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Hugo Chávez’s Achilles Heel: The Environment

Located within the western provincial state of Zulia, Lake Maracaibo has long been a center of the petroleum industry.  Historically, the lake has been plagued by oil spills and pollution. 

Most recently, the lake has witnessed a profound catastrophe with the arrival of duckweed, a freshwater weed which has spread out across the surface of the water. Experts say that duckweed contributes to Lake Maracaibo's pollution.  Significantly, the weed could seriously change the habitat of various species of fish as it exhausts their oxygen supply and cuts off light from the depths of the lake. 


In Maracaibo, I interviewed Jorge Hinestroza, a sociologist at the University of Zulia and former General Coordinator of the Federation of Zulia Ecologists.  During the insightful hour long interview, Hinestroza illuminated many of the contradictions within the Chavez government's environmental policy. 


ICLAM and Lake Maracaibo


NK: Jorge, I have just been attending an environmental conference here in Maracaibo sponsored by the ICLAM (Institute For The Conservation of Lake Maracaibo, a government agency).  However, I see that some environmentalists in Zulia have been critical of the conference.  Why?


JH:  We could cite the case of Elio Rios, a doctor and veteran environmentalist.  Recently he sent out an e mail which accused ICLAM of excluding poor communities from the conference.  Rios is the Vice President of Azul (Environmentalists of Zulia).  Their group has been around for a long time, and probably has a couple of dozen active members.  Azul has made a name for itself by resisting coal exploitation in the Sierra of Perija [a mountainous area near the Colombian border]. 


Azul has undergone a very interesting evolution from the point of view of environmental politics.  Rios is himself a fervent follower and supporter of Hugo Chavez.  As a matter of fact, he participates in meetings of the Bolivarian Circles [pro-Chavez groups organized at the local level which carry out community projects with government assistance].  However, he has been one of the most vocal critics of the regime when it comes to the environment. 


When Elio says in the e mail that the ICLAM conference is elitist he's telling the truth.  The ICLAM conference was comprised solely of experts.  It is all rather ironic because supposedly in Venezuela we are living in an era which has opened the doors of science to the community.  But as this event makes clear, there is no link between the people and science. 


Environmentalism in The Chavez Era


NK: How have local environmentalists fared during the Chavez era?


JH:  As a result of the "Bolivarian Revolution," popular struggles have been frozen.  The expectation for change amongst the people has risen, and there is a great hope that the regime will resolve social problems.  Environmental concerns have practically been abandoned by popular struggles here.


NK: Could you comment specifically about communities within Lake Maracaibo and local environmental struggles? 


JH: The Chavez regime has sought to provide the immediate necessities of life for the people.  That is to say, the government offers large quantities of food and services, which in one way or another satisfies the most critical necessities of the people.  Government programs have dampened social tensions.  In various communities that I have visited, local struggles which confronted the great forces of transnational capital have been derailed. 


We might cite for example the case of the Olivitos Marsh, where a transnational company [Produsal, S.A., a company whose capital has been provided through Cargill and the state-run Pequiven or Petrochemical of Venezuela], produced salt [necessary for producing petrochemical products].  Produsal's arrival in Olivitos resulted in habitat fragmentation in the area.  The company also displaced fishing communities that were linked to the natural ecosystem. 


In response, local communities mobilized against the petrochemical transnational.  Local residents also struggled against the Ministry of Environment which for many years supported the company.  The Ministry handed out all the permits and supported big business, notwithstanding that it's a ministry pledged to protecting the environment. 


But with Chavez's political triumph, local communities practically halted their struggle.  The majority of the local fishermen were Chavistas.  They hoped that they would reclaim the waters that they had had traditionally used for fishing.  There was a lot of commotion when Chavez proclaimed the new Constitution which had important provisions favoring fishermen's rights.  However, local leadership later abandoned the struggle.


PDVSA and the Case of Lagunillas


NK: During the environmental conference, I participated in ICLAM visits to various companies around Lake Maracaibo.  During our visits, the managers presented a very clean corporate environmental image.  To what extent have they have really changed their environmental policies for the better? 


JH: As a result of industrial sabotage during the oil lockout of 2002-3, the government has spoken of the need for local communities to find out more about security and environmental risks within the oil industry.  Unfortunately, the government's promise to make the oil industry more transparent has not been met.  When we environmentalists complain about oil slicks for example, we get the same executives and environmental employees from PDVSA [Petroleos de Venezuela, the state run Venezuelan oil company] with the same rhetoric and discourse from the previous era before Chavez.


Another example of PDVSA indifference has to do with the actual sinking of coastal lands as a result of oil drilling around the town of Lagunillas [located along the east bank of Lake Maracaibo].  While I am sure there are new PDVSA executives with good intentions, basically environmental management is the same and the ideological orientation continues to be opaque. 


