Marches. Protests. Sanctions. Power struggles.
Thanks to 24-hour broadcasting and social media, news of Venezuela’s political and economic crisis has reached the four corners of the Earth.
But how does South America’s petroleum powerhouse affect the geoscientists living within its borders? What goes on in workplaces and classrooms far away from cameras?
The EXPLORER talked with students, professors and professionals to find out how the crisis is affecting them. This article examines day-to-day struggles of Venezuelan geoscience professionals living both inside and outside the country.
The Decline of a Powerhouse
Venezuela’s struggle is epitomized by Petroleos de Venezuela, the country’s national oil company, which in recent years has transitioned from an active operator with strong professional development and a thriving research center to a crippled company with out-of-date equipment, constant desertion and fearful employees.
Workers leave the company every day. Those who remain will share their stories but not their names. They fear reprisal from a government that has little tolerance for dissent and worry that losing their position at PDVSA would blacklist them from working at any company in Venezuela.
Personnel Shortages and a Fight for Survival
A PDVSA employee, for purposes of this story called Maria, said political and economic changes in Venezuela over the past decade have brought tremendous changes to geoscientists in both their professional and personal lives.
“Training – participation in technical courses, congresses, symposiums, etc. – as well as access to updated magazines and publications is practically non-existent,” she said. “The principal focus for professionals is not their work but their survival, thanks to low wages and hard access to medicines and food. Professional development and technical work are not the priority.”
Maria, a native of Caracas and daughter of high school geography teachers, grew up with a love of Earth sciences. After receiving a master’s degree in geological sciences, she went to work for PDVSA, a company she valued for its emphasis on professional development for employees.
This was a different era in Venezuela, before the 2002 strike when petroleum workers protested the Hugo Chávez-government policies, and thousands later lost their jobs.
Subsequent years brought economic challenges, social turmoil and political oppression leading to the mass exodus of professionals in all sectors, including those in the oil and gas industry.
“The large quantities of professionals who looked for a better quality of life outside the country makes the exchange of experience within the multidisciplinary teams very poor, and sometimes professionals with little experience and training have to work on several projects simultaneously,” she said.
“Colleagues living outside Venezuela criticize a lot of those of us who stayed in the industry after the PDVSA workers strike, nicknaming them ‘mediocre,’ but after 17 years they should know that the few people who remain in our workplace are only trying to survive,” she said.
Maria said her biggest daily struggle is trying to provide for basic necessities while performing well professionally and technically.
“I have sufficient work experience, knowledge and tools to do a good job, but for professionals that don’t have such tools, this is extremely difficult, and they inevitably fall into mediocrity,” she said.
How Did This Happen?
So how did the state oil company of one of the world’s largest petroleum producers become plagued by resource shortages, limited productivity and worker apathy?
José (Pepe) Regueiro, Venezuelan professor, geophysical consultant and former PDVSA researcher described the decline succinctly.
“Geoscientists around the globe are very well-informed people. A lot of them have worked in Venezuela and know very well what is going on in my country. PDVSA, once a leading oil producer, and a technically-strong company, has collapsed to a pitiful, corrupted and almost useless government agency. Mining is under the control of organized mafias, and foreign participation is primarily granted to friends of the regime,” he said.
Nuris Orihuela, former Venezuelan minister of science and technology, retired university professor and current geophysical consultant, said one of the most significant impacts on Venezuela’s energy sector was the loss of professionals who left the country to preserve their dreams and the right to a better life.
“The progressive paralysis of the hydrocarbons sector, the primary employer of our professionals, the destruction of our economy driving our people to the forced misery, without purchasing power, the lack of production and unbridled corruption makes our country a centrifuge that expels the Venezuelans, starting with the youngest members of society,” she said.
Working Far From Home
Linda Montilla is one of many Venezuelan geoscientists who left the company and the country in search of better opportunities.
After spending 13 years at PDVSA and serving as exploratory project and petroleum systems technical evaluation lead, Montilla emigrated to Bogota, Colombia. Now she works as a senior geologist at Colombian national oil company Ecopetrol.
“My primary motivation was to work in another company and experience new technical challenges,” she said. “Additionally, the political and economic situation in Venezuela served as a catalyst to make the decision, particularly because I wanted to give more options to my daughters.”
Montilla’s father, sister and other family members still live in Venezuela, but she has not been home for three years.
“I’ve learned to live with virtual visits,” she said, adding that observing the crisis from abroad is terrible.
“I feel a lot of anguish and impotence. I have even come to feel a kind of survivor’s guilt for having options and opportunities some of my family and friends do not have,” she said.
Montilla brings her family to visit Bogota occasionally, and she stays in contact with colleagues in Caracas. She said she is grateful for the years she spent at PDVSA.
