"The L.A. what?" Ask people on the streets of Los Angeles about the city's river, and you'll see strange looks. Tell them you kayaked the L.A. river and those looks get ever stranger. But kayak I did, and here's a flashback to the piece I did for time.com about the experience:
Yes, a River Runs Through It: Kayaking the Forgotten Waterway of Los Angeles
This is part of a series of re-published articles I wrote in 2005 for the Daily Journal in Caracas.
May 16, 2005
Venezuela signed an agreement with Spain on Monday that allows Venezuelans to use their driver's licenses in Spain. Spaniards will also be able to use their licenses in Venezuela.
"This agreement is dedicated to improving the lives of citizens," said Spanish Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, Jesus Caldera Sanchez-Capitan. "It will make [their lives] easier."
Sanchez-Capitan signed the agreement with Venezuela's Foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez Araque at the Foreign Ministry in Caracas.
Rodriguez Araque said the agreement helped facilitate the free movement of human beings, rather than just free movement of capital. He said it would also help people from Southern countries who seek a better quality of life in Europe.
Rodriguez Araque added that when masses of South Americans want to go to the United States, or when many Eastern Europeans or North Africans want to live in Europe, they find many barriers. He cited the Berlin Wall and the Mexican-American border as examples.
Sanchez-Capitan added that the agreement will deepen relations between the Venezuelan and Spanish people.
"This was a necessity for the Venezuelan and Spanish people," said Sanchez-Capitan, emphasizing that many Venezuelans in Spain need to drive to work. "I want to thank the Venezuelan government for this solution."
Sanchez-Capitan said the Spanish government will establish a procedure to legalize the "thousands of people" who are working illegally in the country without social protection or legitimate work contracts.
The labor minister, who belongs to Spain's ruling socialist party (PSOE), said the opposing populist party (PP) has criticized the current government's efforts to give foreign workers legal status.
"The Partido Popular likes people to work illegally," he said. "They like to have cheap labor. But the social democrat government cannot allow that."
Rodriguez Araque said that while approximately 65,000 Venezuelans were registered as residents of Spain, many more lived there illegally. Sanchez-Capitan said approximately 10,000 Venezuelans working without papers in Spain are currently applying for legal status.
"We think that the whole Venezuelan community in Spain is going to be legal," Sanchez-Capitan told reporters after signed the agreement. "We don't want people to work illegally in the economy. Venezuelans in Spain are working, contributing to the property of Spain. Therefore, their rights should be recognized."
This is part of a series of re-published articles I wrote in 2005 for the Daily Journal in Caracas.
Russian wants to supervise PDVSA
By Jens Gould
May 16, 2005
The general comptroller of Venezuela, Clodosvaldo Russian, wants state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) under his supervision. Until this happens, the company may remain a punching bag for many officials fed up with supposed corruption.
"The prevailing culture at PDVSA for many years-without saying that this has been erased, because the culture still remains-in PDVSA it was assumed that public control over the company was not a given," said Russian on Monday, according to El Universal's website.
Russian met with Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel on Monday to discuss the Organic Law of the Comptroller’s Office and the National System of Fiscal Control, said a press release from the Vice President's office. Within four weeks, the comptroller will put new measures into place to ensure more consistent auditing of public entities such as PDVSA, he said.
Russian said that because PDVSA was owned by the Venezuelan State and it belonged to "all Venezuelans," it was subject to fiscal oversight by the General Comptroller's office. He added that the company was "perfectly controllable" by his office.
National Assembly (AN) Deputy Julio Montoya - of the opposition's Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party - called on Monday for an investigation of supposed irregularities at the Western division of PDVSA in front of the Attorney General's office in Zulia state, reported El Universal.
Montoya, the vice president of the AN's Energy and Mines Commission, presented documents that he says indicate corruption at PDVSA, reported Union Radio.
According to Montoya, PDVSA-West's production is 500,000 barrels below levels indicated by the government.
Deputy Rafael Simon Jimenez accused President Hugo Chavez' ruling Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) party on Monday of skirting the issue of decreased production at PDVSA by calling for an evaluation of operating agreements with transnational companies, reported El Universal.
"Concentrate on saying how it is that you have plundered PDVSA, how you have humiliated the industry, how it is that you are responsible for the drop in production," said JimÈnez who belongs to the opposition's Accion Democratica.
A Bloomberg report stated that a drop in Venezuela production could jeopardize global oil supply as demand rises this coming winter.
Oil expert Alberto Quiros Corradi said on Monday that unruliness at PDVSA was a recent phenomenon.
