Oil work­ers flee Venezuela’s cri­sis for a bet­ter life

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - BUSINESS - By Scott Smith

PUNTO FIJO, VENEZUELA >> Nieves Ribullen, a Venezue­lan oil worker sick of strug­gling to get by as his coun­try falls apart, is bet­ting it all on Iraq’s far-away Kur­dish re­gion to give his fam­ily a bet­ter life.

Over the years he’s watched dozens of co-work­ers aban­don poverty wages and dan­ger­ous work­ing con­di­tions at the run­down com­plex of re­finer­ies in Punto Fijo on Venezuela’s Car­ib­bean coast for jobs in farflung places like Kuwait, An­gola and Chile.

Now it’s his turn. Leav­ing his wife and three chil­dren be­hind, he’ll soon ship out to Iraq’s semi-au­ton­o­mous north­ern Kur­dish re­gion, where he ex­pects to earn more than $3,500 a month — a for­tune com­pared to the less than $20 he brings home monthly in in­creas­ingly un­sta­ble Venezuela.

“I only earn enough to buy a kilo (2 pounds) of meat and one chicken each month,” Ribullen said. “We’re in chaos.”

Op­po­si­tion leader Juan Guaido has ral­lied sup­port from dis­traught Venezue­lans and roughly 40 coun­tries that now rec­og­nize him as Venezuela’s right­ful pres­i­dent.

But the ac­cel­er­at­ing ex­o­dus of oil work­ers means that Venezuela’s crude pro­duc­tion — al­ready at a sev­en­decade low — is un­likely to re­bound any­time soon, even if re­cently-im­posed U.S. sanc­tions are lifted and a busi­ness-friendly gov­ern­ment re­places the in­creas­ingly wob­bly Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro.

Venezuela was once one of the world’s top five oil ex­porters, pump­ing 3.5 mil­lion bar­rels a day in 1998 when Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez was elected and launched Venezuela’s Bo­li­var­ian revo­lu­tion. To­day, the state-run oil com­pany PDVSA pro­duces less than a third of that. Crit­ics blame cor­rup­tion and years of mis­man­age­ment by the so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment.

Even worse, pro­duc­tion is about to sink even fur­ther due to fresh sanc­tions by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion tar­get­ing PDVSA and its Hous­ton-based sub­sidiary Citgo with the aim of de­priv­ing Maduro of more than $11 bil­lion in ex­ports this year.

De­spite the short-term pain they will bring Venezuela, Guaido said the sanc­tions are a crit­i­cal part of stop­ping Maduro from con­sol­i­dat­ing power in what he calls a “dic­ta­tor­ship.”

Venezuela’s oil work­ers be­gan flood­ing out in 2003, shortly af­ter Chavez fired thou­sands of them — many by name on na­tional tele­vi­sion — for launch­ing a strike that par­a­lyzed out­put. The oil work­ers ac­cused Chavez of rid­ing roughshod over the na­tion’s demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions, while Chavez said the pick­eters were plot­ting a coup.

To­mas Paez, a pro­fes­sor at Cen­tral Uni­ver­sity of Venezuela who stud­ies the Venezue­lan ex­ile com­mu­nity, es­ti­mates that 30,000 oil work­ers fled in the ini­tial wave, many banned from work­ing in the coun­try’s oil in­dus­try.

He said it’s dif­fi­cult to gauge how many more have left as Venezuela’s eco­nomic prob­lems have wors­ened un­der Maduro, but from the tar sands of north­ern Canada to the deserts of Kuwait, Venezue­lan rough­necks now live in more than 90 oil-pro­duc­ing coun­tries.

“Let’s say, where there is oil, there is a Venezue­lan,” Paez said.

Many have made new lives in their adopted coun­tries with no plans to re­turn to a gut­ted Venezuela. And with each new de­par­ture, fewer re­main be­hind with the know-how to pump the world’s most abun­dant oil re­serves, once the eco­nomic back­bone of a thriv­ing coun­try.