NK: That's interesting, I recently went on a tour of PDVSA installations in Lagunillas, but I didn't know anything about a relocation program.  What's it all about?


JH:  There are more than 60,000 people living along the east bank of Lake Maracaibo who are at risk from a serious disaster.  In the event of a large tremor, the Lagunillas protection wall could break and expose the people to dangerous flooding.  A relocation plan was developed more than 15 years ago.  The plan involved preparation of the community for an eventual disaster and evacuation contingencies.  As a matter of fact the authorities developed an alarm system and they had organized predetermined evacuation routes and secure relocation sites. 

Up to now, however, the authorities have only relocated between 10,000 and 15,000 people.  It seems to me that the relocation could have been carried out better in both quantitative and qualitative terms.  The point is that a technocratic vision still predominates when it comes to dealing with communities.  There should be more attention paid to social and environmental concerns, so that the relocation is carried out with a human face and not just in accordance with economic criteria. 


Moreover, through my discussions with local inhabitants I understand that the disaster contingency plans and alarm system was abandoned three years ago.  I have spoken with some PDVSA staff and they seem surprisingly uninformed about this serious matter.  A little while ago I spoke to a woman engineer from PDVSA.  When I brought up the issue of the Lagunillas protection wall and security risks she said no, that wall is not a risk, this wall is completely safe. This attitude indicates to me that something is gravely wrong. 


I believe that greater popular participation could minimize the risk of an eventual disaster.  If the Chavez government really takes its rhetoric seriously and promotes popular participation, this is the moment for greater dialogue on safety issues.


NK:  Through ICLAM, I was able to tour the PDVSA installations at Lagunillas and the control room which monitors seismic activity.  Outside of actually relocating people, is there anything else that PDVSA could do to protect the population? 


JH:  From a technical standpoint there's not much you can do.  We as environmentalists however pose the question of whether all this oil exploration along the east coast of Lake Maracaibo, which has affected 60,000 people and put communities at risk, has been worthwhile in a human sense.  We ask if the costs have been lesser or greater than the benefits.


Mining and The Sierra of Perija


NK:  What has been the situation within the Sierra of Perija and coal mining?


JH:  President Chavez once offered to halt coal production in light of the environmental disaster that would result.  Venezuelan coal production certainly pales beside domestic oil production in economic terms.  What is the advantage that coal mining brings for the Venezuelan economy and the Venezuelan people? 


Coal mining, from the outset, has caused considerable environmental destruction.  Not just that, but it's also affected the miners.  Workers have fallen sick with lung disease as a result of their work in the mines.  These workers have spent practically their entire lives in the mines and they are going to die young. 


I have also observed that around the mines, the rivers and forests have been destroyed.  Mining doesn't benefit the people nor the indigenous communities in the vicinity which have lost their agricultural way of life as a result of harmful ecological destruction. 


While it is true that the money from coal extraction has been used by Chavez for positive social works, the problem has to do with cost and benefit.  I wonder whether it is legitimate to destroy nature to favor a majority which is socially marginalized.  One must consider the plight of the next generation, the sons and daughters of the people who may benefit today.  What will they do when they find that the natural resource base has been destroyed?


NK: During my time at the ICLAM conference, I heard someone from the local development agency CORPOZULIA give a talk about ambitious new port facilities in the state of Zulia.  Could you comment about it and explain how it ties into the question of mining?


JH:  Currently we confront another environmental threat in the form of a newly proposed project, Bolivar Port.  Corpozulia and Bolivar Port are both linked to coal exploitation.  As a matter of fact, Corpozulia actually owns mining concessions.  This port which has been proposed for the mouth of Lake Maracaibo and the Gulf of Venezuela would prove catastrophic for mangrove vegetation in the area.  Suspiciously, we environmentalists have observed that many figures from the pre-Chavez era are pushing this project.  Investors and officials who are in favor of the port project sit on the government commission.  That is to say the same people who are interested in exploiting coal, which contributed to the displacement of Indians in the Sierra of Perija and the pollution of the soil and rivers, now proclaim that they are brothers of the Bolivarian Revolution. 


Lake Maracaibo and Duckweed


NK: What is the cause of the proliferating duckweed vegetation which has become a major environmental hazard in Lake Maracaibo? 


JH:  I believe that duckweed is not a chronic problem, because it abruptly emerged in 2003 and this points to sudden causes.  Sudden in the sense of an enormous deposit of nutrients in the lake, and a new economic component.  I believe that the new source of nutrients is the shrimp companies which proliferated in Lake Maracaibo starting in 2000.  Half the shrimp companies that exist in Venezuela operate in Lake Maracaibo.  Shrimp farming is sufficiently prolific to give rise to excess nutrients and the duckweed phenomenon.  I believe that ICLAM has sufficient data to prove this to be the case but doesn't pursue the matter for economic and political reasons.


