Opinion and Analysis: International | Oil and Gas
Transparency International's Wall of Silence on Venezuela's PDVSA
The facts are straightforward. Last April, TI published a report
about the global oil industry which ranked oil companies according to
whether they were of high, medium or low transparency. Venezuela ’s
state-owned oil company, PDVSA, was given the lowest possible ranking
on the basis that it did not produce properly audited accounts and was
withholding basic financial information about revenues, taxes and
The Chavez government says that it spends the proceeds of its oil industry on providing a free health and education system, and on raising the living standards of the working class and poor. The opposition counters that Chavez is mismanaging PDVSA and cooking the books in order to cover up inefficiency and corruption.
Unsurprisingly, TI’s report was seized upon by the opposition as evidence in support of their claims. PDVSA was a “company of low transparency”, and although TI did not directly suggest that PDVSA was corrupt, they do say that companies that withhold basic information from the public “leave the door open to corruption”.
But TI’s report was wrong. Not just any old wrong. But completely, utterly, glaringly wrong. All the information that TI claimed PDVSA was refusing to disclose was freely available in their Report and Accounts and published on their website and in the press.
TI’s financial involvement with the oil industry stretches back over many years. “TI gratefully acknowledges the generous contributions of... Shell and ExxonMobil,” they say on their website. Generous contributor ExxonMobil is no friend of Venezuela's socialist government. Earlier this year they took PDVSA to the British High Court in a bid to seize their assets, and lost.
So how did this “non-partisan” NGO (which also received a million pounds from the British Government last year) get it so wrong?
The one organisation that could provide a definitive answer is maintaining a wall of silence.
On May 14, I phoned Transparency International’s headquarters in Berlin and spoke with their senior press officer, a lady called Gypsy Kaiser. Ms Kaiser insisted that their report was accurate and that PDVSA had only disclosed basic financial information after they went to print. I checked the dates. Ms Kaiser was wrong. The missing information had been published months earlier in PDVSA’s 2006 accounts, and was also available in their recently released 2007 accounts. I called back and left two messages on Ms Kaiser’s answer-phone. My calls were not returned.
A few days later, I wrote a piece for the Guardian's 'Comment is free' section, debunking TI’s report. In the course of my investigations, I came across something very funny, and something very disturbing. The funny thing was a newspaper photograph of of the head of PDVSA holding up a copy of their Report and Accounts, containing all the information TI said didn’t exist.
The disturbing thing was that a document released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that during the 2002 coup, a lady called Mercedes de Freitas had emailed the US Government’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to defend the newly installed military dictatorship. At the time, Ms de Freitas was director of a NED funded opposition organisation called Fundacion Momento de la Gente. She is now head of Transparency International’s Venezuela bureau, and according to TI it was her who was entrusted with the task of compiling the data on PDVSA.
I called Gypsy Kaiser again, and asked if she had read my article. She had. I wanted to know whether TI would be withdrawing their report and holding an investigation into the partisan affiliations of their Venezuela bureau. Ms Kaiser declined to say, and instead invited me to put my questions in writing. I did.
After two more days of silence, I called Ms Kaiser’s boss, André Doren, Director of Communications. Perhaps he would be more communicative? He told me that he had people working on the answers and promised to call me back the following day. He didn’t. I emailed him to ask why. He didn’t reply. I left a message on his answer-phone. He didn’t respond. Presumably he was too busy exposing opaque organisations.
Another week passed, and still no answers from TI. I tried their regional office for the Americas . An official told me that they “stand by their report”. Even though it’s wrong? “That’s your opinion,” she replied.
“But the information that you say doesn’t exist, does exist.”
“Talk to our press office,” she advised.
Despite having a strong sense of déjà vu, I phoned the press office and spoke once again with Gypsy Kaiser. She was positively seething. “Calling our staff is inappropriate behaviour,” she barked at me, like an angry school teacher. “But you won’t answer my questions,” I protested. “We will,” she responded.
“But when? I’ve already waited three weeks. ”
“I’m not giving you a date. Let’s just say it will be sooner rather than later.”
A week on and I’m still waiting. Obviously her definition of “sooner” is my definition of “later”.
In the meantime, TI are busy mailing their inaccurate report on Venezuela to businesses, NGOs and governments all over the world. No investigation has been held into what went wrong. And their Venezuela bureau continues to be run by a person who backed the 2002 coup against democracy.
Transparency International doesn’t like answering questions. But I have one more for them. Isn’t it about time they changed their name?
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