Wsj On Venezuelan Oil

Alexi Barrionuevo has written an insightful and informative profile of Venezuela’s national oil company in Monday’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required). He goes through the history of the company, PdVSA, and how Chavez’s opposition to it influenced his initial coup and run for presidential office. An excerpt:

For 30 years, Rogelio Lozada was the sort of dedicated engineer who made Petroleos de Venezuela SA one of the best-run companies in Latin America.

But in recent weeks, Mr. Lozada, the manager of the oil company’s El Palito refinery near here, has taken on a new mission: ousting President Hugo Chavez. Like thousands of his colleagues, the 55-year-old engineer fears Mr. Chavez is dragging Venezuela toward a Cuba-style dictatorship and in the process tearing the state-owned oil company apart.

Late last November, 2,500 PdVSA managers signed a petition demanding the resignation of Mr. Perez, the internal policeman. Nothing came of it. But on Monday Dec. 2, the general strike was launched. A few days later, many of El Palito’s operators abandoned their posts. President Chavez ordered National Guard troops to seize control of the plant. Some 300 soldiers surrounded the plant and wouldn’t let operators leave, even after some were on the job for 30 hours or more.

By Saturday, shift superintendent Romulo Chirinos had been working for 31 hours when he called his supervisor Luis Cuauro at home, begging for relief, according to both men. “Boss, what do I do?” Mr. Chirinos sobbed to Mr. Cuauro. “When are they going to get us out of here?” Mr. Rodriguez eventually agreed to let Mr. Lozada and his crew shut down the plant.

Since then the government has tried in vain to restart the plant, a crucial supplier of gasoline to the central part of the country, including a key industrial zone in Valencia that is home to local operations of DaimlerChrysler AG, Coca-Cola Co., DuPont and other multinational firms. Over the weekend Mr. Ramirez, the energy minister, responding to the reappearance of huge gasoline lines in Caracas, declared in a public statement that the government would reactivate El Palito by month’s end and resolve the nation’s gasoline shortages. To try to restart the plant, the government has hired retired workers and local volunteers. It has replaced Mr. Lozada as the plant’s general manager with a former maintenance superintendent named Astrubel Chavez, who is a cousin of President Chavez. Astrubel Chavez didn’t make himself available for interviews and has generally avoided the media. Mr. Rodriguez says the government will begin importing refining specialists from around the world, if necessary.

Many PdVSA employees are continuing the strike, in protest against their elected despot.