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PDVSA: From suspected black box to virtual black hole

By Miguel Octavio

18.11.04 | Today, there are rumors that the President of PDVSA Ali Rodriguez will be removed from the post and appointed as Minister of Foreign Relations. While this is being denied by the Foreign Minister “por ahora”, the rumors appear to be true. Coincidentally I was going to talk about Rodriguez in the context of an excellent article about him in Descifrado by Mery Mogollon, entitled “Ali is naked” which I was going to comment on, adding my own information.

To understand what Mogollon is saying, it is important to place yourself in the proper context. Rodriguez, “Commander Faust” when he was a guerilla member has a curious past, to say the least. He was in the guerrillas for so long that he still lived in the mountains in 1983, when only him and Gabriel Puerta of Bandera Roja (now in the opposition!) were fighting a guerilla war in Venezuela.

Rodriguez, a lawyer, gave up his weapons to no one in particular (there was nobody looking for him) and managed to get elected to Congress in the 90’s, where he specialized in oil and oil policy. When Chavez decided to run for President, it was Rodriguez that tutored and advised him.

Chavez’ and the MVR’s campaign was based on a three tier strategy, questioning the “oil opening” strategy, which they said was unconstitutional, calling PDVSA a “black box” which had no accountability to the Government or the people and saying the strategy of expanding production to six million barrels a day was demential. The oil opening was a mechanism found to turn over unexplored or old oil fields to foreign companies to exploit, under a profit sharing agreement. These fields were sold at auction and the Government received over US$ 2 billion simply for the right to have the fields.

The black box charge was more difficult to fight. At first, Chavez named a PDVSA manager to lead the company, but quickly replace him by Hector Ciavaldini who had been fired from the company from a fairly low level position. Ciavaldini promised Chavez that he would hold union elections and the Government would win, but failed to deliver. He was then replaced by Gral. Guaicaipuro Lameda, he Head of Chávez’ Budget Office for the first three and a half years of his Government and a close confidant at the time.

Lameda arrived at PDVSA ready to question everything and everyone. Unfortunately for him, he realized quite quickly that PDVSA was in fact an institution where mystique and meritocracy were the main drivers. In fact, he even decided to focus more on these values explicitly defining the core values of the company and creating a campaign to make the industry’s workers aware of it. Within months, Lameda the outsider, became Lameda the insider, ready to defend the “black box” and its people at every instance. For Chavez, this was not why he appointed Lameda to PDVSA; he was not getting rid of the yuppies, engineers, scientists and technocrats. It was time to act and get rid of Lameda the traitor.

And act he did. In late February 2002 Chavez named a new Board for PDVSA led by a bunch of dinosaur academics led by Gaston Parra Luzardo, who had no corporate experience and removing most of the veterans of the industry from it. Lameda and his former Directors led a fight against setting aside the PDVSA merit system. Workers went on strike, Chavez himself fired some of the PDVSA managers live on TV, the strike grew and popular support for the strike led to the march on April 11th. Chavez resigned, came back and that is a whole other story.

Upon his return, a contrite Chavez named Ali Rodriguez as President of PDVSA to make peace within the oil company. Rodriguez was then President of OPEC and as Minister of Energy and Mines had developed an image as one of the few efficient and effective Ministers of Chavez’ early Cabinets. People were forgetting his radical and devious past.

Upon his arrival at PDVSA Rodríguez was conciliatory, but nevertheless called for the same exhaustive audit of the black box that would reveal all of the ills of PDVSA to the country and the world. We are still waiting for audit #1.

He also promised an audit of the profitability of the PDVSA assets abroad such as CITGO, Veba oil and a Swedish lubricant company. None of them have been sold or restructured and we are still waiting for audit #2.

When the 2002 December strike broke, it was supposed to be a three day event. On the third day, the National Guard gassed protesting oil workers, guaranteeing its continuity. A week later, an assassin killed three and injured twenty seven at Altamira square and the strike had no turning back. Within two months Rodriguez had fired 20,000 of the 43,000 oil workers of the industry. From messenger boys, to laborers, secretaries, engineers and managers, they all had to go.

