Venezuela: just 40 cents a gallon

As OPEC's second-ever summit starts here on Wednesday, locals still feel gas is a God-given right.

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A word of advice to all the irate gas guzzlers around the world who think oil prices are too high: Don't go crying to Ricardo Ocariz.

"Those are rich countries. We are poor," says the Caracas taxi driver as he happily pumps 40-cents-a-gallon gas into his '83 Ford Granada. "When oil prices fell through the floor a while back, I don't remember hearing anyone up there complaining about how that was hurting Venezuela," he says, adding: "We don't have a lot, but we have oil under our feet. So for me, these prices are what we deserve."

It used to be a given that Venezuelans complained like drivers everywhere about high gasoline prices - even though they enjoyed some of the very cheapest prices in the world. As the biggest oil producers outside the Arab countries, Venezuelans seemed to think this "gift from God" should be theirs for free. They are even known to riot if the government tries to raise gas prices.

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But these days with a barrel of oil well above $30, the country's coffers filling up, and the last gas-price hike a bad distant memory, one hears little grumbling around the pump. Venezuelans recognize they pay for gas what most consumers around the world, who pay four to 10 times more, would consider a relic of the past.

This international disparity is the backdrop for the second-ever summit of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), to begin Wednesday here in the capital.

"I'd say these prices are about right," says Jsus Mrquez, a Caracas dry-wall contractor who hesitates before deciding to put 900 bolivars - about $1.25 - worth of gas into his pickup. Mr. Marquez says those three gallons will get him around for his day's work. Mr. Ocariz can ferry customers all day for about what he'd pay for a Big Mac McCombo.

Most Venezuelans are aware that much of the world is up in arms about the high price of oil, and particularly about high gas prices. The media here carry full pages and relatively long segments about the gas-price strikes across Europe. But in a country where at least 60 percent of the economy is driven by oil, people know where their bread comes from and they react accordingly.

"By now it's a Pavlovian response," says Luis Vicente Len Vivas, director of Datanalisis, a Caracas polling and analysis firm. "When oil prices go up, there's a national feeling that everything is going to get better."

Venezuela's economy shrank by more than 7 percent last year, unemployment is in double figures, and crime has risen faster than temperatures at a French truckers' demonstration. But in a mid-August Datanalisis poll, 83 percent of Venezuelans said they thought their situation was going to improve. When asked why, 74 percent said because oil prices are going up.

"We know prices are low here, especially if you compare them to what they pay in the rich countries, " says Jos Torrealba, a traveling appliance repairman. "But we also have to keep in mind that when prices are low there, things are worse here." Asking the attendant to pump $3 worth into his aging white compact, he adds, "Of course the opposite is true, too, and that's the situation we happen to be in right now."

Aside from this universal tendency to worry about oneself and one's own first, many informed Venezuelans are also quick to point out that high gas prices in the "developed world" are partially the doing of governments imposing high gasoline taxes. Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez and his oil minister, Al Rodrguez, "have done a good job of selling the point that high gasoline prices are just as much a question of high taxes and other factors apart from the cost of the oil," says Mr. Len.

Mr. Rodrguez, who is also the current president of OPEC says his organization is doing its part to calm oil prices by raising production. The group of 11 countries decided earlier this month to raise production by 800,000 barrels a day. Consequently, Rodrguez estimates world markets will see a dampening of prices around Oct. 1 - even earlier now that President Clinton has ordered the release of 30 million barrels of US oil reserves.

But he also notes, and this Venezuelans have heard him repeat day in and out, that more than two-thirds of the price of gas at the European pump, for example, is the result of taxes.

Given the weight of oil in the Venezuelan mentality and the benefits people here reap when prices rise, it might seem surprising that some Venezuelans say that as a major oil producer, their country should make an effort to moderate world oil prices.

"I think we should help the world if we can by adjusting production to arrive at a just price," says Jos Rafael Batista, pumping a relatively hefty $6 worth of gas into his '85 Toyota utility vehicle. For 40 years Mr. Batista has been transporting commuters from Caracas's increasingly distant hillside shantytowns, a job he says has cultivated his compassion for struggling people everywhere in the world.

"I feel a solidarity with drivers in other countries, we're all human beings," says dry-wall contractor Marquez. "God gave Venezuela this gift, so we shouldn't be unreasonable when we sell it."

That solidarity is not surprising, but actually fits with a national personality forged by the abundance of oil, analyst Len says. "This is not a society focused on the generation of wealth, but the distribution of wealth," he says. "Especially at a time of high oil prices, it's natural that expectations of a fair distribution of wealth would extend to a wider field of beneficiaries."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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