Venezuela: Revolution in the Electrical Industry

Workers in the electrical sector are set to embark on nationwide consultation process to elaborate strategic and immediate solutions for the electricity crisis.  Alongside proposals for improving the sector and energy-saving measures, discussions will focus on introducing workers' participation in the management of the state-owned electricity company, Corpoelec.

In February this year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez declared a national state of emergency in the electrical sector.  The drastic situation facing this sector, which has led to a series of rationing programs across the country, is the result of various factors.

Prior to Chavez’s election in 1998, previous neoliberal governments had neglected the electricity sector in order to pave the way for its privatization.  In the early 1990s, pro-capitalist governments succeeded in privatizing the electricity companies that serviced Caracas and the northeastern island state of Nueva Esparta.  But, in 1999, a bill to privatize a further chunk of the 14 state-owned electricity companies was halted just in time, when Chavez came to power.

Since then, the government has moved to renationalize those companies that were privatized and has unified them into one single company, Corpoelec.

More Consumption, More Investment

The Chavez government has also increased funding and investment in the electrical sector, attempting to keep up with the huge rise in electricity consumption resulting from government housing and aid for low-income communities and industrial development projects.  While the government has been able to increase electricity supply by 4,623 megawatts between 1999-09 (compared to 2,945 MW installed in the ten years prior to Chavez), electricity demand has increased by more than 5,000 MW, from around 12,000 to 17,337 MW by the end of 2009.

Extremely high consumption patterns have converted Venezuela into the largest consumer per capita of energy in the continent, higher even than more industrialized countries such as Brazil and Argentina.

These problems have been compounded in recent months, as climate change-induced droughts have had a severe impact, with water levels dropping sharply in the Guri hydroelectric dam, which provides more than 70% of Venezuela’s electricity.

Minister for Electricity Ali Rodriguez Araque stated on March 18 that it was vital for Venezuelans “to optimize their use of electricity and combat waste” in order to confront the current emergency.

Angel Navas, president of the Federation of Electrical Workers,FETRAELEC, commented that the “rationing program is aimed at combating a model of consumption that is unsustainable and unviable.  That is why it is a problem for all the population, and all the industries.”

These statements were made at a press conference, alongside vice president Elias Jaua and other leaders of FETRAELEC late last week.

Raising Consciousness on Energy Conservation

Workers in the electrical sector have been leading the way in an awareness-raising campaign to encourage people to save on electricity.  Part of the conservation program includes free distribution of energy-saving light bulbs in communities across the nation.  So far, more than 6 million of these bulbs have been installed throughout the nation.

Industry workers have also been monitoring state institutions to ensure that they comply with new work hours established to reduce energy consumption in the public sector.

According to vice president Jaua, “President Hugo Chavez wants workers to be the guarantors of a trustworthy electrical sector,” ratifying his confidence in the workers who have energetically responded to the declaration of a national electricity emergency.

“President Chavez hopes workers will become key actors providing Venezuela with a trustworthy, lasting, and permanent electrical system for the people, through the construction of socialist companies, with a decisive and active participation of the workers,” informed Jaua.

Historic Worker Participation

A series of workers’ assemblies and meetings were organized across the country this week, in order to collect proposals from the workers regarding structural changes to the company, as well as ideas for tackling the current emergency.  These proposals will be complied and categorized before being discussed in roundtables when hundreds of workers from across the country gather in Caracas between April 5-7, and final proposals are presented to Chavez in a public event.

Navas described the proposals to move toward worker control as a “historic event.”

FETRAELEC has long been campaigning for worker participation as a solution to the problems in the electrical sector, and recently signed a new contract that not only equalizes pay and conditions across the country as a step towards further unifying the sector, but also includes a clause relating to worker participation in management.

In 2001, FETRAELEC also signed a collective contract with Cadafe, one of the main components of Corpoelec, which had as its first clause the right of workers to participate in managing the industry.

At the end of 2002, managers in the electrical sectors attempted to join their counterparts in PDVSA by shutting down strategic industries in order to economically strangle and sabotage the country to bring down the Chavez government.  Workers played a key role in defeating the efforts led by their managers, eventually recuperating the industries and re-balancing Venezuela’s economy.

Out of this struggle, workers began to organize committees across the industry to implement their collective contract.  However, they encountered fierce resistance from company managers and sections of the government that feared losing power and privileges.

By 2005, the experience of worker participation, denominated co-management, had been rolled back across the country, with the exception of the Merida branch of CADAFE, where workers had elected Raul Arocha as local manager.  Arocha came from the grassroots workers’ struggle and represented their interests.  The strong relationship that existed between the workers, union, and management meant the process was able to continue and achieve record results in regard to service provision and intakes.

As part of an important sign of the government’s intention to once again promote worker control of the industry, President Chavez designated Raul Arocha as president of CADAFE at the beginning of March 2010.