By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS -- A sudden spate of largely unexplained shortages of gasoline -- of all things in the country with the biggest oil reserves in the Western hemisphere, or officials claim, the entire world -- has put President Hugo Chávez' government on the spot.
In a country where at least the better off are addicted to driving everywhere (while everybody queues for an ever more unreliable bus or subway train and then sweats through their journey), failure to ensure that people can fill up their tanks at the drop of a hat and with little impact on their pocket is tantamount to serious failure.
Energy and Mines Minister Rafael Ramírez went Thursday to Maracaibo, capital of the western state of Zulia and where shortages were starting to look like becoming acute, in an evident attempt to calm tempers. There, he "guaranteed that supplies would be "regularized" soon but was distinctly short on explanation of what had happened, and why.
Ramírez, who doubles up as president of the state oil corporation, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) -- by far the biggest oil outfit in the country -- said there had been some problems with distributors in Caracas. In all likelihood, this probably wasn't of much import to people in Maracaibo, some of whom have a tendency to regard the capital with a mixture of disdain and disregard.
As it turned out, the distributors in question in Caracas turned out to be "collectives" -- the sort of small "socialistic" business that once found such favor with the president that he saw them as future models for the country as a whole. Chávez is said since to have grown disillusioned with collectives, not least because few of them are well run, and a quite a lot go to the wall after or despite generous state financing.
Ramírez made no reference to his own backyard at PDVSA, which delivers a lot of gasoline to its network of stations across the country. PDVSA is in the throws of a wave of multiple labor disputes, which are in turn complicated by the fact that there are around a dozen different unions in the oil industry.
Complicating issues, the unions are under pressure to hold internal elections for new leaderships. Until the elections are over, the government says negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement can't even start.
In the meantime, PDVSA is under orders from the government to push forward with plans to shift Venezuela from vehicles fuelled with gasoline to new or converted models equipped with dual fuelling systems capable of using compressed natural gas as well as old-fashioned gasoline.
The plan originally envisaged that 30% of output of new vehicles would have dual fuel capacity at the beginning of this year. But industry spokesmen say production still hasn't actually started.
PDVSA and the auto industry are still embroiled in talks aimed at deciding who picks up how much of the tab for the conversion program. The government says the cost of conversion should be shared by PDVSA and the auto industry, and not passed on to consumers.
Venezuelan drivers must be some of if not the most pampered motorists on the planet. Gasoline prices stand at around the equivalent of 12 United States cents a gallon, and haven't changed in 13 years.
Chávez has said gasoline prices should be "reviewed" in view of a low cost of consumption he regards as "absurd." However, he said the time for doing this wasn't "at the moment."