Venezuelan Opposition Exploits National Tragedy

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In the aftermath of this weekend’s tragic oil refinery explosion, the Venezuelan opposition and its allies in the private media issued a series of baseless claims aimed at fomenting fears and winning over voters.

With just five weeks to go before the country holds presidential elections on October 7, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski and others in his US-backed coalition used allied media to accuse the Chavez government of “negligence”, vaguely promising a future “free of such incidents”.

With the exact cause of the leak, explosion, and resulting fire yet unknown, and with over 40 fatal victims, many question the opposition’s use of the tragic incident.

Fueling the fire

On Saturday, August 25, a gas-based explosion rocked the western Venezuelan state of Falcon, killing 41 people and leaving an additional 80 wounded. The tragic incident occurred at the country’s largest oil refinery, Amuay, operated by publicly-owned Petroleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa). Hours after the explosion, and with clean-up efforts in full effect, national authorities including Executive Vice President Elias Jaua and Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez arrived on the scene to provide direct support.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez described the accident as “sad and painful”, adding that the victims’ suffering “felt like a dagger in our hearts”. He also decreed a “three-day period of national mourning” and called for a “full investigation” into the cause of the incident.

With just five weeks before Venezuela holds another election, and with President Hugo Chavez widely expected to defeat his US-backed conservative rival, the country’s opposition tried using the tragic incident to influence a mourning populace.

One of the first opposition spokesmen to voice his opinion was Leopoldo Lopez, National Coordinator of the Capriles campaign. Barred from holding public office for having illegally accessed thousands of dollars in donations while working at Pdvsa in the 1990’s, Lopez used his Twitter account to allege that “poor and irresponsible management has made PDVSA one of the worst companies in the world”. Anti-Chavez lawmaker Maria Corina Machado joined Lopez in the issuing of baseless claims, guessing the incident was caused by a lack of “maintenance and adequate procedures”.

On Saturday, right-wing daily El Universal and others in the private media disseminated a Capriles statement expressing “support” for the victims of Amuay. Stating things such as “today, more than ever, Falcon (state) needs all of us Venezuelans” and “we’ve shown that, together, we can overcome”, Capriles was consistent with his campaign strategy of vaguely promising “solutions” without directly attacking the Chavez administration.

Meanwhile, Lopez claimed the incident “is the direct result of negligence”. Failing to provide any facts, figures, or documentation to back his claims, he told reporters the incident “was an accident caused by a practice of carelessness”. Speaking in the context of this year’s election, Lopez said, “change is needed in order to guarantee not only the safety of the oil industry, but the safety of the entire nation”. ”We are the voice of hope”, he said, “and in the very near future we will guarantee that these types of accidents not occur”.

On Monday, Capriles held a press conference in which he said “those killed (at Amuay) are our little angels in the sky – watching over us to ensure a situation like this never happens again in our Venezuela”.

Politicizing the flames

Apart from the electoral positioning of Capriles and his followers, the tragic incident was also used by the anti-Chavez minority to question Pdvsa’s current role in the Venezuelan economy. While President Chavez firmly insists oil production must benefit the country’s poor majority, longtime advocates of privatization insist on Pdvsa’s “de-politicization”.

According to Rafael Quiroz, a professor at opposition stronghold Central University of Venezuela (UCV), “there is no doubt whatsoever that some sort of mismanagement took place, at least as it relates to industrial security”. Quoted by Venezuelan daily El Carabobeño, Quiroz insisted “a human or technical failure must have occurred; evidence of a certain incapacity or inefficiency”.

The Venezuelan opposition often claims that the removal of numerous Pdvsa employees, mostly management, fired for having deliberately halted production during the 2002-2003 oil industry sabotage, is the reason for all problems in the country’s oil industry.

An AFP story on the fire cited Diego Gonzalez, President of the Center for Energy Orientation, who criticized Pdvsa-backed “social programs”, suggesting the Amuay incident is the result of Pdvsa “having other interests – obeying government mandates, which is now what prevails”.

Other international media produced similar reports. Basing its piece on unofficial reports and sources, Reuters wrote that such “problems have spurred accusations of inept management by the government of President Hugo Chavez”, while the Christian Science Monitor titled its story, “Venezuelan oil blast evidence of deteriorating infrastructure”.

Independents speak out

On Saturday, Venezuela’s national organization of independent journalists, the Journalists’ Platform, issued a communiqué lamenting the terrible loss of life at Amuay and calling for responsible reporting when it comes to such events.

Reproduced by numerous public media outlets, but absent across the private sector, the group’s statement affirmed its members “share in the pain felt across the nation” and “express the most profound sentiment of solidarity with the families of those killed”.

The organization called on “all colleagues in the public, private, alternative, and community media to strengthen our spirit of solidarity, respect, and comprehension” and affirmed that journalists have the “responsibility to both avoid and condemn all speculation and sensationalism which can result in an unnecessary climate of tension and angst”.

“Committed as we are to informing the public about this terrible incident”, the document read, the Journalists’ Platform called for “an ethical journalism that waits for the results of investigations so as to clarify uncertainties, thus avoiding the distortion of reality and the distribution of false information which do not contribute to uncovering the truth”.

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