and knowledge are not necessary.’

The praise heaped by these critics on the traditional corporate practices of PDVSA sits oddly with the sights of Maracaibo: famished indigenous people, outrageous inequality, a magnificent lake contaminated with oil slicks, untreated sewage and a plague of duckweed.

Back to the people

Although nationalized in 1976, the oil industry had been taught to work with its back to the people. From the 1980s until the arrival of Chávez, PDVSA devoted itself to building a formidable international network of subsidiaries and refineries, as well as a chain of 14,000 Citgo service stations across the US. Its philosophy was that of voracious big business.

The rise of Chávez, the trauma of the strike and a wholesale change in personnel have shattered the old customs. Money from PDVSA – estimated at around $4 billion a year – now pours, unaudited, into social missions. Pledges to clean up Lake Maracaibo multiply.

Yet, even in the midst of radical change, the long shadow of Venezuela’s cultural and industrial heritage is apparent. It is still not clear how the largesse of oil will generate stable, lasting employment, or reach men like Gilberto Paz. He remains jobless, languishing in his hammock, breathing in incessant fumes from passing trucks that service the nearby Guasare coal mines.

‘It’s a perverse thing,’ says Bolívar Sáenz as he watches the lake’s dazzling afternoon sheen. ‘People see no interest in working for anything but the oil industry, even when it doesn’t have any work to give.’

*Ivan Briscoe* is editor of the English edition of _El País_ newspaper in Madrid, and an expert on Latin American current affairs. Email:

Spain versus the despots

Senile dementia gave General Pinochet the excuse he needed to escape trial in a Spanish court, only for the former dictator to make a miraculous recovery once he was safely back on Chilean tarmac. Yet the General’s pursuers did not lose heart. Six years on, human rights activists, lawyers and judges in Madrid are again scouring the world for ageing men with a track record of atrocities.

For the first time since Judge Baltasar Garzón took up the cause of victims of the Argentine dictatorship in 1996, Spain’s highest court has given its full approval to the quest for international justice. In October the Constitutional Court in Madrid ruled that any gross violations of human rights or genocide – committed anywhere in the world and irrespective of whether Spaniards were involved – could be prosecuted and tried in Spain. So long, of course, as the criminals had not been punished elsewhere.

Now the human rights activists, lawyers and judges behind this campaign have several new indictments in their sights. Investigations have been opened into seven former Chinese leaders, including Jiang Zemin and Li Peng, for sponsoring the alleged extermination of native Tibetans. A lawsuit on Rwanda is pending. Yet most experts are convinced that the star case of the next few years will come from Guatemala, whose 626 recorded massacres from 1978 to 1983 have thus far gone untouched both inside and outside the country.

‘There has been absolute impunity,’ argues Prudencio García, a Spanish expert in Guatemala’s conflict, ‘and this in spite of the heroic actions of judges, prosecutors and witnesses who have been systematically threatened and killed.’ For the moment, the judge in charge of the Guatemala file (which stems from a lawsuit brought by Nobel prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú) has sought permission to interview witnesses in the Central American country. ‘There are 15 to 16 people being investigated at the moment,’ explains Manuel Ollé, a Spanish lawyer intimately involved in these cases. ‘But as investigations proceed, this could rise to 400, [even] 500.’

More conservative judges are loath to see Spain become the on-call courthouse for Latin America. But if permission for the judge’s visit to Guatemala is denied, which is probable, Judge Santiago Pedraz could then issue a ream of international arrest warrants that will effectively jail those charged within their home country. Previous litigation against Chilean and Argentine military leaders and operatives has proved that the symbolic value of such arrest warrants, or a shamefaced appearance in a foreign court, can spur a country into exposing its past.

Although a new trial of an Argentine ‘dirty war’ officer is soon to begin, it will only be the second of its kind to take place in Madrid. The first ended last April, when naval captain Adolfo Scilingo was handed a life sentence for throwing 30 naked and drugged prisoners to their deaths in the South Atlantic. When Scilingo arrived in Spain voluntarily in 1997 to testify, no-one was under arrest in Argentina for their crimes under the junta. Now, there are 175 people in detention.

Too distant shores

MAINLAND Spain – the promised land. Although it is visible from their hideouts, thousands of Africans – who have set up camp deep in a forest on the coast of northern Morocco – have learnt to despair at the sight. Penniless, hungry and exhausted by their voyage, they are now being deported en masse.

Five chartered air-flights have returned an estimated 1,500 West Africans to Nigeria since last November. For the first time ever, Moroccan authorities are bending to the wishes of the European Union – and above all Spain – by policing the flow of clandestine immigrants from across the Sahara. ‘Morocco is now playing the role of Europe’s border guard,’ says Khalil Jemmah, head of AFVIC, a Moroccan association representing the victims of illegal immigration. ‘And it has no choice: it needs the money.’

