Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Sowing the Oil -- Dester Rodriguez

On a Friday afternoon at the beginning of January, Dester Rodríguez cut short his Christmas vacation and returned to Caracas. He walked into an imposing room at the headquarters of PDVSA, the national oil company of Venezuela, where a special group of people sat around an enormous hardwood conference table and settled back in their soft, upholstered chairs. As he began his presentation, an image appeared on the big screen beside him. "It’s a map of the world at night,” he said.

And then he asked, “Is this world just?”

Some in the audience looked a little bit uncomfortable, maybe because they didn't know that corporate directors ever considered questions of global justice. Or, was it because one part of the world, their part on the eastern side of North America, was lit up more brightly than any other place on earth, even Europe? Perhaps Rodríguez was talking about them when he suggested, “We need a crusade against excessive consumption of energy.”

He followed up with another question: “Do you know the position of various governments in regard to Kyoto?” Murmuring sounds from the audience suggested that they did know at least one country that had not signed the Kyoto agreements to limit global warming.

Dester Rodríguez has one of the most important jobs in Venezuela. He's not only a director of PDVSA, Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., but he's also the person in charge of the oil company’s “social development” programs. In this capacity, he oversees the billions of dollars of oil revenues that are funneled into the various social missions that serve the Venezuelan people. So why was he making such an effort to communicate with nineteen young students from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania?

Rodríguez’s map indicated that the United States, and Europe and Japan as well, were gobbling a tremendous amount of the earth’s energy, even though most of the fuel originated in other parts of the world. "The rest of America,” he said, “and the rest of the world, cannot afford to live like you do."

He smiled. He wasn’t trying to scold his guests, but simply wanted to point out that Venezuelans, even with their oil wealth, could not aspire to a “first world” lifestyle. Furthermore, he didn't think life on earth would be sustainable if everyone tried to use as much energy as the advanced industrial countries of the North. Was it possible, he wondered, for other countries, especially those outside of the “first world,” to pursue their own course and establish different priorities?

“You know,” said Rodriguez, “for about three hundred years, Venezuela was a colony of Spain, and for most of the last one hundred years, we were, for all practical purposes, a colony of the United States. There were 100 years of exploitation of petroleum. Where did all our riches go?

“After the election of Chavez in 1998 and the new constitution and the new laws of 1999-2001, we had the choice of going in two very distinct directions. One choice was to continue being a colony. The other was to assert ourselves as an independent country. These choices clashed. If the coup of 2002, which was immediately recognized as legitimate by the United States, had succeeded, then we would still be a colony.”

PDVSA and the development of 'new weapons'
“After the attempted coup and the petroleum sabotage at PDVSA in 2002-2003, we were able to take control of the ‘crown jewel,’ our national oil company. That meant that the government was exerting real control over our natural resources, so that from moment PDVSA has been able to support the improvement of the quality of life of the Venezuelan people.

“PDVSA,” Rodríguez continued, “has a key role in producing the most powerful weapons ever known to mankind, more powerful than atomic weapons or any other weapons…”

His eyes sparkled and the animated indigenous features of his face broke into a grin. Dester Rodríguez is also General Rodríguez, a career military man whose background is remarkably similar to his commander-in-chief, Hugo Chavez. He grew up in poverty, sold newspapers on the street as a child, and scrambled and studied to win entry into the national military academy. Like Chavez, he also spent some of the most important years of his career as a professor at the academy.

“… these weapons…” The eyes of the students grew wider and they leaned forward in their upholstered seats. Was he talking about new WMD’s? (After all, Bush’s men in Washington have been constantly trying to convince the rest of Latin America that Venezuela poses a military threat.)

“…these weapons can create conditions for bettering the life of our entire population and lifting up the consciousness of everyone. Our weapons are missiles of love.”

“We call on the whole world to fight against death and fight for life. This is our true purpose. Our missiles of solidarity with the people, created over the past four years, consist of the various social missions. "

The PDSA director than proceeded to describe all the social missions that serve the Venezuelan people: the education Missions - Robinson, Ribas, Sucre; the health missions like Barrio Adentro and Misión Milagro; Mercal and the other food missions; Misión Vuelvan Caras, Misión Guaicaipuro, and Misión Viviendas, which produces housing. These are not small demonstration projects, but major efforts to redistribute the nation's resources. The neighborhood medical offices of Barrio Adentro are now serving at least 60% of the population, most of whom previously had no access to health care. The Mercal food stores, which are stocked with basic provisions at very low prices, are said to be providing 40% of the country's groceries.

“Back in 1998," Dester Rodriguez explained, "they still talked of the invisible hand -- Mr. Smith controlling everything. What did the market have to say to the people in the barrios of Caracas who had to eat dog food? We had forgotten about worshiping the real God and were worshiping the God of Money. We had converted ourselves into rational beasts. We were falling into a deep moral abyss.”

“Fortunately this country, with the help of God, has reversed course. The people are the essence of everything. The people are made in the image of God, money is not the image of God. Here at PDVSA we have been able to accomplish everything that the Evangelist [Jesus] commands without forfeiting our position as the third largest business in the world. Now we can provide for all the things that are basic to human existence: education, health care, food and housing. In the past four years we have created the social missions, and in the next six years we are on our way to socialism.”

Some final advice
For two hours, Rodríguez mesmerized his audience with arguments about Venezuelan sovereignty, the necessity of conserving the earth’s resources, the obligation of serving humanity, all woven together with a creative mix of revolutionary Christian imagery. This convergence of faith and social justice is shared by many in the government, including the president. In a speech in December of 2004, Hugo Chavez first announced that Venezuela would create a new kind of socialism, "a socialism for the 21st century," and he put it in this personal context: "I am a very Christian man and I believe in a revolutionary Jesus who wanted social justice."

As Rodriguez was answering questions from the students, one of them asked if there were plans to replace the Cuban doctors who were providing care in the barrios. “We will have 20,000 new doctors trained in integral family medicine by the year 2012,” he replied. “We have a dream, that some day soon Venezuelan doctors will join Cuban doctors in going to Central America and South America in a gesture of solidarity. It might seem strange to you that a man like me, who has devoted his life to the military, is now devoting his energies to promoting the social missions,” said Rodríguez. “We have a new civic responsibility now. Our dream is to replace our soldiers with doctors, so that we have the opportunity to prevent death instead of causing death.”

Another student asked, “What do you want from the United States?”

“First of all, that you listen to us. We recognize that the United States is great country and its people are very special people. We ask you to recognize Venezuela as a sovereign nation and also give the same consideration to the other nations of the world. We hope your country will accept the fact that we have our own reality. Day to day, we try to live values of solidarity instead of egoism, fraternity instead of war, government for the masses instead of government for the minority, so that we can manage to put the human being at the center of everything.”

Then he addressed a rhetorical question to his audience: “What can you students do?”

He paused and looked at all of them. “Put on your sunglasses so the sun doesn’t blind you. Protect yourselves, keep a space where your thinking can be clear, so that the God of Money does not mess up your dreams. You have to protect yourself every day so that the God of Money does not eliminate the dream of a just society.”

Based on talks at PDVSA headquarters in January 2007, when the author accompanied Susan Rose, Professor of Sociology at Dickinson College, and her nineteen students on a two and half week tour of Venezuela. After meeting with Dester Rodriguez in Caracas, the students visited rural areas of the country and stayed in the homes of campesino families.


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