He said that management before the national strikes of 2002-03 maintained a comptroller's office within the company and that the Energy and Mines Ministry also released an annual statistical report, the "Pode," reported Union Radio. But the last "Pode" the Ministry released was for the 2002 fiscal year.
Since then, information has been sketchy at best. "Here there hasn't been a palpable demonstration of what the production is, there hasn't been a demonstration of questioning about how many profits are handed over to the Venezuelan Central Bank," said Quiros Corradi.
Chavez said Sunday that members of the opposition as well as United States' "imperialism" were trying to "create chaos" at PDVSA, as well as in the Armed Forces.
Quiros Corradi called such explanations "ridiculous" and "childish," demanding that PDVSA reveal audits from the past two years, detail its royalty payments, and prove that it has not sold oil at a discount or through middle men.
Carlos Carreno and Luis Martins, former PDVSA mechanics, said earlier this month that problems with management, labor and corruption had plagued the company, Bloomberg reported.
"We're all backers of the president, we're all Chavistas," Martins told Bloomberg last week. "But Ramirez and the board aren't letting the president know what's really happening here."
"There's a lot of corruption inside the company," said Martins to a crowd of workers at La Salina oil terminal on Lake Maracaibo.
40 managers and more than 8,000 contract workers have been let go by the company so far this year, reported Bloomberg.
Chavez has also accused transnational companies operating in Venezuela of tax evasion.
Montoya pointed out that despite such accusations, Chavez has continued signing agreements with them. "If these companies were robbing us, the ethic should be to stop doing business with them," he said.
Jose Toro Hardy told The Daily Journal in a telephone interview last week that the International Energy Agency reported Venezuela's daily oil production at 2.6 barrels per day (bpd) while the government announced levels of 3.3 bpd.
PDVSA hopes to raise its production to over 5 million bpd by 2009. But unconfirmed reports circulating within the industry claim that PDVSA has closed hundreds of wells due to technical difficulties arising after the national strikes.
Venezuela's moves to seize oil fields from private companies more than a decade ago have particular relevance today. Here's a piece I wrote in 2005 for the Christian Science Monitor:
"Tense relations between private firms and Mr. Chávez's government escalated last week when the government seized fields operated by two European oil giants - France's Total and Italy's ENI - after the two companies snubbed government demands to convert their contracts to joint ventures with the state by April 1."
Read the entire story here:
Venezuela tightens oil grip
Venezuela said it planned to increase its heavy crude production to 1.6 million barrels a day by 2010. That deadline passed nine years ago. Before U.S. sanctions took effect this January, the country was only producing 1.1 million barrels a day in total, according to OPEC. Here's a flashback to PDVSA's optimistic plans long ago, part of a series of articles I wrote in 2005 for the Daily Journal in Caracas and am re-publishing here.
PDVSA to boost output
By Jens Erik Gould
June 28, 2005
MARACAIBO - Luis Vierma, vice president of production and exploration for state-run Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), said on Tuesday that heavy crude production in Venezuela would rise by 1 million barrels per day (bpd) by the year 2010.
Part of the increase would come from a heavy crude project in San Cristobal, which Vierma said would be producing 400,000 bpd by 2008. PDVSA President Rafael Ramirez would soon outline the company's strategy for developing the Faja del Orinoco as well as announce new projects accounting for the rest of the production increase, Vierma said.
Vierma made the remarks in a keynote address at the opening day of the Latin American Petroleum Show in Maracaibo. Ramirez - who doubles as the energy and petroleum minister - cancelled his appearance at the event, apparently due to the Petrocaribe meeting in Puerto la Cruz.
The PDVSA vice president told reporters after his speech that Indian Oil company was evaluating a possible joint venture in the San Cristobal project. He added that the deal with India's state-run oil company was only a possibility at this point, since the Indian company has voiced a preference for lighter crude fields. "The Hindus have their preferences," he said.
He said PDVSA was open to discussing partnerships with other foreign companies as well, but offered assurances that the company also had the technological expertise to launch the project alone. "We are open to any type of negotiation," he said.
According to Vierma, PDVSA has already drilled a series of wells at the San Cristobal project, which is north of Cerro Negro in the Faja. The state oil company will either create a blend and sell the crude at 16 API, or send the heavy crude to refineries that are still in the planning stages, he said.
Vierma said PDVSA was in the process of determining the cost of the San Cristobal project, and added that the wells were "relatively inexpensive." Current heavy crude production is estimated at 600,000 bpd.
The vice president also praised the recent construction of the first Venezuelan-made platform, which was intended for use by ConocoPhillips in Corocoro in the Gulf of Paria.