The latest sweeps and patrols have only served to drive the 3,000 inhabitants of Missnana forest – close to the port city of Tangier – further into what they call ‘the bush’. Their sole hope of getting to Spain remains the small wooden boats known as pateras that ply the hazardous trade in migrants. According to Jemmah, 504 passengers from the Maghreb region (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), sub-Saharan Africa and Asia died or went missing in such vessels last year, with at least 37 perishing in one sinking after their boat capsized 200 metres from a Spanish beach last October.

Zero tolerance both to peopletraffickers and their clandestine cargo – all too frequently washed up on Spanish shores – is the new motif of Spanish policy. From being a source of migrant labour for decades under General Franco, a newly enriched Spain has become the top destination for immigrants to the European Union last year.

Madrid now insists that the death-toll in the Strait can only be reduced by stopping the boats and curbing Europe’s appeal to newcomers: a law stripping illegal migrants of rights, a policing accord with Morocco in December and an injection of funds into maritime surveillance form the new barricades.

There is no doubt that a ruthless mafia, which cares little for its passengers, dominates the trade in illicit sea-crossings. Aid-workers around Tangier even testify that many of those arrested and deported in recent months were hand-picked for return by Nigerian clan leaders, who are also behind the constant traffic in young women effectively enslaved for prostitution in Europe.

For those in the forest, however, the mafia is less of a threat than local ‘bandits’ who come to steal, harass and attack, leaving many migrants with deep knife wounds. Yet the extreme dangers of the crossing and of living indefinitely outside the law in both Morocco and Europe seem no great deterrent.

‘It’s better over there. You can clothe and feed yourself but you cannot in Nigeria. Our country is not a place to dwell,’ explains Paul, a 25-year-old with a university degree in economics who has spent the last eight months exposed to rain, cold and hunger in a makeshift tent.

The migrants survive through begging, the hospitality of a few locals and sporadic visits from relief workers. Some are waiting for funds from relatives in Europe to pay for the patera: others just wait for a miracle.

Yet even if all the West Africans in several camps dotted around the country are deported, there are innumerable Moroccans willing to take their place. Success stories of rich migrants in the country’s two-millionstrong diaspora who brandish cars and cash on summers spent back in their homeland far outweigh the news of deaths in the Strait. In a recent poll carried out by Jemmah, 53 per cent of Morocco’s young people said they were intent on moving to Europe – with or without residency papers.

Those working with the migrants fear that more repressive policies will only force the boats on to longer, more perilous routes that deepen the misery of those in transit while doing nothing to dull the temptations of that glimmering European coastline. ‘The United Nations can help us by bringing a big ship,’ says David, a Nigerian living in the forest. ‘That is what they are supposed to do: wipe our tears away.’

Brukman workers win their factory

Since December 2002, the NI has reported on the battles by the Brukman textile workers to keep working in the Buenos Aires factory that their employers walked away from. After winning and losing many battles (including three evictions, police threats and street riots), the Brukman workers have won their war.

‘We’re happy to be able to prove to the public that our fight wasn’t in vain,’ says Celia Martínez, one of the spokespeople for the workers in the factory, following the vote by the Argentine capital’s City Council finally to hand the factory from its bosses to its staff.

As a result of this decision – at the end of October last year – the city authorities will pay compensation and rent to the usurped bosses. The workers will form a co-operative, joining the list of an estimated 170 businesses across Argentina that have been ‘recovered’ in this way from bankruptcy and abandonment by their owners.

Meanwhile, a host of proposed bills have been placed before Congress that aim to make it simpler for workers to take over their firms once bankruptcy proceedings begin. President Néstor Kirchner’s Government is reportedly setting up a fund of six million pesos ($2 million) to support these new worker-run industries.

If the clothes fit, wear them

As recession slashes through Buenos Aires’ textile district, one factory continues resolutely to roll out clothing for the wealthy. Window displays at the front of the factory – where headless dummies sport double-breasted jackets, tweed blazers and camel-hair coats – belie what is happening inside. Here at the Brukman factory, blue-coated seamstresses and tailors are in control. Their bosses left their desks nearly a year ago. When it comes to deciding who does what, this suit factory is now suit-free.

Despite police raids, government suspicion and persistent judicial harassment, 53 workers in Brukman – one of the Argentine capital’s largest clothing factories – refuse to give in. Their 12-month occupation, they say, is not ideological. Losing a job in Argentina at the moment is akin to contracting a terminal disease. Unemployment stands at 22 per cent, while over 6 million people have fallen beneath the poverty line so far this year.

Until late last year, the non-unionized and mostly female workforce swallowed each fresh wage cut or slight from their superiors without complaint. ‘We thought that with the country as it was, everyone was in the same position. We were thankful for the job,’ recalls worker Elisa Díaz.