NK: How has the Chavez government handled the duckweed problem?


JH: I think the official policy in relation to duckweed has been far from desirable.  We are dealing with a government that has revolutionary pretensions, but the Ministry of Environment adopts classic political posturing from the Fourth Republic [prior to Chavez's election] period.  In other words, only the experts know about this problem, while the communities are passive observers, assigned to pick up duckweed which provides employment for the community. 


The Chavez government says that environmental damage is inevitable and results from progress.  The government has even claimed that duckweed is beneficial, that it is good news for us.  Chavez, in 2003, said that the duckweed was benign.  The government said that duckweed would be very good for the population because it was going to serve as food for animals, and that it was almost a gift.


Fishermen, who number about 10,000-12,000 in Zulia, have been most affected by the duckweed phenomena.  Every year, every time that we go into the rainy season, duckweed invades the beaches.  Duckweed affects people living on the banks of the lake.  It is always the poorest fishermen who are most adversely affected, not the investors in the fish industry. 


Paradox of the Petro State


NK: Chavez constantly denounces the U.S. for wasteful consumerism and has warned of the green house effect.  But the irony is that Venezuela continues to be a major world oil producer.  Do you think Venezuela should be moving away from oil, in sync with the growing rhetoric?


JH:  I don't believe the peak oil theory is a fantasy; I think that by 2050 we will have exhausted oil as a viable energy resource and we will have to rely on new sources of energy.  What will happen to Venezuela, if we are not prepared to live from anything else besides oil?  In the next fifty years we should be going through a process of transition, to substitute oil for another source of energy.  I think from a scientific and technical standpoint we are not doing sufficiently enough to look for oil alternatives.  But the U.S. and its European partners are heading towards the substitution of oil.  And I believe the new energy paradigm will be hydrogen. 


In Venezuela we have developed a technological innovation.  It's a new way to take advantage of oil, in the sense of producing energy with less resulting pollution.  Venezuela could be a great producer of orimulsion, a product resulting from the mixture of water and heavy oil.  Orimulsion is less polluting than coal.  I don't understand why we produce coal, which is destroying the Sierra of Perija and the indigenous communities there, when we could develop orimulsion production plants.  We could develop orimulsion, which could compete with coal on the world market.  I am saddened that within the Chavez government officials have not chosen to sufficiently take advantage of orimulsion.


Jorge Hinestroza is professor of sociology at the University of Zulia.

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Time For Progressives to Get It Straight on Venezuela: Part III

Articles touting Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's political successes and social programs are a dime a dozen on left wing Web sites these days.  When I was researching my own book, Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and The Challenge To The U.S. (recently released by St. Martin's Press), I read a lot of these accounts and began to develop an exceedingly idealistic idea of what was happening in Venezuela.  Having just returned from an extended six week trip to the country, however, I feel that the political and social landscape is a lot murkier and more ambiguous than many have suggested.


As an admittedly "left wing tourist," I had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a delegation organized by Witness For Peace, a Washington, D.C. based group which has been working for more than twenty years to halt U.S. interventionism in Latin America.  As a member or our delegation, I had the rare privilege to interview figures from across the political spectrum.  After the delegation left, I stayed and conducted more interviews on my own. 


Housing: A Mixed Picture


One of the most daunting issues facing the Chavez government has been the dire shortage of housing in the country.  All over surrounding Caracas, brick houses lean precariously off the side of steep and eroded hillsides. 


To really get a sense of the magnitude of the problem one must first travel to the state of Vargas.  Located about an hour from Caracas by car, Vargas spans the coast and has a brutal tropical climate.  Today, the state is still reeling from a tragic natural disaster which occurred years ago.


On December 14, 1999 intense rains fell across the state.  For four days, the rains continued.  On the 17th, massive landslides shook the area, with rivers of dirt and mud falling down the mountain slopes.  The avalanche brought with it collapsed houses, creating a human catastrophe of epic proportions. 


Traveling with my delegation to the site of the devastation, we saw a gully where the landslide had washed out houses, mud and earth.  A group of construction workers were laboring in the torrid heat.  They were removing rocks from the area and building a dike further down below. 

We spoke to a middle aged Afro-Colombian woman whose house was severely damaged by the landslide.  "When the landslide arrived," she told us, "it took everything away and anything that was left we had to sell in order to eat." 


To the side of the gully, there were still people living in rudimentary cinder block houses with no access to public services.  There was no garbage pick up, forcing local residents to burn their refuse in a gigantic pile.  Looking up the side of the hill, I feared that the earth might collapse on top of the houses in the event of further heavy rains.


