Aristóbulo, a Time Machine, and Decision 156

This week’s bizarre constitutional crisis has been many things. Here’s one we tend to overlook: it’s been a stomach-churning desecration of the resource nationalism that once defined the Venezuelan left.

Earlier today I came across this thread by Rice University’s Francisco Monaldi. It stopped me in my tracks. Reading it, I realized the one thing nobody has done this week is analyze the TSJ’s Decision 156 as what it actually is: a catastrophically misconceived oil privatization measure.

Seen in those terms, the decision is, if anything, even more shocking than on constitutional grounds:

Monaldi is onto something.

The constitutional crisis of the last 96 hours, lest we forget, was the unintended byproduct of something entirely different: an attempted backdoor oil privatization scheme rushed through in a last minute panic by a government that’s run out of minimally reasonable ways of raising cash.

To younger readers who’ve grown used to a government of public treasury arsonists, this barely raises an eyebrow.

But I’m old, coño. I remember a simpler time when fighting oil privatization was the Venezuelan left’s whole reason for existing. I came of age, politically, listening to those arguments: I can never forget them. 

The principled, passionate rejection of oil privatization was at the core of their political vision.

Back in 1996, when Aristóbulo Istúriz was the 43 year old, first-term Causa R Mayor of Caracas pictured above, I was a 21 year old kid thinking about politics seriously for the first time.

I could see the country was hideously run, and only the left seemed to be asking tough questions about why. I spent a lot of time then hanging out with these guys: with Aristóbulo, and with Alí Rodríguez (who had hair back then, imagine!) and Pablo Medina and General Müller Rojas. The whole gang. I agreed with them. Hell, I joined their party!

I believed them.

In the mid-1990s, the principled, passionate rejection of oil privatization was at the ideological marrow of their rhetoric.

Specifically, the rejection to the Aperura Petrolera —the 1990s joint-ventures with foreign companies to develop the vast extra-heavy oil reserves in the Faja del Orinoco— was the leitmotif to the type of nationalist left they were trying to build.

Their rejection of foreign intervention in the oil industry had, at times, a devotional flair to it. The left built its whole sense of mission around this issue. To be a leftist in Venezuela in 1995-96 meant, first and foremost, to viscerally reject any move to sell off the oil industry to the foreigners. To be sickened by the very thought. 

In speech after speech, rally after rally, Aristóbulo, Alí, Pablo, Arias Cárdenas and the rest of the guys slammed the Apertura. They rolled their eyes at the considerable care Teodoro Petkoff and Luis Giusti had taken to design Apertura schemes that would maximize the take to the Venezuelan taxpayer. They had zero patience for the minute attention paid to ensuring bidding was scrupulously transparent and fair.

“Window dressing!” they railed.

“They’re selling off our lifeblood! Le están vendiendo la patria al mejor postor!!”

Reading Monaldi’s tweetstorm, I found myself thinking back to those years. And as I did, I found myself shaking —shaking— with rage.

Soon, I was mulling sci-fi scenarios —or childish revenge fantasies, depending on your point of view— where I hop on a time machine, go back to 1996, and show that young, idealistic firebrand what his life would become 21 years later.

I’d sit Aristóbulo down and give him 20-25 minutes to read Decision 156. 

Then I’d briefly explain what YouTube is and have him watch this:

Sí, Aristóbulo. For real. That’s you 21 years from now. You get fat, dude! Funny, huh? 4 out of 5 Venezuelans will lose weight in 2017 because they won’t be able to afford enough food. No worries, though: won’t be a problem for you.

That’s you, Aristóbulo. This is what you will become. This is what power will do to you.

And yeah man, that video? That really is you defending that decision. ¡En serio, chamo! That’s you passionately defending a Tribunal saying the President can rewrite the Hydrocarbons Law on his lonesome, ignoring an elected assembly, without authorization from anyone. That’s you giving the government cover to dish out chunks of the oil industry to anyone, under any terms, without even having to disclose them first if they don’t want!

That’s you, Aristóbulo. This is what you will become. This is what power will do to you.

And you want to know the crazy thing, Aristóbulo? You wanna hear the part that really doesn’t make sense?

No, it’s not that you’ll applaud an autogolpe staged to allow the president to vender la patria.

It isn’t that you’ll back a privatization held not so we can build schools or hospitals for the poor, but so we can pay back a gaggle of fat cat capitalists on Wall Street.

It thing isn’t even that you’ll do it all in desperate straits, facing horrendously unfavorable conditions that end up costing starving Venezuelans hundreds of millions of dollars Or that you’ll back that decision for the benefit of some multi-billionaire foreign oligarch closely tied to a far-right Russian dictator who has nothing but scorn for your ideology.

No, the crazy thing comes later. The crazy thing comes after you applaud that judicial autogolpe designed to allow the president to sell out the patria not to build schools but to pay off Wall Street to the benefit of a Russian dictator and his cronies.

The crazy part comes when, having done all that, you then look around for bits of patria you can sell off in a hurry for a substantial sum and find…well, guess what you’ll find when you do that, Aristóbulo?

Hamaca, chamo!

Sí, dude, one of the four Faja extra-heavy oil upgrading projects Luis Giusti is talking about setting up in 1996. You know, up in Jose, in Anzoátegui. Specifically, the one with ConocoPhillips and Chevron alongside PDVSA — a Joint Venture they’ll officially call Ameriven but everyone will still refer to as Hamaca.

Because here’s what you don’t know, Aristóbulo. You’re going to fail in your bid to stop the Hamaca project, and thank God for that. The gringos are going to build it —fancy, high-tech syncrude upgrader and all.

It’ll be a huge success.

It’ll look like this by the time they’re done with it:

By 2017, your long hoped-for revolution will have ruined the country as it staggers towards the end of its second decade in power. The upgrader will still be there, though they’ll have changed its name by then.

They’ll call it Petropiar, but everyone will still know it’s Hamaca.

They’ll call it Petropiar, as part of some doomed nationalist gesture, but that won’t fool anyone.

Everyone will still know it’s Hamaca. Everyone will still know that ConocoPhillips and Chevron built it and that it’s always been hugely profitable: one of the crown jewels of the Apertura Petrolera and an enduring symbol of your shortsightedness.  

By then they’ll have expropriated ConocoPhillips —at enormous cost at international arbitration— but Chevron will still be around with a 30% stake.

And you know what? After 18 years in power, the socialist revolution that will make you fat while the common people starve will have done so little for Venezuela, it will have built so little of actual value, Aristóbulo, that the bit of the patria that you’re going to be desperately trying to pawn off to some Russian oligarch to avoid total bankruptcy is…Hamaca! 

And so the day will come, Maestro, when —graying around the temples— you are going to go on television and champion shutting down Venezuela’s elected legislature to defend the right of a foreign billionarire to buy up Venezuelan oil assets that only exist because your multi-year campaign against them failed.

And that, Aristóbulo, you miserable piece of shit…that is the crazy thing.