By December 2001, a three-year slump, unpayable debt and an overvalued currency had incited a stampede of capital from Argentina – and a freeze on bank withdrawals. The Brukman family, with its penchant for cutting wages, whittled weekly pay in its 12-year-old factory down to 5 pesos (then equal to 5 dollars); a week later it became 2. On 18 December, none of the owners appeared in the factory.

Assemblies each week decide strategy, which a committee then seeks to put into effect – a process free of employers

‘If we hadn’t taken the factory then, the bosses would have closed it,’ remarks Mathilde Adorno, a veteran seamstress. She now chuckles at the memory: ‘We held meetings all morning; we were all very nervous. When the bosses didn’t turn up, we decided to wait. That evening we held our first assembly and 23 people stayed locked in all night. When I got here the next morning the others had put up protest banners all over the factory. We’d taken a decision without knowing what we were up against.’

The next evening was the first of the workers’ formal occupation. ‘We were all inside, laid down on the floor out of fear,’ continues Adorno. ‘We’d put cardboard over the windows so nobody could see us and switched off the lights. Then we felt a noise swelling up from outside. We thought it was the police. It was coming from all sides. We didn’t know where to run to. Then someone opened a window and saw what it was – a cacerolazo!’

Armed with spoons, saucepans and tureens rather than guns, the people of Buenos Aires had spontaneously taken to the streets that very night to demand an end to President Fernando de la Rúa’s administration. The crisis that followed marked an economic nadir, but the jolt to Argentina’s grassroots has lasted. Neighbour-hood assemblies, picket groups, unemployed workers’ unions and collective enterprises have flourished while discredited government institutions and trade unions stagger on. ‘All is quiet, then someone throws a stone and out of nowhere a million follow,’ observes Osvaldo Bayer, the chief chronicler of Argentina’s labour history.

In the confines of Brukman, staff at first did not dare produce without an overlord. ‘We thought the equipment was sacred,’ remarks Adorno. But after a month of waiting and speculating, those who remained in the factory finally abandoned their scruples. Gerardo, a bespoke tailor from Naples with 52 years of experience in the trade, started chalking cloth again. The women on the shop floor took their seats at the sewing machines. Steam billowed from presses again. Volunteers set off in search of sales. Only the management suite on the first floor stayed fallow.

For the workers, the takeover has always been about achieving a living wage. The results have exceeded this goal. Once overheads have been met, wages are divided equally between all the workers: monthly pay now stands at 450 pesos ($130 in the wake of devaluation). Assemblies each week decide strategy, which a committee then seeks to put into effect – a process free of employers, though not of the rancour and rivalry that stems from such a joint effort. Committee member Celia Martínez admits that mistrust of any possible leaders is deep-seated. ‘We’re used to lies, to being used,’ she wearily observes. ‘Some time or other we have to trust again.’

Now, the Brukman crew are among the darlings of a vast popular movement that has its eyes set on bringing the country’s political establishment to its knees. Support and suit orders have poured in from the myriad groups in Argentina’s opposition front, with whom the Brukman staff often march through Buenos Aires or block roads. The model has spread. In March, 270 workers in the Zanón ceramics factory in Neuquén fired up the kilns in their own doomed plant and have since managed nearly to double wages despite three eviction orders. Around 110 factories across Argentina are now occupied or edging toward workers’ control.

In response, authorities and business leaders have retreated, but surrender is out of the question. Around 100 police officers dressed for a riot in March stormed the Brukman plant at dawn in search of activists and criminals. They found three workers and a baby – and pulled out when neighbours thronged the street in protest.

Attempts by the Brukman family to monitor the property are also unmistakable. One morning late in August, the local police chief and seven gun-toting officers arrived alongside the owner of a cloth factory who claimed to be searching for seven rolls of alpaca fabric stolen from him in a heist. For 30 agonizing minutes, under the watchful eye of volunteer lawyers and workers, the cloth magnate proceeded to compare every material in the factory with his own samples. None matched – and the police cars withdrew again.

For historian Osvaldo Bayer, who has written on the brutal repression of labour uprisings in the 1920s, Argentina’s bloody history does not bode well for such experiments: ‘Suddenly they’ll send in 1,200 policemen and break it all up. When the repression starts, it is brutal – that is our way.’ All too aware of this prospect, the staff is negotiating with government ministers for a system of state ownership combined with workers’ control. Their aim is to convert the factory into a source of work for over 1,000 people. So far, ministers have shown limited interest, a fact that Díaz puts down to their own links with business leaders in the textile trade.

As for the front window, the workers at Brukman have a better idea: scrap the suits and make hospital or school uniforms instead.

Ivan Briscoe is a freelance journalist specializing in Latin America.

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