“Sometimes I feel a lot of sadness and nostalgia for the changes that my generation has had to live, but at the same time sometimes I feel those very situations have made us grow, and that makes me proud,” she said.
Montilla explained how the training she received at the PDVSA helped prepare her to face the challenges of the present.
“PDVSA represented and even now represents a fundamental pillar for our country’s sustenance, a prestigious company that taught us solid methodologies, with respect for the environment and a commitment to the academic development of its workers,” she said. “Without a doubt, we have learned to face changes, adapt and be resilient.”
Finding Opportunities Together
Former PDVSA employees and married couple Ana Maria Goncalves and Angelvis Tovar left Venezuela in 2015 when they found attractive job prospects in Bolivia.
“We were lucky because we emigrated before the catastrophe hit hard our country hard,” Tovar said. “I’m grateful for the amazing opportunities we have had.”
He said that watching the situation from afar produces a complex mixture of anger and sadness.
“Venezuelan people don’t deserve this horrific situation,” he said. “I deeply respect people that remain fighting in Venezuela, and I can’t I can’t blame people that ran away.”
Goncalves said it is difficult to live abroad and to hear frequently asked question, “Is it true what is happening in Venezuela?”
“It’s complicated to explain to a non-Venezuelan the terrible and complex economic situation of the country,” she said. “I prefer to talk about the beautiful places and the nice people from my country, because those are our main attributes.”
While developing themselves professionally outside Venezuela, the couple works to help those left behind. They send money and medications to their family and to a foundation that supports children with cancer. They also help geoscience students at their alma mater, Central University of Venezuela, raise money for field trips.
The Value of Learning
For Orihuela, education is essential to helping Venezuelans turn their country around.
“Venezuela has large reserves of fossil fuels and optimal conditions for the development of alternative energies. We have human talent and knowledge derived from more than 100 years of technical experience. All we need is good administration to be successful,” she said.
She also noted that geoscientists are key a key component of that success.
“Venezuela must resume its steps toward progress and growth. This will occur through recovering PDVSA, re-boosting and refining production and moving the entire field of petrochemicals downstream. All of this requires our best talents,” she said. “Likewise, we must organize and promote industrial mining, in harmony with the environment, but without depriving ourselves of basic resources needed to boost medium and heavy industry. Engineers, geologists and geophysicists are indispensable for this task.”
What’s Next for Venezuela?
Regueiro described two future scenarios for the future of the petroleum industry in Venezuela.
The first scenario involves continuing the current path of Nicolas Maduro’s regime: government control of the energy sector and just about everything else.
“If everything continues as it is now, I do not expect to have much of it left. Foreign companies, which are responsible for most of the technical support of the industry, are leaving the ship, and even more now, due to the strong sanctions imposed by many countries upon Venezuela’s oil business. Even China and Russia, once strong partners of this regime, are slowly moving away,” he said.
The second involves a strong shift in both political and economic strategies.
“I think that many professionals, now abroad, may be willing to return and contribute to the restoration of our energy industries. Foreign companies will return and invest in one of the richest oil and minerals countries in the world. The change will require strong investments and reconstruction of many forgotten infrastructures, but it will become important in the next five years,” he said.
Paving the Way for Change
Orihuela is preparing for change, and she hopes her compatriots will be a part of the process.
“All the Venezuelan geoscientists scattered around the world, our best ambassadors, know the importance of their duty to recover our country,” she said. “I have no doubt that many of them will come to lend a hand and undertake this task and help Venezuela recover its position on the international market.”
Goncalves and Tovar are eager to be a part of Venezuela’s reconstruction.
“I would like to return because I would like to help to rebuild my country, using the experience that I gained abroad,” Goncalves said. “Also, I miss my parents and my country and its natural beauties.”
While waiting, the couple takes seriously the role of being ambassadors for their homeland.
“Venezuela is going through a struggle, but our country is still one of the most beautiful places in the world. Venezuela is more than just an oil country; it has all the landscapes you can possibly imagine: deserts, snow, waterfalls, beaches, etc. Venezuelan people are very helpful, gentle and friendly. For those that love tourism, do not take Venezuela off your wish list. One day, it will be a great destination once again,” she said.
“Soon we will have a country where we, geoscientists, will have the chance, again, to discover new oil and gas fields, technically manage and produce one of the biggest oil reserves in the world, find and exploit – in an environmental, legal and civilized manner – gold, diamonds, coltan, bauxite, iron … you name it,” said Regueiro.
“I think that in the future, Venezuela is going to be one of the most important places for oil job opportunities, because It has the largest reserves in the world,” she said. “Geoscientists, don’t lose sight of Venezuela. It will be a good place to work!”
Tovar looks forward to returning to work in Venezuela.
“I dream of the day that we can be as happy as we were in our beloved country. I know it is going to take a long time, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I want to raise my children in my homeland.”