HUGO CHAVEZ HAS MADE enormous changes at PDVSA (pronounced Peh-deh-VEH-sa by those in the know), the Venezuelan state-run oil company, since he came into power. This Page One article in the Wall Street Journal details many of them.
In some cases, Mr. Chávez has literally taken PDVSA assets and handed them to the poor. The elegant five-story headquarters for PDVSA Servicios, a subsidiary that oversaw communications and technology services for the oil giant, has been turned into the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. The university’s 5,000 students get a free ride: tuition, materials, health care and food are paid for by the oil company.
Students and teachers view the campus’s marble-lined elevators, expensive artwork and baseball field as evidence that PDVSA’s executives lived too cushy a life for a poor nation before Mr. Chávez came to power. As a group of students and teachers play baseball, 36-year-old English teacher Claire Bendahan looks on in approval. “This is socialism in action,” she says. “Now our country’s oil money is being used for the poor.”
Unfortunately, as the WSJ piece documents, that oil revenue is eroding–by my understanding, because Chavez sacked all the managers who knew anything, and replaced them with reliable political supporters who spend money on social programmes instead of oil exploration. The only thing saving Chavez from himself is steadily rising oil prices; if they reverse, it’s a good bet that the Venezuelan government will fall, doing serious damage to the resurgant left-wing populist strain of Latin American politics. I’m told that PDVSA used to be known as the only state-run oil company that was competitive with the majors in terms of expertise and efficiency; now it is rapidly descending past other state-run firms in terms of competence. Since Venezuela’s oil is unusually heavy, sulphurous, and difficult to extract, that decline will be a disaster for Venezuela’s poor, who may be enjoying those marble elevators without electricity to run them if oil falls back towards $25 a barrel. This is not some grim gloating of a classically liberal economics writer at having been proven right. If PDVSA screws up the Venezuelan oil supply, consumers around the world will suffer, the poorest worst–and the poorest Venezuelans worst of all.