7 de agosto de 1997

The Petroleum Ombudsman

Ten years ago during an interview with a local reporter, I expressed my worries about the long term future of organizations such as Petroleos de Venezuela. While satisfying a real need for freedom of action and informative confidentiality, we have unfortunately also set the organization on a path towards degeneration of its operative capacity, no matter how efficient it may have been at the starting point. During this interview I even stated that the day could conceivably come when it could theoretically be more attractive to have politicians sit on PDVSA’s board than suffer the effects of an encysted meritocracy, unaware of the country’s realities. Venezuela’s challenge at that moment was to find a way to avoid this. It still is.

During the last few weeks we have received information pertaining to our oil industry which seems a bit strange and contradictory. Some “experts” harp on the fact that the internal cost of producing gasoline exceeds by far its price in the national market while others maintain just the opposite. The industry has announced a reorganization plan which would result in annual savings of US$ 2 billion. The other side of the coin of such sweet savings would seem to be the bitter possibility that the industry has been throwing these resources out the window all these years.

What does all this news really mean? Are we in bad shape but doing better, or are we in good shape but doing worse? This is very difficult to answer. As Venezuelans, shareholders and indirect beneficiaries of the petroleum industry we should have access to qualified sources of information. This information should be somewhat more objective than that we receive today from sources dedicated to different agendas, may they be government, opposition or industry insiders.

In this sense, I believe it may be interesting to promote the appointment of a Petroleum Ombudsman who, beginning with the limited role of providing truthful information, could eventually develop into a real defender of the Nation’s interests. The Ombudsman, a word of Swedish origin that identifies a spokesman and representative of the interests of society, is a figure that is used in many countries and performs many different functions in areas that are of relatively lesser importance than what the oil industry is to Venezuelans.

In addition to his role of truthful informer, the Petroleum Ombudsman can assist in the evaluation of the consequences of a great variety of aspects that affect the industry. One interesting case would be the implications of a request by Venezuela’s Central Bank to expand the oil industry’s role by asking it to delay payments to suppliers of goods and services in order to reduce excess liquidity in the local market and, as a result, fight inflationary pressures.

Another matter on which the solid, objective opinion of an Ombudsman would be more than welcome is the oil opening. Our happiness would be more complete when we are asked to celebrate the oil opening, could we only rest assured that the reasons for this aperture are not related to excessive fiscal pressure imposed on the industry which has limited its investment possibilities and even forced it to contract debt.

The existence of an Petroleum Ombudsman that is respected by the country would guarantee the collaboration of the nation’s citizens when it is justified. I am sure that among all Venezuelans of good faith that love this country, there isn’t one that would outright wish to contribute towards a deficit for the oil operators by purchasing gasoline at prices below production costs. On the other hand, among these same Venezuelans, very few would be prepared to pay a higher price in order to contribute to a Central Government that squanders its resources.

During the interview I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I maintained that should PDVSA be politicized, citizens would at least be in the position every five years of being able to pass judgment as shareholders of its management’s achievements. This was interpreted by the reporter as a recommendation to politicize PDVSA. This, as you can imagine, caused much embarrassment, and I was very relieved that the article was published on Saturday and during a period of vacations when few people read the press anyway. Today, talk about politicizing PDVSA does not continue to be a crime when we are seeing the latter become a political player; what is the same is not cheating (lo que es igual no es trampa).

In the Daily Journal, Caracas, August 7, 1997