December 5, 2002

Now we're cooking without gas!

Well, I've been really delinquent about blogging, but for the love of christ this country has gone completely ape, and I've had about 18 hours of work a day, and it's all very very complicated. To make a long story short, the strike totally failed...and it's a great success!

On the one hand, not that many shops, offices and factories joined, even on the first day. By the second day, even fewer shops had joined, and days 3 and 4 have been basically normal shopping and work days in Caracas, with scattered exceptions. In fact, if the government weren't so dismally stupid, the whole thing might have dissipated into nothingness...

But then, on Tuesday, they inexplicably sent a National Guard platoon to disperse a small, peaceful march in front of PDVSA's Chuao offices. The guardsmen were ridiculously belligerent, spraying tear gas, rubber pellets and baton swings like it's going out of style. The excess really riled up the oil managers, who saw their colleagues roughed up for no discernible reason at all. That, along with another couple of totally moronic instances of military thuggishness, was enough to breathe new life into a strike that looked fairly doomed on Tuesday morning.

Don't get me wrong, the shops and offices and factories still opened, it's just that they antagonized PDVSA's workers into a shutdown. And that, well, that's the Nuclear Option in Venezuelan politics. Oil, of course, is the lifeblood of the nation, and the source of half the government's income, so you can imagine the impact of literally shutting off the industry. Now, shutting down a giant refinery is not exactly a matter of flicking a's a complicated, multi-day process, and if you screw it up you damage the equipment and you can't restart it again. But that's precisely what they're doing these days...winding down the refineries, shutting down the docks, blocking the shipping channels with tankers, and forcing the oil wells further upstream to shut down to, since they have no place to ship their oil. At this point, the three major shipment points for Venezuelan oil and refined products have all shut down, including the Paraguana Refining Complex, the biggest refinery on earth, which will cease production altogether tomorrow.

Now, this is totally unprecedented. This has just never even come close to happening in Venezuela, we're in uncharted waters here. There's panic buying of gasoline all over the country, and some cities (Maracay, Maracaibo, parts of Valencia, parts of Ciudad Guayana) have already run out. You need gas to run this country. And the valves are shut off.

At the same time, while business continues, there are more and more street protests, all over the damn countryy. These are no longer confined to Caracas, they're everywhere, they're militant, and they're angry. The National Guard seems to have realized how unhelpful their earlier attitude was, and are showing a bit more restraint now. But it seems like the street protests have kind of reached a point of no return, that they're now emotional and widespread enough that they can't really be stopped, not even by opposition leaders anymore.

The government still has its head buried in the sand, still claims they don't have a gas problem, still attacks the opposition as terrorists and fascists and electoral coupsters. Nothing new there. But tonight they finally decided to go back to the OAS-mediated Negotiating Table, and that's very good news indeed. Their back is really really up against the wall now. This PDVSA protest is quickly reaching the point where it just can't be papered over or spun away with clever rhetoric. People will notice when the gas runs out. People will notice when their lights go out. You can't talk them out of thinking it's happening, so the government really doesn't have any choice but to negotiate at this point, and that they'll do holding a very weak hand.

Watch this space...

(or watch Devil's Excrement...that guy updates much more often than me!)