2003: The Smell of Loss

Everyone I grew up with in Paraguaná worked for PDVSA. The defeat of the oil strike in 2003 shattered the company, our community and, very nearly, our families.

wOriginal art by @modográfico

The smell of mom’s ponqué baking every afternoon.

That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of 2003 and the paro petrolero. I was a fifteen year-old kid in Judibana, just outside Punto Fijo, on my first year of bachillerato, when it all went down.

Judibana is a strange place: built by the Creole Petroleum Corporation (currently ExxonMobil) in the 1950s, as housing for their expat oil workers and engineers, it was like a little slice of U.S. suburbia plunked incongruously into the Paraguaná landscape. It grew to become a small city, with its own Sears, CADA supermarket, and its Plaza Bolívar. Everybody worked in Amuay, the giant oil refinery just down the road, and I mean everybody. Our house was so close to the refinery that I could see the storage tanks from my window.

2003 actually began on December 2, 2002, when the oil strike started a desperate effort to oust President Chávez. PDVSA’s top management and most of its workers were convinced that bringing the oil industry to a halt would do the trick. Thus, my city was consumed by the struggle. My family, too.

Both of my parents worked for PDVSA. My dad worked in the Hygiene, Safety and Environment (HSE) department, and my mom was a teacher in one of the schools built exclusively for the children of PDVSA workers. When the strike began, my mom immediately joined it but my dad never did; he was officially on vacation.

Still, they went to the asambleas: public daily gatherings at our Plaza Bolívar, with all the workers on strike. I went to a few (school was also out) and I remember the cheering, the camaraderie, the euphoria. Run by the refinery’s managers, those were informative sessions, updating everyone on the nationwide paro, and pep rallies. There was no Twitter in 2003: this is how we found out what was going on.

“What do Chávez and hallacas have in common? They only last until December.”

The asambleas got bigger with each passing day. The crowd cheered the workers on and showed support for the strike with “¡Valientes! ¡Valientes!” and a few of them turned out to be pretty good speakers. It was the nómina menor (PDVSA’s name for blue-collar workers) that really got the house excited: the more they inveighed against the government, the stronger our feeling was that this was going to work. El pueblo se nos está uniendo.

We thought it’d be a short fight. After all, in April 2002, just a couple of days on strike and street protests forced Chávez to resign. This time the entire oil industry, the lifeline of the Venezuelan economy, was dead-set on bringing him down. We kept hearing stories of people who didn’t even bother to pack their personal belongings from their desks before going on strike: passports, credit cards, property titles and mortgage documents were at their offices.

They never got them back.

By mid-December, routine had taken hold. Asamblea in the morning, marcha in the afternoon. Go home to watch Globovisión, and the daily press conference from PDVSA’s top management in Caracas. We were optimistic; the joke was “what do Chávez and hallacas have in common? They only last until December.”

By New Year’s Eve, the mood had changed. The government had regained control over many oil fields, docks, ships and refineries, and it was restarting some operations. The initial euphoria within the asambleas transformed into doubt: the crowds dwindled, the leaders began to warn that this was going to be a long fight. Gossip was about who was going back to work. My dad’s vacations were coming to an end, and he thought his experience could prevent the unseasoned chavistas from blowing the whole thing up.

The National Guard wouldn’t let him into his office. A local newspaper, El Nuevo Día, informed that he’d been fired.

Shortages built up everywhere. Long lines for gasoline and natural gas appeared. Importation of soda and beer from Mexico began. I could see that money at home was running short. With no income since early December and payroll bank accounts blocked by PDVSA, most workers were desperate for income.

My dad’s vacations were coming to an end. The National Guard wouldn’t let him into his office. A local newspaper, El Nuevo Día, informed that he’d been fired.

Years later, I understood that look on people’s faces: anguish.

Gente del Petróleo, our quasi-union, organized the distribution of food baskets to support the workers. Every couple of weeks, we received boxes with some basic staples and desserts. We never questioned who was sending this food, Polar, Alfonzo Rivas, whoever. Our finances were approaching disaster. My dad (just like a few of his colleagues) started driving a cab. My mom baked ponqués, little snacks of vanilla pound cake. They became the center of our survival. Every morning was spent buying the ingredients, every afternoon was spent baking. We’d drive around town the next day, until all of our bags were sold. Rinse and repeat.

Slowly, the oil strike died down. People were more concerned about surviving. In the last of the asambleas, one of the managers still there prophesied “Give them a year, or five, and chavistas will still ignore how to run the refinery.”

It’s 2017, and they still haven’t figured it out.  

Eventually I went back to school. Even if we didn’t understand the full consequences of what had just happened, the sense of defeat was unmistakable. We tried to piece back together some sort of normal life, but neither my mom or dad could get a real job. A couple of months later, we learned that the top executive in Paraguaná was hired by a German company and left the country with his whole family. The diaspora petrolera had begun.

I remember how abandoned we felt like the whole country turned its back on us. My parents sacrificed their jobs, careers, even their retirement funds. Some of their colleagues lost their houses (they legally belonged to PDVSA). I think, however, that the most painful loss was the sense of being special. We were living in a bubble, isolated from the struggles of the rest. Dad eventually found a job in the new field at the Faja del Orinoco, from where he was also eventually fired due to political pressure. Mom carried on as a teacher for Fe y Alegría, a catholic church foundation for the education of the poorest children in Venezuela.

Looking back, that was the moment we lost our industry. There was an understated air of revenge against us, those who were once fired for corruption or incompetence now called the shots. All of the other problems we’ve seen in the industry ever since can be traced back to that day when PDVSA jumped into the void, hoping for the best. And society left us to die.

For many years afterwards, my mom couldn’t bring herself to bake ponqués. They smelled too much of the strike, she said.