Skip to comments.Venezuela's Fired Oilmen Fight Home Eviction
Posted on 07/22/2003 1:50:20 AM PDT by Cincinatus' Wife
TIA JUANA, Venezuela - Outside the housing complex where they have long enjoyed a pampered life, an angry crowd of oilmen was spoiling for a fight.
One of them brandished a baseball bat, and, borrowing a metaphor from the U.S. baseball scene that is passionately followed here, shouted: "Do you want it with or without cork?"
The troubles that bedevil President Hugo Chavez's grand scheme to remake Venezuela from the ground up have reached the country's cash cow: the oil industry and the people who keep it pumping.
As an oil rig mechanic employed by the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A., or PDVSA, Rafael Montero, 41, earned $500, nearly four times the minimum wage. Montero had a pension and savings fund and lived with his wife and four children in a comfortable, company-owned residential complex in Tia Juana, an oil-refining town on Lake Maracaibo.
Life was good.
But Montero and thousands of co-workers at PDVSA were fired in December when they joined a general strike that failed to oust Chavez.
Not only are they fighting what seems to be a losing battle for their jobs. At Tia Juana and other huge western refineries such as Cardon and Amuay, they are fighting eviction from their homes at the hands of the National Guard and Chavez activists. Their children could be yanked out of company schools.
Romulo Carreno, a PDVSA drilling engineer who didn't strike, wants people like Montero out.
"What right do they have to live there? They have to face the consequences of their actions," Carreno said at a recent rally at Tia Juana's loading docks.
Hundreds of "Chavistas," as the president's supporters are called, shouted epithets and waved rocks and steel rods at a group of fired workers standing 400 yards away.
This time National Guardsmen separated the mobs. But these nearly daily standoffs are getting more violent, with dozens hurt in recent clashes among strikers, non-strikers and replacement workers.
Former workers have a defense plan for their Los Semerucos housing complex, which adjoins the Amuay Refinery near Punto Fijo, 220 miles west of Caracas.
Whenever Chavez supporters or National Guardsmen come to evict them, residents light fireworks and use portable radios to alert their neighbors. They set up barricades of burning tires.
"We are not the violent ones. They are. But we are prepared to protect our families," said Victor Estrada, a 46-year-old computer technician fired in February.
Chavez axed 18,000 PDVSA employees during the strike, including 7,000, from executives to mechanics, in western Venezuela's oil towns.
Most hang on in company housing. But PDVSA has asked the courts to evict them, and non-strikers are growing restless.
Unapetrol, a union formed by strikers, has asked the courts to reinstate fired workers. It claims they didn't get severance pay and that new PDVSA managers have frozen their pension and savings accounts.
Unapetrol attorney Aquiles Blanco says PDVSA owes the former workers $337 million.
"Union leaders try to cheer us up. But, truthfully, I don't know what will happen," said Victor Estrada.
Montero says the oil company has distributed a blacklist to its many contractors, making his search for a new job impossible.
"My father was an oil worker. I followed his example," Montero said.
"Grease, oil rigs and drilling is all I know. And now I can't find a job anywhere."
Oscar Mendez, right, an employee fired from state-run oil company PDVSA for joining a general strike in December 2002 to force President Hugo Chavez from power, guards the PDVSA-owned home where he lives with his family on the outskirts of Punto Fijo, located some 360 kilometers from Caracas, Venezuela, July 7, 2003. 'Chavistas,' as the president's backers are called, have attacked and attempted to seized the residences. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)