Where cheap gas isn't good

With US gasoline prices creeping downward to $1 or less at the pump, I realize this is a real oil crisis. Letters from my parents, who live in Venezuela, talk about businesses failing and people from the church they lead losing their jobs. A newspaper clipping shows construction workers holding up paychecks they were unable to cash at a crisis-ridden national bank. Kevin and Ann, two American friends of mine who play in the Caracas Philharmonic Orchestra, are getting paid three or four weeks late. Rumors have it that the Pan American Games, scheduled for this summer, may not take place if the government cannot afford to finish building the stadiums.

Zuni, a secretary at an oil refinery, may get laid off because a huge expansion project there has been cut back. Dutch and English engineers imported for the project are being sent home. ''One English man,'' my mother writes, ''is very upset as they don't need him here and there's very little work in England.''

Hundreds of young men had moved to the peninsula where the refinery is located, waiting for the construction jobs that now will not materialize. There is no such thing as unemployment compensation. Aida, a seamstress with half a dozen children, will have to work harder to pay ever-increasing food prices. Her husband cannot find work.

When oil prices go ''soft,'' that is, when Americans see heating or gasoline prices go down, the effects are immediately felt in Venezuela, which derives about 70 percent of its income from petroleum. Restaurant business slackens; buildings are left unfinished, cranes suspended in midair.

Most Americans have no trouble remembering the oil ''crises'' of 1973 and 1979, when OPEC prices shot up. But they forget that for decades countries like Venezuela practically gave away oil at $2 a barrel.

When the oil price boom came, Venezuela did not handle it particularly well. A mismanaged and corrupt government sank the country into debt as it spent too much money too fast. But some of the money flowing into the country at an unprecedented rate trickled down to ordinary people.

Even the poorest people who live in orange-brick box houses blanketing the hills around Caracas fared better. There were more jobs for taxi drivers and cleaning women and messengers. Barrio teen-agers donned designer blue jeans, at course, many people had too many children and not enough work, and barrio streets often remained unpaved. But the oil money made a difference.

Lower oil prices do not mean collapse of the country, even if the government must refinance its international loans. Venezuela's 25-year-old democracy seems stable, as does the national oil company, which will continue to pump its product at a profit.

Most people - even those who do not have bank accounts in Miami - will survive somehow, and maybe the country finally will be forced to diversify its economy, making it more stable in the long run.

But for now, as we Americans begin to see lower prices, those letters from my folks show that there are hard times ahead for Venezuelans. For the country in which I grew up, 1983 is an oil crisis - not 1973 or 1979. And that is why, although it is easier on my pocket, I cannot feel too smug when I fill up the gas tank.

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