Venezuelan Opposition Accuses Oil Company President of Illegal Campaigning

Opposition leaders presented a video of oil company president Rafael Ramirez, in which he urged managers to support President Chavez. According to the opposition this is a blatant violation of campaign rules and of the constitution. Ramirez and Chavez, though, argued that it was merely en effort to ensure that employees support the government's policies.

Caracas, November 3, 2006 (— One of the managers of opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales’s campaign presented a video yesterday which showed state oil company President Rafael Ramirez exhorting the company’s managers to stand firm behind Venezuelan President Chavez.

According to Gerardo Blyde, who presented the surreptitiously recorded video, such exhortation is illegal because it violates the constitution’s provision that state employees cannot be involved in partisan activities. Venezuela will elect a new president on December 3 and the two main candidates are Chavez and Rosales.

Chavez and government officials immediately defended Ramirez’s speech, saying that it was done in the context of opposition efforts to sabotage the oil industry and that it was not a call for employees to campaign for Chavez, but to support the government’s policies and to allow employees to express their support of Chavez.

In the speech, Rafael Ramirez, the president of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA and also Minister of Energy and Petroleum told a gathering of the company’s top management that all employees should support the president and if they didn’t support such a policy, then they should leave in favor of someone who supports the “Bolivarian” project, as Chavez’s movement is known.

“Here we are supporting [President] Chavez, who is our leader, who is the maximum leader of this revolution and we will do all that we have to do to support our President and those who do not feel comfortable with this orientation need to cede their position to a Bolivarian,” said Ramirez.

Ramirez went on to say that the oil company’s internal norms against political activism within the company should be eliminated. “I want that the managers help us to erase from our norms, from our internal e-mail, from whatever elements that direct the company, anything that could place a doubt with respect to our support for President Chavez,” said Ramirez.

“I want that here you get out of your head the idea that someone can sanction us or that someone can criticize us if we express to our people that this company is supporting President Chavez 100%,” he added. “It is a crime, a counter-revolutionary act that some manager here can try to put the brakes on the political expression of our workers who support President Chavez.”

Opposition leader Gerardo Blyde said that Ramirez’s speech violated Venezuela’s constitution, “from the preamble to the last article” because partisan politics are not allowed in state institutions. He went on to say that he and other opposition-affiliated lawyers would take their complaint to the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE), to the Organization of American States (OAS), and to the European Union (EU). The EU and the OAS have been asked to act as election observers in the presidential election.

Ramirez defended his controversial talk yesterday, in an interview with the daily Últimas Noticias, arguing that it did not represent campaign activity. “We did not proselytize in behalf of Commando Miranda [Chavez’s campaign team], nor have we called to vote for any candidate. We have merely supported President Chavez in his work as Head of State.” Ramirez also said that he would abide by any decision the CNE might make in this matter.

The politicization of PDVSA was not something the government promoted, added Ramirez. Rather, it was the opposition that politicized the oil company. “It was precisely the [opposition within PDVSA] and those who today, such as Mr. Blyde, present themselves in their press conferences, who took PDVSA to a confrontation that culminated in the oil industry sabotage,” of December 2002 to January 2003, Ramirez emphasized. The shutdown of the country’s oil industry cost the country an estimated $7 to $10 billion and led to the dismissal of 19,500 out of 45,000 PDVSA employees.

Vice-President José Vicente Rangel responded to the accusations that these represent a form of “destabilization” and that the opposition is copying the same schemes that were used during the April 11, 2002 coup attempt. “When I saw the press conference and they used the video to accuse minister Ramirez, I was reminded of the 11th of April [2002] and the call for the oil industry strike,” said Rangel.

Despite his disagreement with Blyde’s use of Ramirez’s statements, Rangel emphasized that any court case on this issue will not be obstructed. “In Venezuela there is the rule of law and no one will deny their right to approach the competent bodies, but this position that they have is eminently political,” said Rangel.

Today, Venezuela’s President Chavez also weighed in to the issue, saying that he congratulates Ramirez for his speech and rejects the “scandal” that it generated. “Minister Ramirez, go and repeat to PDVSA a hundred times per day what you have said because PDVSA is revolutionary and every day it will be more revolutionary. All the government’s support for Rafael Ramirez and for PDVSA, and if not, then they should go to Miami,” said Chavez.