As the Venezuelan economy continues to circle the drain, perhaps the quintessential symbol of the extraordinary personal incompetence of President Nicolás Maduro and of the thoroughgoing failure of the socialist system he inherited from his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, has been the mind-boggling inability of this, one of the top oil-producing nations on earth, to meet its own people’s demand for gasoline. This shortfall has occurred despite the fact that Venezuela has actually been importing fuel – for most of which, according to reports, it has been unable to pay its bills.
Over the last few months, despite continual reassurances by Maduro, the supply crisis has only gotten worse. On February 21, Maduro promised “good news soon” because he had installed a “new PDVSA board” that was dedicated to fighting “corruption and unnecessary costs.” On March 22, however, thanks to maintenance issues, production challenges, shipping difficulties, and a shortage of working trucks attributed to a lack of spare parts – in other words, significant problems at pretty much every stage of the oil extraction and distribution process – the situation had deteriorated to a point at which the entire nation was experiencing a critical shortage of petrol. At gas stations across the country, dozens of cars could be seen queued up, their owners hoping in vain to be able to fill their tanks.
Aside from the magnificently unmasterly Maduro himself, the personification of this embarrassing dilemma is Eulogio del Pino, president of the country’s colossal oil entity, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), which is the primary engine of the nation’s economic power, such as it is. Or was. In a touch that would seem insane in the policies of any country but that these days seems par for the course for the Bolivarian Republic, just a couple of days ago came the news that Venezuela, despite its domestic oil crunch and its emergency oil-import policy, had not only continued but stepped up fuel exports to Cuba, Nicaragua, and other allies.
But, as with much else about Venezuela’s current, many-faceted nightmare, the chief culprit here seems to be Maduro himself. Apparently more interested, even now, in shoring up and enhancing his own power than in trying to rescue his nation from catastrophe, he’s dismissed relatively skilled key officials in the PDVSA and replaced them with his political and military cronies, most of whom have little or no background in the oil business – or, for that matter, in the competent management of anything. Other PDVSA executives, recognizing that Maduro’s hirings and firings are only helping to drive the state-owned company even further into the ground, have jumped ship of their own accord, presumably recognizing that at this point, under present governance, the whole massive enterprise is, quite simply, doomed.
In the midst of all this drama, Del Pino, in what can only be read as a display of the remarkably tone-deaf insouciance that so often characterizes the mindless, mediocre agents of ineffectual and indifferent authoritarian states, visited a fuel distribution plant where, in response to a chorus of irate complaints by laborers about their working conditions and salaries, simply smiled inanely, loftily ignoring their concerns. Somehow, that distant and detached reaction seemed the perfect summing-up of the whole ridiculous tragedy.