The Victims of Venezuela’s Failing Oil Industry

A photo by Acossiated Press News (AP News)

“The damage is occurring… It is visible. It is not something that is submerged.”

A young Venezuela mother wipes black petroleum off the shell of a crab with her son sat by her side in an Interview by AP News. The cameraman exposes a crab unfit for sale. It is coated in a black, sticky consistency. These crabs will end up on locals’ dinner tables. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, consuming the crabs will lead to grim health consequences on the local population. Experts say exposure, both from contact and consumption, cause disease.

The Venezuelan fishermen, already cursed with a failing economy and food shortages, are now forced to bear the burdens of a failing industry. Bathing in gasoline is routine for Venezuelan fishermen. Gasoline is deemed a remedy, freeing the Venezuelan fishermen of the oil that clings onto their skin from a day’s work. The men scrub their legs in buckets of gasoline with abrupt splashes as if the fluid shared the same toxicity as water. Oil is simply a part of everyday life, clinging to everything: fishing nets, locals’ clothes, boat motors, as well as the fisherman’s means of financial survival. A local man exposes the harsh reality of an ocean contaminated with oil,“ [oil slicks] get into the nets and that prohibits us from fishing”.

Pre 1980, Venezuela was dubbed the wealthiest country in South America. Its abundance of oil, once considered “black gold”, held nothing but high prospects for the country. Venezuela has since exchanged its auspicious future for high political instability, hyperinflation and an economic collapse. The era of President Maduro marked the beginning of many of these national struggles. The Venezuelan economy crumpled under Maduro’s reign, leading to political opposition that only drove Maduro to tighten an authoritarian fist over his country and shut out any positive opposition. Venezuela experienced a brain drain that left the country with a growing shortage of healthcare and medical professionals, which catalyzed the revival of preindustrial diseases such as malaria and measles.

Venezuelan oil, a resource which outranks globally-renowned, oil-hotspot Saudi Arabia as the largest oil supply globally, remains in the hands of an economically and politically deteriorating country. Despite the 46,820 toxic oil spills that poured 856,000 barrels of the oil into the Atlantic and Caribbean seas between 2010-2018, the issue has been largely unaddressed.

On August 2nd, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, the Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), caused another oil spill that largely slid under the radar. The spill became apparent during the beginning of the month when fishermen and locals reported oil slicks washing ashore. The government, led by President Nicolás Maduro, provided little information on the logistics of the spill despite the incident’s severity. Not only did the spill cover roughly 15km of beaches, but the oil spill occurred in Morrocoy National Park, one of Venezuela’s most biodiverse ecosystems. The oil contamination threatened Venezuela’s marine biodiversity, causing marine and coastal organisms to experience lower survival and reproductive rates, among other adverse effects.

Josué Lorca, Venezuela’s minister for eco-socialism, the man who should be communicating information to the public, failed to prove additional information about the spill; he insisted 90% of spilled oil had been cleaned with the aid of 1,200 volunteers. Several environmentalists clarified that one clean up is typically insufficient and oil continues to appear in the incoming waves. Mr. Lorca announced a new oil slick found at the Golfo Triste area, which borders Morrocoy National Park. It appears that the claim of Mr. Lorca was an educated guess at best.

There have been several spills just as severe as the most recent including the 2016 spill that hit north-eastern Brazil and contaminated a 1500 km span of the coast with 26,000 barrels of oil.

However, the most frightening part is the positive correlation between authoritarianism and environmental degradation and two variables’ tendency to feed off each other. Experts propose a cyclical relationship between rising authoritarianism and environmental degradation. Heightened oil mismanagement leads to increased public outrage, which in turn motivates the Venezuelan government to turn to more autocratic rule. This directs funds and attention towards combating opposition rather than investing in better oil management. The cycle only continues to heighten political and environmental instability as the two variables simultaneously worsen with no bounds.

Now Carlos Mendoza, past ambassador under socialist leader Hugo Chaves, is calling this decade a ‘post-oil’ era. Recent American sanctions have caused oil production to drop to a tenth of what Venezuela, and, in what is now a 77-year low of oil production. However, the reality behind this is that oil remains to constitute almost all of Venezuela’s export income and half of the government’s revenue. It seems infeasible for Venezuela to pull itself out of its financial hole without the aid of its greatest source of income. Venezuela must focus on correcting their broken oil industry in order to alleviate their economic crisis and terminate the cycle between growing political and environmental degradation. However, as relayed in Plato’s ethical analogy of the Ring of Gyges, if no one is holding Venezuela responsible, will their country act morally and truly prioritize rebuilding its oil industry as an environmentally protective institution? It seems improbable.

Kira Siebrecht

The views in the article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The Liberty Club


Fisherman live in the stain of Venezuela’s broken oil industry” – AP News

Marine Ecosystems & Livelihoods at Risk if Venezuelan Oil Tanker Sinks” – Cari-bois Environmental News Network

Oil Industry is Fading Away in Land of the World’s Richest Reserves” – WSJ

Oil Reserves by Country” – Worldometer

Oil spill in Venezuela coats stretch of nation’s Caribbean beach coastline” – Global News

Venezuela crisis in 300 words” – BBC News

South America: Venezuela” – The World Factbook

Venezuela’s National Assembly Investigates Oil Spill” – BBC News

Venezuela’s Resource Curse” – Berkeley Economic Review

What the Oil Spill in Venezuela Tells Us About Its Politics” – New York Times

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