Chávez steers Venezuelan descent

When I arrived in Caracas to begin work at the state-run oil company PDVSA in September 1999, Hugo Chávez was a newly elected president riding high on a wave of popularity. Chávez supporters were a minority at the office, but the debate among co-workers was a healthy one and non-supporters gave him the benefit of the doubt.

It was clear that Mr. Chávez represented a break from Venezuela's corrupt political past. I privately judged him verbose but well intentioned, and considered his long repetitive speeches great Spanish-language practice.

Weekend mornings I took the subway to El Capitolio for the "Vota Sí!" (Vote Yes!) rallies. Held just before the vote on Chávez's new Constitution, these colorful gatherings aimed to ensure that the functionally illiterate masses would mark "yes" on the ballot. Despite high crime in the area, I felt protected by the courteous soldiers on street corners with their red berets and machine guns slung casually across their backs.

A button from one rally with Chávez's grinning face under the words "El Mega Presidente!" perhaps foretold of his maniacal hold on power, but at the time it was simply amusing. Another button - that of his former party's red rooster - gave occasion to learn that PCV stood for "Partido Comunista Venezolano." (Venezuelan Communist Party) It's no secret Chávez is a "recovering" communist.

The night after the new Constitution was ratified, the Venezuelan coastline suffered catastrophic mudslides. I thought it strange that Chávez announced a death toll of 2,000, while the International Red Cross estimated 30,000. Like many, I was shocked by Chávez's early refusal of US aid - a cruel arrogance at the expense of his people that now seems to have foreshadowed his attitude in the current crisis.

In the months to follow, Chávez's rhetoric took a startlingly socialist turn. He used Venezuela's democratic institutions to set in motion a decidedly antidemocratic "Bolivarian Revolution" for which no one had voted. He appointed his lackeys to key positions, effectively eliminating the democratic separation of powers. Division between supporters and nonsupporters shifted toward class/income lines, perhaps because those better educated were first to recognize the president's motives. The taxi driver was likely a "Chávista," while the lawyer was not. But the international media incorrectly persist in reporting the division as such today.

Chávez grew aggressively more divisive. The poor fell victim to dictatorial tactics as he incited them against the middle and upper classes with stories of lavish wealth. I remember in particular, that in his weekly national addresses he painted vivid pictures of PDVSA oil executives cavorting in yachts and flying around the world on corporate jets. He masterfully aroused public disgust to the point that the PDVSA badge, if left absentmindedly on my lapel, drew startling screams of "corrupta!" (corrupt!) on Caracas streets.

In the office, now-wavering Chávez supporters grew quiet. As corporate directors were replaced by Army generals, we began to receive questionable decrees from above. In vain, PDVSA executives refuted such mandates as to supply Cuba at special pricing and "indefinite" credit terms - despite arrears exceeding $30 million. Paranoia was building at all levels of the organization as even routine business decisions had to be defended against an overtly hostile "boss" with no industry background or business experience whatsoever.

The government was also sending new clients our way. These "businessmen," from countries including Libya and Colombia, had no knowledge of the petroleum trade. Basic industry jargon drew confused expressions. With no real intention to receive oil cargoes, they bid prices so far above market level that the numbers seemed typographical errors.

One memorable client, whom we nicknamed "Señor Leche En Polvo" (Mr. Powdered Milk, his primary business) managed to slip through all the filters. Unable legally to refuse his bid to buy a tanker of gasoline, managers awarded him a cargo. Predictably, no tanker ever arrived at the load port, causing production losses at the refinery. Some employees suspected PDVSA was being used to launder money via these illegitimate transactions.

These transactions cause even greater concern in light of recent media allegations tying Chávez to Colombian and Middle Eastern terrorist groups.

PDVSA employees strove to maintain the company's international reputation as a reliable petroleum supplier while the internal struggles mounted. Chávez's decrees often placed them in a precarious position between the law and the "law."

I left Venezuela in January of 2002. A visit last month revealed a markedly changed place. Not only the new breed of doctors-turned-taxi-drivers spawned by the Chávez economy but also the veteran cabbies openly curse the vagaries of their president. In rich and poor neighborhoods alike, anti-Chávez graffiti is rampant. The once-courteous young soldiers now regularly assault peaceful demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets. My former colleagues, fearing for their lives and their nation's future, protest Chávez's rule daily.

Chávez was elected democratically, but no one can consider him a democratic leader. The people of Venezuela vehemently reject his rule. Historically, PDVSA has been a source of national pride: Popular sentiment has come full circle as the nation now rallies around PDVSA for its role in the current crisis, which is not - at its heart - about oil.

Priscilla West works in the oil industry in Tulsa, Okla.

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