Thursday, April 24, 2003

The New York Times

March 4, 2003
Maracaibo Oil Region a Crucial Battleground for Chávez as Venezuelan
Conflict Rages

MARACAIBO, Venezuela, Feb. 28 - In this sun-drenched city built on oil and
agriculture, government workers complain of missed paydays and stalled
projects. Beyond the high-rises and office towers, impoverished families
live in dank, crumbling shanties along bumpy dirt streets.

These scenes in the western state of Zulia make the billboard outside the
government-run oil company seem like a cruel taunt, particularly given
that Venezuela's journey to becoming the world's fifth-largest oil
exporter began here in 1914.

"Social Investment Fund," the sign proclaims. "Improving the Life of All

Complaints that the central government has exported not just oil from the
region, but increasingly its attendant profits as well, have turned many
residents against President Hugo Chávez, whom they have accused of
withholding $500 million from their state budget over the years.
Only one of the state's 21 mayors supports Mr. Chávez, while the governor,
Manuel Rosales, has easily rallied tens of thousands of people against

In Mr. Chávez's struggle to overcome the devastating effects of a
two-month nationwide opposition strike, Zulia, the country's most populous
state with 3.2 million residents, is a crucial battleground. Mr. Chávez
must not only boost oil production, but also his support in this state
whose people tend to vote as a bloc.

Two weeks ago, with the strike faltering, he set his sights on removing
Mr. Rosales, urging people to demand the kind of recall referendum that
his own critics have sought unsuccessfully against him.

Yet even among the poor, the very group that Mr. Chávez says benefits most
from his Bolivarian Revolution, disenchantment has grown.
"The economy is fatal, and since Chávez came to power it has gotten worse,
because there is no work," said Addis Atencia, who shares a compound of
five shanties with nearly three dozen adults and children. "In a country
that produces petroleum, how can you live like this?"

Zulianos consider themselves a breed apart, which is evident in their
accent, culture and temperament. The differences are a result of having
been cut off from the capital, Caracas, for years, and of frequent contact
with foreigners through the port here. For years before the bridge
spanning Lake Maracaibo was built in the 1960's, residents intent on going
to Caracas had to get a visa, since the ferry stopped first on the Dutch
island of Curaçao.

When Mr. Chavez introduced reforms, including one allowing squatters to
occupy fallow farmland, Zulianos reacted with a strike in September 2001.
For many the reforms were another insult after years of seeing no returns
on the revenue Zulia produced for the country.
"Zulia paralyzed the state and lit the fuse that led to a national
strike," said Tomás Guanipa Villalobos, the local leader of the Primero
Justicia political party. "Zulia has suffered the most under Chávez. The
money which was generated by oil was not invested into making Venezuela
truly productive."

Roads on the outskirts of Maracaibo are potholed, while signs heralding a
commuter rail station rise above empty lots where work has stopped. The
public hospital in the Veritas neighborhood looks rundown, paint flaking
from its walls and weeds blocking one entrance even as patients stream
into the building. A state medical supply store is shuttered.

Mr. Guanipa said that rather than tackle problems like those, Mr. Chávez
devoted most of a brief visit here last month to lambasting the governor
and the opposition as coup plotters.
"He said nothing about any program of investment to elevate Zulia," Mr.
Guanipa said. "He spent hours urging people to eliminate the enemy. It was
the politics of revenge, and that is very dangerous. It will get worse
unless we get out of this fast."

The government insists that production has improved among the oil rigs on
Lake Maracaibo, where soldiers patrol the lake and shores to prevent
sabotage. It estimates that production nationwide is now back up to 2.1
million barrels daily after being paralyzed by the strike. Venezuela
produced 3.1 million barrels a day before the strike.

Alexis Arellano, the coordinator of the oil company's Tía Juana district,
said he was now able to pump almost 800,000 barrels daily, despite having
dismissed 60 percent of his work force during the strike.
Combined with joint ventures that were not affected by the strike, he said
regional production hovered at a little more than one million barrels
"They said it was impossible to increase production," he said. "The people
who stayed with us see it as a personal challenge to keep on operating and
make the company grow."

But former executives dispute the government's figures and insist that
actual production is half of that claimed.
"If they are producing a million barrels a day with so many less people,
then they should have fired us," joked Tarciso Guerrero, who used to
manage the gas facilities. "They are only saying they reached a million to
show the country that everything is normal."

Outside the oil company's Miranda Building, lines of job applicants file
past a ragtag group of "Commando Reservists," Chávez supporters who have
guarded the area since December, a battered bus their headquarters and

The mood has been tense, especially after two people were injured this
week when unknown assailants tossed a grenade and fired a dozen shots
while the Chávez supporters slept by the sidewalk.
"We are defending these trenches because this institution is ours," said
one of the group, Leonardo Sencial. "Without this we are nothing. If they
try to take it away, we will take to the streets as the president said."