Interview with Álvaro Silva Calderón, former General Secretary of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) during the 2002-2003 period. Calderón discusses the U.S. State Department’s recently imposed unilateral sanctions against Venezuela’s PDVSA, the attack on OPEC and Venezuela’s struggle to maintain sovereignty over its abundant natural resources.
Are these sanctions against Venezuela as an individual nation or are they against the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)?
Both. It is well known that Venezuela has not only founded OPEC, but that it has also made huge contributions to the organisation. When you attack Venezuela, you’re attacking OPEC to a certain extent. OPEC is an entity of public international law that enjoys immunity. Its founding treaty is in accordance with international law, it is recognised by the United Nations. The action taken by the Unites States is inadmissible in terms of international law. That Venezuela may supply oil additives, or exchange or triangulate output with other members of OPEC is established within the organisation’s treaty. No country has the right to hinder, attack or violate an international treaty such as OPEC’s, which has been officially approved. These measures have no international support and they are embedded within the strategy of subjugating OPEC to the directives of the countries of high consumption. They want to be supplied with as much oil as they want, when they want it. When they talk about having secure suppliers, what they mean to say is a lot of cheap oil. When they talk about energy security, what they mean is security in the supply of low-price oil.
What would Venezuela have to do in the situation where oil sales to the U.S.A were terminated?
In what sense? Who is going to terminate them? Venezuela is not of that persuasion. On the contrary, it has always said that it will fulfil its obligations, that it is a safe supplier through good and bad times, through both periods of war and peace. Venezuela hasn’t threatened to impose embargoes. I don’t know how a suspension would come about, unless it comes from the other side and the U.S.A doesn’t want to buy…but I find that problematic (laughs).
Is it a feasible possibility that the U.S.A, deciding to heighten the restrictions, stops buying?
It’s very remote. Historically the furthest they ever went were the oil restrictions during the (Dwight) Eisenhower era, when they implemented quotas designed to protect national production and afford preferential deals to Mexico and Canada.
Does the certification of the Orinoco Belt as a crude oil reserve appropriate for commercial use – no longer classified as heavy, low quality oil or bitumen – place Venezuela more at risk of a violent imperialist attack, similar to the intervention underway in Libya?
Certainly, if the fight is for energy, for oil, of course the countries with high levels of consumption will set in their sights those countries that have huge reserves. If we didn’t have oil, perhaps we wouldn’t be under threat.
But, the new way of classifying the Orinoco Belt, does this signify an increased risk?
They have always known what there is in the (Orinoco) Belt. What’s more, when we used to talk about having 300,000 million barrels in our proven reserves, their oil offices said there were more than 500,000 million.
As someone who was in the parliamentary opposition for years, how do you view the behaviour of the Table of Democratic Unity (MUD) in the debate surrounding this topic?
From a national perspective, as a Venezuelan, I don’t think it makes sense. Even the most radical opposition groups offer solidarity when the country is under threat. It would be appropriate to remind them that in 1902, when the European powers invaded our territory, blocked our ports and attacked us, political prisoners gave support to the government of Cipriano Castro from their cells and were then granted amnesty and released to support the country.
Apart from Iran, Venezuela has links with great powers such as China and Russia as new partners in the oil trade. Are these connections profitable? Would you have endorsed them during your years as representative of the People’s Electoral Movement (MEP)?
During my years in the MEP and during my years in government as well. It is a correct policy. Every producer country tries to diversify its markets. Countries that export primarily one resource are not only dependent on that product but are very often dependent on one buyer, it is a double dependency. Venezuela is a vanguard in this respect.
What was your most difficult moment as General Secretary of OPEC?
I was Secretary during a really volatile period – the invasion of Iraq. There were twelve conferences within 18 months when normally there are only two a year. I had to go on twenty assignments abroad. The puppet government appointed by the invading forces in Iraq made a request to join OPEC. As general Secretary, I was opposed to this. But I didn’t have the power to stop it, because the Conference has legal authority, but I made it clear that I thought it was wrong that we accepted the request, because it was an invading government. In terms of international diplomacy, it was a very difficult time.
You always hear talk of the Arab group’s influence within OPEC – is it true that they are in charge?
In any association, whoever has the most resources has the greatest influence. We always implement measures to guarantee equality, but that doesn’t prevent those countries – who have an understanding between them for cultural and linguistic reasons – from acting as a team. However, Venezuela’s presence in the organisation has always been very important, and since the arrival of President Chávez our voice has been more respected.
Since you left the position, has this influence lessened?
(Venezuela) continues to play a prominent role, there is leadership within initiatives. Venezuela has always had this role because we have internal legislation, as opposed to other countries, we always set an example. We went through a bad patch for a number of years but with Chávez, we’ve become a vanguard again.
Alvaro Silva Calderón is a Doctor in Law graduated from the Central University of Venezuela (UCV). He is 80 years old and was born in Teresén, a remote village near to Monagas.
Coming a long way from his roots in Monagas he acted as General Secretary of OPEC between mid 2002 and the end of 2003. Prior to this he was the Venezuelan Minister of Energy and Oil, a position he gained as recognition of his long fight for the nationalisation of the Venezuelan oil industry and his struggle against its denationalisation later on.
As representative of the People’s Electoral Movement, he waged an idealistic battle against the liberalisation of the oil industry, introduced by the reigning neo-liberal bureaucracy as the great panacea for this poor-rich country.
“In Congress we used to talk just to be on record, because nobody listened to us. But we never lost hope, we were pretty stubborn. We went to tribunals and wrote in newspapers” he said.
How does it feel when you see others who also fought this battle playing for the other side?
There aren’t very many of them. Those from my group were very unified, ideologically speaking. Some aren’t so active any more, we’re old, others have passed away, like Gastón (Parra Luzardo), consistent in his principles from his university days until the day he died. (Domingo) Maza Zavala, in spite of adopting critical positions, and Radamés Larrazábal, who was always firm in his commitment.
Was it worth it?
Of course, we were able to correct the liberalisation and install order.
Translated by Rachael Boothroyd for Venezuelanalysis.com