Regarding the Rafael Urdaneta project in Paraguana, Vierma said PDVSA would receive bids from 30 companies for exploration in September. The bidding would be carried out "without a day of delay," he said, even though analysts have previously expected bidding to end in July. The project consists of 29 blocks in the Gulf of Venezuela and 11 in Falcon.
"Massive" maintenance plan
PDVSA will also launch a "massive well maintenance program" in Lake Maracaibo, which has over 10,000 wells, Vierma said. The project will include improvements to the mechanical structure of wells and to gas injection plants, some of which are 50 years old.
The two main goals of the project were to save natural gas and to increase crude production, he said.
Critics have said there is a severe lack of upkeep and investment in the area. Valeria Luti, director of finances for Convalsa construction company in Zulia state, told The Daily Journal that the lack of maintenance of wells in Lake Maracaibo was responsible for falling production levels.
She said that the decrease in PDVSA investment had caused many service companies in the area to close up shop, although Convalsa revenue had improved slightly in 2005.
PDVSA aims to launch the maintenance project in phases and anticipates that it will last five to six years, he said. The cost of the project is currently being evaluated. "We don't want to consider (sources of financing) is if it is not necessary," he said.
In other news, ChevronTexaco's Latin American president Ali Moshiri told reporters that the company would present a plan in January 2006 to open heavy crude production in the Faja del Orinoco. Moshiri said the company would share the venture with the Spanish company Repsol and PDVSA.
This is part of a series of re=published articles I wrote in 2005 for the Daily Journal in Caracas.
May 11, 2005
Gaston Parra Luzardo, president of the Venezuelan Central Bank (BCV), wants to allocate a portion of excess international monetary reserves to a National Development Fund. How the government proposes to access the funds, however, is uncertain.
"The Constitution establishes that profits gained by the export of hydrocarbons must be designated for real productive investment, to health and education," Luzardo said at the Federal Legislative Palace on Wednesday.
Luzardo spoke at the presentation of a book titled "Excess Reserves," which promotes the use of reserves, organized Wednesday by the National Assembly's (AN) Permanent Finance Commission. The commission's proposal would devote oil export profits to the National Development Fund, which would then finance social and economic development.
The BCV president backed a proposal to take a percentage of export profits before they are converted into reserves, deviating from President Hugo Chavez' proposal Sunday that funds be taken directly from the central bank's reserves. Luzardo declined to comment on the president's proposed reserve limit.
Rodrigo Cabezas, commission president, did say putting a limit on the reserves was one of the three approaches being considered. The government could also reform the Central Bank Law allowing the decentralization of excess reserves, or follow Luzardo's proposal to take profits from Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) before they reach the bank.
"It doesn't make any sense to Venezuelans to have an excess accumulation of reserves," said Cabezas to journalists after the presentation. He said that if no action was taken, the BCV would have $33 million in international reserves by the end of the year.
Cabezas added the commission's intent to present a proposed bill to the Assembly and open the topic for debate in June.
AN President Nicolas Maduro, of the ruling Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) opened the presentation and voiced his support.
"Institutional and legal arrangements are required to allocate excess reserves to increase investment in the real economy, creating jobs and competitive industries, and closing the gap of inequality that condemns thousands to lives of poverty," Maduro wrote in the book.
Critics have denounced the plan to tap reserves on grounds that the government has not accounted for its spending and that excess reserves prevent the devaluation of the Venezuelan currency.
Opposition Deputy Freddy Lepage, president of the AN's Economic Development Commission, said Tuesday that Chavez's plan to "put his hand" in the international reserves would devalue the Bolivar, an Assembly press release said.
Former BCV official Jose Guerra also criticized the government proposal. "The price of oil at $40 should be sufficient to meet social needs and grant subsidies, but don't touch the central bank," he said on Tuesday.
But Cabezas cast off claims that the government already has sufficient funds for public spending. He said it was a challenge to address the Bs. 69 billion budget, which included 10 billion in public administration costs and 3 billion in university costs. He also discarded criticism that the extra funds would go into the pockets of the president and his party.
Cabezas invited anyone with a constructive idea to join the debate. "I yearn for, I hope that the opposition will come out and tell us, 'we want to work constructively, what kind of controls can we put into place that will serve all Venezuelans,'" he said.
"Excess Reserves," published by the AN's Finance Commission, cites economic studies and examples from other nations that promote spending international reserves. Maduro, Cabezas and Luzardo participated in a "baptism" of the book, in which they covered the book in rose petals.
Cabezas assured journalists that tapping export profits would not get in the way of the Central Bank's duty to back the value of the Bolivar currency, pay external debt and assure there is enough money for imports.
