June 1, 2009

The Most Important Story Nobody's Talking About

Quico says: While Caracas is consumed by gossip about whether Chávez stood up Vargas Llosa or Vargas Llosa stood up Chávez, some serious trouble is brewing on the Eastern Shore of Lake Maracaibo, the so-called COL (for Costa Oriental del Lago) which is still Venezuela's number one oil producing area.

Last month, the government seized control of a wide array of oil service contracting companies in the region, vowing to absorb the workforce into PDVSA. But of the nearly 8,000 workers who should've been put on the state oil giant's payroll, fewer than 300 have apparently been processed so far. That leaves a huge floating workforce, suddenly out of a job, all concentrated in a single area, milling around and getting increasingly pissed off by the delays.

The knock-on effects of all those de facto layoffs for the local economy are pretty severe. For instance, Union Radio reports that 80% of Lagunillas municipality's income was directly related to the service companies, meaning their effective confiscation sets off, among others, a local fiscal crisis that threatens to force the municipal government to make drastic budget cuts.

Today, the situation was tense on the COL, with the main thoroughfare (the "Intercomunal") closed down, rumors of a "paro cívico" making the rounds, stores shutting down early to avoid trouble, groups of protesters milling around, and military patrols rumbling up and down the street.

And unlike 2002-03, it's not just a white-collar problem over there anymore. This time around, everyone's mad.

Thousands of families have seen their livelihoods collapse in the last few weeks, making for a volatile stew of labor unrest that the Caracas-centric media really ought to be covering, but isn't.

How PDVSA can continue to operate in the area even though they're short by thousands of service suppliers and amid this level of social tension is anybody's guess.