WSJ’s Anatoly Kurmanaev Wrote a Moving Farewell Piece about the Oil and the People in Lake Maracaibo

Photo retrieved from

Anatoly Kurmanaev’s farewell piece as WSJ’s Caracas correspondent tracks PDVSA’s transformation from a well-run state-owned oil company that would provide good jobs and prosperity for Venezuelans in the Maracaibo Lake area, to a train wreck of a company. PDVSA was destroyed by rampant corruption and mismanagement; it can’t even pump oil or pay its workers, who now live in a run-down city, where misery is rapidly spreading. It’s a microcosm for chavismo.

He first reminds us that, contrary to chavista propaganda, Venezuela was once a vibrant country with class mobility, where a blue-collar oil worker could have a comfortable life:

“Oil from brackish Lake Maracaibo transformed this country a century ago from a tropical backwater into the world’s biggest oil exporter and, for a time, South America’s richest country.

Here at the lake today, thousands of idle derricks stretch to the horizon, crippled by lack of spare parts and routine maintenance. At its dozen oil ports, hundreds of barges, rigs and speedboats sit rusting in the scorching sun.

Workers here once enjoyed the country’s highest wages, company perks and elite schools; in December, the local oil union evacuated an entire rig after finding its oilmen malnourished…

For decades, the lake area was the jewel in PDVSA’s crown. Workers lived in leafy company compounds with bowling alleys and cinemas. They shopped in company supermarkets and vacationed at its private beach resorts.”

Then he tracks the obscene, decadent corruption that took us from having a world-class oil company with renowned partners, to patent corruption schemes involving maletín-companies that helped chavista honchos get rich by looting the country while destroying PDVSA and the life of its workers.

“Most international service companies, such as Schlumberger Ltd. and Weatherford International Ltd., have cut operations to a minimum after years of unpaid bills, according to workers. The companies declined to comment.

Dozens of local service companies were expropriated by PdVSA in 2009, their ships and barges abandoned or cannibalized for spare parts.

They have been replaced by military-controlled contractors and local firms like S&B Terra Marine Services, which took over the operations of Schlumberger’s six rigs in the lake last year. Only four of those rigs still work, according to oilmen who have worked at both companies.

Of PDVSA’s 560 speed boats in the lake, only six are operational, according to oil union activist Hector Berti.

S&B Terra Marine Services operated the PdVSA rig that was evacuated in December; some of the two dozen workers were taken to a hospital with dehydration and high blood pressure.

The company’s owner, Basil Al-Abdala, made local headlines in 2016 when he threw a lavish Aladdin-themed party for 1,500 people, featuring Colombian reggaeton star Maluma, to celebrate his daughter’s 15th birthday.”

The saddest part of the piece is its chronicle on the decline of life conditions in PDVSA Maracaibo, from upward mobile and well-paid workers to malnourished men sitting idly in abandoned fields:

“Nowadays, that seems like a distant dream.

“It’s as if we were animals, some wild beasts,” said one rig worker, Jesús, who asked that his family name be withheld for fear of government reprisal.

PdVSA didn’t respond to requests for comment about company operations and worker conditions.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon in the lakeside oil town of Ciudad Ojeda, PdVSA workers sat in empty air-conditioned offices adorned with Socialist Party posters.

Roberto, a foreman, said his oil barge had been waiting for three months to sail. Each day something was missing: food, motor oil, a tugboat. His team of a dozen people comes back each day and waits—until it is time to go home.

After two decades in PdVSA, Roberto earns an equivalent of $8 a month. This Christmas, for the first time, he had no presents to give his seven children.

‘I see the look in their eyes when they stare at the empty Christmas tree, I feel such a pain here,’ he said, pounding his chest.”

This is an excellent piece, a reminder of Kurmanaev’s keen knowledge of our country and his ability to find the most meaningful stories and scoops.

Thank you and godspeed, Anatoly.

Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.