During the strike, gasoline was delivered at gas stations without payment, oil was traded without any records and tankers left port without authorization. Rodriguez promised an audit of these transactions. We are still waiting for audit #3.

In April of 2003, PDVSA had to submit audited financial statements to satisfy US SEC requirements since the company had issued debts in the US markets. Since the company had not only fired its outsourcing company, a joint venture with US SAIC, but also 95% of its IT workers, it was difficult to reconstruct the month of December 2002, without the SAP system. It all had to be done manually. The audited financials were promised for the end of May. Then June. Then July. Then October. They were actually handed in October. Rodriguez fulfilled the promise of audit #4 even if a tad late.

In September 2003 Ali Rodriguez said the country wanted to expand production to five million barrels of oil a day. With this statement, one of the main criticisms of the pre-Chavez PDVSA had been reversed. Giusti had to feel vindicated.

In May of this year, once again, there were promises of audited financial statements for April. Then May. This time around it was more difficult to get them. Besides the fact that much of 2003 was still done manually, it would not be an easy task to get any international reputable audit firm to sign off the financials of a company with unknown production levels and a labor liability that could be in the billions. After all, none of the thousands oil workers fired had been paid their severance and their own private pension funds have been confiscated to this day. Moreover, Venezuelan labor laws do not allow massive firings; people can only be fired individually.

May, June and July came and went and no financials. But there was a problem: the newly enacted Sarbanes-Oakley act made the members of the Board of Directors of PDVSA individually responsible for failing to file or inaccuracies in the filings. A perverse and irresponsible solution was found, no filing, let’s buy back all of the US$ 2.7 billion in PDVSA debt to save the behinds of the members of the Board. No debt, no requirement to file, as easy as that. The information was leaked, many profited handsomely ahead of the news, PDVSA had to pay even higher prices and yields that it would need to pay to issue new debt. International reserves went down by US$ 2.7 billion to save the revolutionaries. So much for a black box, this was turning into a black hole. Screw the people, save the leaders!

It is now almost December and Rodriguez has yet to come up with audit #5. It may not matter anyway, he is leaving…

Meanwhile, for the last year and a half, OPEC and the US Energy agencies were saying that PDVSA was only producing 2.-2.5 million barrels of oil a day, while the company insisted it was producing 3.1 million barrels a day and promising 3.6 for 2005. Last week, Rodriguez had to testify in front of Congress and he said he would hire an international firm to audit the country’s oil production. We now await audit #6.

Even worse, Baker Hughes says that only 54 oil rigs were currently drilling in Venezuela out of 108 in 1998. The Venezuelan Central Bank says that oil production and price figures do not match what PDVSA says and at the Venezuelan Geophysics Congress it is stated that as many as 16,000 oil wells with lower production and high maintenance are currently not in operation. International reserves do not rise with oil prices. From black box to black hole in only five years!

Criticism number two of the pre-Chavez era is now moot too, the new PDVSA wants foreign companies to come in and provide the oil production that the company can not provide. Thanks to Giusti’s much-maligned oil opening, they already provide more than a million barrels of PDVSA’s current production.

My contacts in the inside tell me PDVSA is currently a royal mess. Political groups fight it out inside the company, attempting to control it. Rodriguez’s PPT currently predominates over Chávez’ MVR. The father of Chavez’s son in law General Prieto was finally left aside after becoming a power within the power at the company. Former Minister of Finance Jose Rojas appears to be the only voice of organization and reason within PDVSA. Personnel turnover is the highest ever, as groups fire their opponents whenever they can. Corruption is simply rampant.

Thus, Commander Faust has left a sorry and very unrevolutionary trail at the company. PDVSA is now truly a black box. Even more it has become a black hole that sucks everything into it. There is no transparency. Nobody even knows how much oil is even produced by the country. Or how much gas. Or how much gasoline.

A US$ 30 billion for profit company has now had five different Presidents in almost five years. All of this while undergoing trauma year in and year out. No longer a black box, if it ever was one, but a black hole. All in the name of the revolution. All in the name of the people. And the three big criticisms of the previous administration of the company have now fallen by the wayside. Where are “the people” in all this? Where is the “revolution”? Rodriguez is indeed naked. Maybe he should have stayed in the mountains. At least there, he was true to himself and his ideals.

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