I first visited Maracaibo, the capital of oil rich Zulia State, the previous December.
Zulia sits in the northwest of Venezuela. It borders Colombia to the west and the Caribbean Sea to the north. The population is heavily opposition. And very much their own people.
“I speak three languages. Spanish, English, and Maracuchian,” says the mother of a student named Angie who showed me around Maracaibo.
Maracuchian is the dialect of spanish spoken in Maracaibo. It is nearly indecipherably fast and slangy. People from the rest of Venezuela see the Maracuchos, the people from Maracaibo and Zulia State, to be rude. The Maracuchos believe themselves to simply be more straight forward and honest.
“People from Caracas don’t like people from Maracaibo,” the mother said. “People from Caracas say we are arrogant. We say they are just jealous. Maracaibo provides for the rest of the country.”
One of the students, Angie, was trying to find a job. I suggested she apply to work at PDVSA.
She shook her head. “PDVSA is no longer a good company,” she said. “It is just a shadow of what it once was.”
“Let’s check these houses out,” D says.
The oil facility’s media spokespeople still have not returned from lunch. Daniel and I do not have much to do. Rows of new yellow houses are along the road, behind a fence. A guard sends us into an office. Inside, a man reading a newspaper tells us someone named Gloria will come and tell us about the new houses if we can wait a bit.
I look around the office. On the wall there are instructions that, helpfully, give instructions on how to avoid a kidnapping.
“Are kidnappings common?” I ask.
“Monthly more or less,” the man reading the newspaper says. “The opposition is trying to scare the workers.”
“The opposition kidnaps the workers?”
“Yes,” the man reading the newspaper says.
“Are half the workers for Chavez, half for the opposition? That is what I have heard.”
“Almost, but more for Chavez,” the man says.
He flips through the newspaper and points out an article where an opposition leader is claiming that Chavez will fire the PDVSA workers that don’t join the United Socialist Party.
“In the last two or three weeks three people have been kidnapped,” he says.
“By the opposition?
“For money also. And by the Colombian paramilitaries.”
“How many times a year does the opposition kidnap someone?”
“Two or three times a year,” he says.
“That’s all?” I ask.
“Right,” he says.
It appears unlikely that Gloria is going to come and meet us. We ask the newspaper reader about the houses. He says PDVSA engineers, doctors, and technical workers live in the houses with their families. There are also schools for their children.
The newspaper reading man offers us coffee and we drink it and then walk back to the administrative building.
The “equal” staff members are trickling back in from lunch. The receptionist is standing behind her desk, calling for them to sign in.
“Are the press people back yet?” I ask her.
“They’re not back yet,” she says. “You can wait.”
After a half hour they still have not returned.
“They’re coming. I don’t know where they are,” the receptionist says.
She opens up a planner full of scribbled numbers. It appears to be the facility’s directory.
“I don’t have their mobile numbers,” she says.
An hour passes.
A bearded man comes to ask the receptionist what we are doing in the lobby. He comes over and offers to call someone who can help us.
We go into his office. On the wall there is a graph of PDVSA productivity levels. Except for a dip during the oil strike, since Chavez took power the graph shows productivity consistently heading up.
He makes a call to a colleague in Maracaibo. It seems that in order to interview any workers or see the oil facility we will have to present a letter to an office in downtown Maracaibo and wait for a response.
We have only a few days. I know this will lead to nothing.
The sun and hours wait hit me with a sudden wave of frustration.
I get angry.
The man sees.
His arm shoots up to cover his name badge.
He launches into a long speech about how he, personally, has no problems with the US. “I like the US,” he says. “I went to university for a few years in Michigan. Please don’t use my name.”
The outburst is a surprise. I ask him if he will answer a few more questions if he remains anonymous.
“Yes,” he says.
“Are there dangers for people that aren’t Chavista who work at PDVSA?”
“Yes, all forms,” he says. “Oppression. Cuts in services. There have been some people that have worked for PDVSA for twenty-five years and they were fired for not being Chavista. Not many. But it happens as an example. The government controls everything from Caracas. Even the small things.
“There are people that don’t want to join the United Socialist Party,” he adds. “But we risk our jobs.”
He is speaking quietly and tensely. It is clear he believes he will have problems if anyone overhears what he is saying.