He also said lawmakers would be careful not to hurt the Venezuelan economy or provoke inflation. He said the Finance Commission wanted to reduce inflation to 15 percent by the end of this year, and bring it to 10 percent by 2006.
Internal investment such as spending on social programs was the key to increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which the commission aims to increase by 8 to 10 percent, he said.
While internal investment currently accounts for 8 percent of GDP, Cabezas said the government aimed to raise the figure to 20 percent by 2010. He said this was nothing new for Venezuela, which he said devoted 25 percent of GDP to investment in the 1960's.
Cabezas said the finance commission, the Deposits Guarantee and Banking Protection Fund (Fogade), and members of the central bank have worked for the past six months to produce the current proposal.
The recognition of Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president by the U.S. and many Latin American and European nations is an overt move to remove Nicolas Maduro from power. But U.S. efforts at regime change in Caracas were not always so apparent.
The government of Hugo Chavez repeatedly accused the Bush administration of supporting the failed coup against it in 2002. In 2005, I wrote a piece for the Christian Science Monitor on funding given to Venezuelan groups by a little-known and opaque branch of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) called the Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI).
"The [Bush] administration's nation-building mission includes trying to weaken or challenge the Chávez administration," Riordan Roett, director of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said at the time. "OTI is really at the front line of what the administration thinks of Venezuela."
You can read the entire piece here: Democracy's 'special forces' face heat
This is part of a series of re=published articles I wrote in 2005 for the Daily Journal in Caracas.
June 7, 2005
Energy and Petroleum Minister Rafael Ramirez denied reports in the local press that Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) planned to transfer Orimulsion production contracts to China, El Universal's website reported.
"We're not giving up the management of the business to anyone," said Ramirez on Monday in a press release. The minister, who is also president of PDVSA, added that the contracts obligate Chinese companies to pay royalties on production.
Orimulsion is a patented bitumen-based synthetic combustible that is derived from extra heavy crude oil in the Orinoco belt and is used for commercial boiler fuel in power plants worldwide.
PDVSA, through its affiliate Bitumenes del Orinoco (Bitor), signed agreements with Petrochina Fuel and China National Petroleum Corporation in 2001 to create the Orimulsion production firm Orifuel Sinoven S.A. (Sinovensa). In 2003, Venezuela announced intentions to minimize production and linked Orimulsion prices to the price of carbon, much cheaper than the price of heavy fuel.
RamÌrez also called a report in Sunday's El Universal confirming the Orimulsion transfer "totally false" and added that Venezuelan rights were "inalienable." He also said that the contracts "would be honored" and that "it has been demonstrated with new technology that this extra heavy crude can be exploited more reasonably and economically."
But El Universal reported Monday that PDVSA has planned for the past year to transfer the Orimulsion contracts to Sinovensa and that meetings between the companies have taken place in the past few weeks.
Also, a memo written by Bernard Mommer, vice minister of hydrocarbons, when he was director of PDVSA's United Kingdom division and sent to Ramirez stated that selling Bitor to Sinovensa would represent important savings for Venezuela.
Leopoldo Puchi, secretary-general of the party Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), called for a debate on Tuesday in the National Assembly on what he called "not sufficiently clear" government intentions to give up Orimulsion patents.
"These are matters that must be considered in the Assembly and we propose it because agreements of national interest need to be approved by the legislature," Puchi said.
Economist and oil expert Rafael Quiroz Serrano also criticized any government move to sell Orimulsion rights because Venezuela had a monopoly on the fuel and because its patent represented 25 years of work.
"Taking measures like this will have a negative impact on everything for future deals in the industry," Quiroz Serrano said.
Carlos Borregales, former president of Bitor, said Tuesday that research for the patent cost the nation "a lot of money" and was designed to counter low oil prices at the time, Union Radio reported.
Venezuela currently sends 1.8 million tons of the fuel to China per year, 89,400 tons to Singapore and approximately 80,000 tons to Japan at around $93 per ton.
President Hugo Chavez announced the construction of a new Orimulsion production model and the intent to increase energy imports to China during an official trip to the country last December.
"We have been producing and exporting petroleum for over 100 years, but they were 100 years of domination by the United States," Chavez said. "Now we are free and we will put (petroleum) at the disposition of the great fatherland of China."
Sumate not a 'political party'
June 2, 2005
Maria Corina Machado, one of the founders of the nonprofit voter rights group Sumate, denied on Thursday that her meeting with US President George W Bush had any pretense in launching a presidential campaign.
"I want to ignore that because it distorts the battle taken up by non-governmental organizations in Venezuela and in the world," Machado told Agence France Presse (AFP).