Seven years later, local residents in the area complained that the government still had not processed their paperwork so they might relocate to safer housing away from the disaster area.  One young man with three children said that he and his family were ready to relocate, but that the authorities had delayed and delayed. 


"Chavez has never come here to see what's going on," he complained bitterly.

To be fair, the housing problem predates Chavez's arrival as president.  Prior to his election, there was a great scarcity of housing in the country.  The Vargas tragedy, which occurred scarcely a year into Chavez's first term, compounded the housing situation yet further. 

Nevertheless, the government has brought some relief and has enjoyed some notable successes.


Traveling in a blue van rented by our delegation, we traveled to the state of Miranda near Caracas.  There, we saw a model housing program called Ciudad Miranda, consisting of dozens of tall apartment blocks and smaller houses.  A local guide explained that people had been relocated to Ciudad Miranda from unsafe housing in Caracas and Vargas.  Once residents were ensconced in Ciudad Miranda and had been awarded an apartment, they would have twenty years to pay back government housing loans. 


As I walked up to the apartment blocks, I noticed that on the first floor many residents had set up cooperative businesses.  According to our local guide, the government had provided start up money for the new cooperatives.  What is more, on one corner the authorities had almost finished constructing a local school.


I spoke with the owners of one local grocery who had been refugees from Vargas.  They told me of their harrowing tale of escape, and how their entire house had been swept away by the landslide.  The residents were pleased to have left Vargas behind, but Ciudad Miranda was not immune from social problems. 


Store owners told us that some people had moved into Ciudad Miranda without proper documentation and there was little security in the housing complex.  Additionally, from a purely aesthetic point of view Ciudad Miranda left something to be desired: the apartment blocks were unattractive, and the small houses were not much more appealing.


On the other hand, in the hills surrounding the town of Charallave in the state of Miranda, the government has tried a different approach.  There, the authorities have built housing on a much smaller, human scale.  Local residents had traded in their ranchitos or rudimentary shacks for charming looking houses. 


I admired one house, freshly painted on the outside in red and white.  Walking inside I observed a modern kitchen and bathroom.  The local woman who was set to move in to the house beamed proudly as she guided us around the premises.  She denied that there had been any favoritism in the allocation of housing and that members of the Chavez opposition would be able to acquire a house. 


On the other hand, it had been a battle to get the authorities to construct the housing.  According to our guide, the authorities had only been spurred to construct the new houses after local residents mobilized and successfully lobbied the media to draw attention to their plight.      


Back in Caracas, I asked Rafael Uzcategui, the media coordinator of the human rights group Provea, what he made of the government housing program.  My old acquaintance was critical of the authorities for what he called an overly quantitative approach.  "The government says it will build, say 100,000 houses.  But more thought needs to go into planning.  New housing needs to be more conveniently located to services, employment, and medical facilities." 

Rafael was also critical of government inefficiency.  Recently, he said, the housing minister was sacked after only one year.  Whenever a fresh minister was appointed the new official would bring a different agenda and separate programs, thus encouraging bureaucratic inefficiency and waste.


Seven Years After: Chavez's Mixed Record


During a meeting with our delegation, Marino Alvarado, the coordinator at Provea, soberly evaluated Chavez's tenure in office.  While Chavez's victory in 1998 held out the possibility of overcoming traditional social problems, after seven years of the Chavez regime many hopes had not been satisfied. 


"There are some policies that are very positive," Marino remarked.  However, he added, "in other areas things are pretty much the same." 


Marino conceded that there was a great willingness within the government to help the poorest and historically most marginalized sectors of society.  On the other hand, there was great government inefficiency and "the willingness on the government's part to carry out policies is not enough to make the policies happen."


Marino explained that the country was awash in oil money, and people's expectations were high.  However, due to inefficiency public discontent was mounting.


"There's a lot of social protest," Marino told us, "calling on the government to comply with promises that haven't been met.  These are not opposition protests against Chavez, we're talking about sectors of the population that are supportive of the government.  They are calling for the authorities to actually implement programs.  They are calling for the right to health care, the right to housing, the right to work."


Leaning forward, Marino confided to us, "if you go to the presidential palace right now I'm sure you'll find people there.  Every day there is another protest."


Chavez had been fortunate in that he'd enjoyed a kind of cult of personality.  When something went wrong, Marino said, the poor tended to blame inefficient government bureaucrats and not the president.  The problem was that cases of corruption were mounting at the highest levels of government. 


Politically, Marino said, Chavez would win the December presidential election. 


However, he added, "there could be a moment when people start to point to Chavez as the figure that's responsible for government inefficiency.  If there aren't solutions to social problems very soon, it would not be strange to think that there might be a popular uprising against the president."

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