19 de octubre de 2020
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Gasoline shortage in Venezuela, new weapon in ongoing political fight

By Ron Gonzalez

Caracas, Sep 17 (efe-epa).- The severe shortage of gasoline in Venezuela in recent weeks, after a three-month period of relatively good supply, is being blamed on different targets depending on who's doing the complaining, with accusations flying back and forth publicly between the government and the opposition.

The Nicolas Maduro government claims that the fuel shortage is due to the US sanctions imposed on Venezuela's oil industry, adding that these sanctions were promoted by the opposition amid the ongoing bitter dispute between the two sides vying for political power.

But Maduro's detractors say that it's the inability of the government and the bad policies of the state-run PDVSA oil company that have caused local refining capacity to dwindle, and these are the only real causes of the crisis.

The gas shortage has thus become a new weapon being used by both the government and the opposition in their never-ending struggle, a fight that has the public caught in the middle and waiting in long lines to buy fuel at local service stations.

"Historically, the problem is the government, which destroyed the petroleum industry. The sanctions also bear part of the blame, but mainly it's the government, not the opposition," political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas told EFE regarding the crossfire of accusations between Maduro and his critics.

Last March, when the country detected its first cases of Covid-19 and implemented a quarantine, the Maduro administration announced a "blockade" and prevented the purchase of the precursors for refining gasoline, a move that resulted in a phase of tight rationing that lasted several weeks.

Supply improved with the arrival of five vessels loaded with millions of liters of gasoline from Iran, a country that also has been laboring under US sanctions for years but which has better ability to manage its resources and, in contrast to Venezuela, can permit itself the luxury of exporting some of its oil and derivatives.

But three months after the fuel was received, with no new purchases and refining reduced to practically zero, the Caribbean country saw the return two weeks ago of long lines at filling stations, a serious problem that persists without any definitive solution on the horizon.

In Caracas, some citizens told EFE that they had waited in line for up to nine hours to buy gas at local service stations.

But in regions like the western state of Tachira, which borders on Colombia, the scarcity led to 10 weeks during which the fuel was allocated only to the so-called "priority sectors" like food transport or the security forces' vehicle fleets.

"In the short term, the supply's not going to improve. I don't see the Maduro government producing gasoline, and so the scarcity's going to worsen," economist Alejandro Grisanti told EFE.

"They destroyed the refining complex. Venezuela had the capacity to refine 1.3 million barrels per day, it produced enough petroleum, it refined enough petroleum," he said.

Grisanti said that Venezuela has "highly trained" human capital to get the refineries running again, but that political layoffs in PDVSA like the ones the late President Hugo Chavez (who governed from 1999-2013) ordered after a 2002 oil strike, and the current crisis, have driven the best technicians abroad.

In addition, he refuted the arguments of the Chavista government that blame the sanctions for the gasoline scarcity.

"If you look at the drop in (oil) refining and production, you'll notice that there's a trend that began before the sanctions," he said.

In January 2019, the US administration of Donald Trump imposed direct sanctions on PDVSA, at the same time freezing all assets and properties of the firm under US jurisdiction.

These measures, which entered into force in late April 2020, prohibit the import into the US of Venezuelan oil and sanction anybody who does business with PDVSA.

For political scientist Ricardo Sucre, a medium-term solution to the scarcity of gasoline could come with agreements between the Maduro government and the opposition, despite the fact that neither side recognizes the other as legitimate.

Sucre told EFE that months ago the Maduro administration and the opposition reached agreement for the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to distribute humanitarian aid in Venezuela using resources that the two sectors manage.

"One can follow a similar logic ... (to reach) an agreement between the government and the opposition that allows the immediate issues of the refineries to be dealt with, to do repairs, to buy equipment," he told EFE.

But Sucre also urged that "immediately" vessels loaded with gasoline should be allowed to enter Venezuela without any further ado.

"Letting the ships come, now gasoline is imported, those ships are not going to solve the situation, but they'll alleviate the day to day (situation)," he said.

Sucre said, in addition, that the gasoline scarcity is "collateral damage" in the war for power between Chavismo and the opposition in Venezuela.

Along those lines, he said that the government wants to supply the market and stabilize it while the opposition sees in the scarcity the opportunity for a change in government via a "social explosion."

"It's a political matter," he said.

But the victims of this dispute, the public, seem not to notice these maneuvers because they're busy dealing with their daily problems and fighting the pandemic.

"I think that the public in Venezuela is not listening much to what the politicians say, they're subjected to many problems and the political communication doesn't get through to them. They're not up to date. It's difficult for someone to tell you '(Maduro) said this' or '(An opposition leader) said that,'" said Pantoulas.

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