The Sumate director was responding to comments made on Wednesday by Venezuelan foreign Minister Ali Rodriguez Araque, who called the civil association a "disguised political party."
Rodriguez Araque called the meeting between Bush and Machado "a provocation," and added that the encounter revealed that Sumate was "an agency of the United States of America in Venezuela."
Sumate was one of the principal organizations that helped to organize last year's recall referendum on President Hugo Chavez' mandate.
Machado insisted that Sumate was not a political party, saying she visited the White House on Tuesday to discuss concerns about anti-democratic practices in Venezuela, rather than to plot against the Venezuelan government.
"The government has evidenced its intolerance for people who think differently in Venezuela," Machado told AFP from North Carolina. "The criticisms against me show the international community that there exists a government that does not accept dissidence."
The District Attorney's Office accused Machado and fellow Sumate director Alejandro Plaz of treason last September after Sumate received a $31,000 grant from the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), whose mission is to promote democracy worldwide. The divorced mother of three faces up to 16 years in prison if convicted.
Alfonso Marquina, deputy for the opposition party Accion Democratica (AD), on Thursday called the government's response to the White House meeting "a type of jealousy on the part of Mr. Ch·vez, who has been asking for Bush to listen to him for five years and he still has not let him."
Rosalio Castillo Lara, Venezuela's only cardinal, called government criticism "laughable," Union Radio reported.
"Maria Corina Machado has all the right to put forward her ideas where ever she wants and that is not treason," said Castillo Lara. "When I heard the (government) reaction, it surprised me, as well as the harsh words that several representatives of the people have said, even asking to take away her citizenship."
Jens Erik Gould
July 21, 2005
The leadership of Latin America's largest economies--Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil--has taken a noticeable turn to the left.
Many tie this trend to a regional perception that US-supported free-market policies such as privatization and tight fiscal spending have not alleviated poverty or created many jobs.
It is in this environment of free-market frustration that former Finance minister JosÈ Rojas is striving to win the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the largest regional bank of its kind.
Next Wednesday, Rojas will face off against four other candidates to lead what is a major source of funding for economic, social and institutional projects and regional integration programs in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Despite the recent shift to the left in Latin American politics, Rojas told The Daily Journal that the bank needed to help strengthen the private sector in Latin America.
He thought some states had overreacted to financial crises such as that of Argentina in 2001.
"The crisis was not interpreted as a failure of the free market," said Rojas, who was also vice president of state-run Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) last year. "In no moment can it be interpreted as a war against the private sector."
Rather, such crises were due to the market's inability to overcome asymmetries including heavy concentration of wealth, financial flight and the lack of redistribution of revenue by the state, he said.
"When no one bet on Argentina, the IDB was the first institution to come out and help Argentina," he said.
Rojas believed that cutting poverty rates across the hemisphere would require a more efficient and farther-reaching IDB that could intervene more quickly when its help was needed.
He added that the IDB should look for worthy partners in the public and private sectors to increase its potential as a "fundamental element of development." In so doing, the bank could do more to help countries advance their own initiatives such as selling bonds.
The economist proposed that Latin American financial markets be strengthened to increase the potential of the region's internal capital market.
For example, he thought the region's nations should be able to issue bonds without going through New York or Luxembourg.
He said this would make the region's financial system more efficient and less costly. The system would then evaluate itself, creating less risk and a more fluid flow of information.
Speaking about his own country's economy, Rojas said that today marked the first time in the country's history that it has "taken the initiative to increment its own economic model."
The Ch·vez government has put an increasingly social tint on the economy, marked by social development programs and economic policies such as co-management and expropriation of unused land.
Rojas said it was too early to judge the model, but underlined that after being historically slow to adopt new economic models, Venezuela might now be influencing other countries to adopt its model.
He urged economists to start measuring and interpreting Venezuela's new economic model outside of politics. "Until now, the only way of analyzing it has been simplistic: 'I am with or I am not with the government,'" Rojas said. "This is extremely superficial criteria."
When asked about his position on Venezuela's recent efforts to purchase Ecuadorian bonds, Rojas said, "each government is independent to advance its own politics."
"The bank doesn't criticize and shouldn't criticize," Rojas said. "The bank helps and orientates. It never gives opinions or gets involved in the internal politics of countries."
The World Bank did not dictate guidelines for countries to follow either, he said. There were only cases where the bank demanded certain policies by contract, for example, when it gives loans.
Rojas believed that the United States, which controls 30 percent of the bank's votes, "has always promoted the institutions that have missions to fight poverty," and mentioned the World Bank and the Bretton Woods project as examples.
The IDB was founded in 1959 between 19 Latin American countries and the United States. It now has 47 member states.