“We are los­ing man hours, hours of train­ing, mil­lions and mil­lions of hours that we can’t cal­cu­late,” said union leader Ivan Fre­ites, sec­re­tary of the Fed­er­a­tion of Pro­fes­sion­als and Tech­ni­cians of Oil Work­ers of Venezuela. “It’s im­pos­si­ble to re­cover our trained per­son­nel work­ing abroad.”

In a re­cent speech lay­ing out the eco­nomic plan for his se­cond six-year term, Maduro vowed to cat­a­pult Venezuela’s pro­duc­tion to 5 mil­lion bar­rels a day. But he pro­vided few de­tails other than promis­ing to take charge per­son­ally and root out cor­rup­tion.

The em­bat­tled pres­i­dent re­tains sup­port from pow­er­ful al­lies, in­clud­ing Rus­sia and China, which are both heav­ily in­vested in Venezuela’s oil­fields. Maduro’s hand­picked head of the PDVSA, Maj. Gen. Manuel Quevedo, did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment by The As­so­ci­ated Press.

While the most-tal­ented en­gi­neers left long ago — many con­tribut­ing to a pro­duc­tion boom in neigh­bor­ing Colom­bia — there’s still de­mand for la­bor through­out the in­dus­try.

“We’re still in a tal­entshort mar­ket, es­pe­cially with peo­ple will­ing to go into hard­ship lo­ca­tions — like Kur­dis­tan,” said Dane Groen­eveld, CEO at Cal­i­for­nia-based PTS Ad­vance, an oil in­dus­try re­cruiter, re­fer­ring to Iraq’s Kur­dish re­gion.

“It’s those peo­ple who are now get­ting picked up by na­tional oil com­pa­nies around the world,” Groen­eveld added.

The 43-year-old Ribullen said he was think­ing of his fam­ily when he made the de­ci­sion to go to Iraq’s oil-rich Kur­dish re­gion — which is semi-au­ton­o­mous from the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad — and leave his wife and chil­dren be­hind un­til he’s saved enough to send them to Chile or the United States.

As he spoke, his youngest, 9-year-old Isaak, cud­dled up next to him on the couch of their liv­ing room. “He doesn’t want me to go,” Ribullen said. “It’s dif­fi­cult for us.”

He re­called start­ing work at PDVSA 16 years ago, when he made enough money to buy a Toy­ota and take his fam­ily to the Car­ib­bean is­land of Aruba on va­ca­tion ev­ery year. Now, the car is long gone and it’s been seven years since the last fam­ily va­ca­tion.

Some­times af­ter his night shift he’s forced to stand in line for hours at the mar­ket to buy food for his fam­ily. He blames Chavez and Maduro for de­stroy­ing his coun­try.

Con­di­tions are dan­ger­ous at the re­fin­ery, where Ribullen says work­ers clock in ev­ery day with mem­o­ries of a mas­sive ex­plo­sion that killed dozens of work­ers in 2012. Work­ers don’t have com­pany-is­sued hard­hats, boots or gloves.

Once in Iraq’s Kur­dish re­gion, he’ll join dozens of other Venezue­lan rough­necks who live and work on a re­mote com­pound.

“The sit­u­a­tion forces me to look for op­por­tu­ni­ties some­where else,” he said. “We’re leav­ing this in God’s hands, ask­ing that he’ll pro­tect us.”

AP PHOTO/ANA MARIA OTERO, FILE

In this Dec. 9, 2002 file photo, a strik­ing oil worker holds a Venezue­lan flag as he protests with other strik­ers out­side ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices of Petroleos de Venezuela, SA, or PDVSA, in Mara­caibo in western Venezuela, on the eighth day of a na­tion­wide gen­eral strike called by the op­po­si­tion. Venezuela’s oil work­ers be­gan leav­ing in 2003, shortly af­ter then-Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez fired thou­sands of them for launch­ing a strike that par­a­lyzed out­put.

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