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september 20, 2012 • 03:47 PM

Venezuela oil workers sure Chavez will win: union boss

Venezuelan President and presidential candidate Hugo Chavez speaks at a campaign rally with Socialist party youth in Caracas September 19, 2012.
Foto: Jorge Silva / Reuters
 

The head of Venezuela's oil workers union said on Thursday his members are not entertaining the possibility that opposition candidate Henrique Capriles could beat President Hugo Chavez in the October 7 election.

Wills Rangel, president of the United Federation of Oil Workers, told Reuters that workers' conditions had improved under 14 years of Chavez's self-styled revolution, especially following an oil industry strike a decade ago.

Thousands of staff were fired, and Rangel said those who remained at state oil company PDVSA were "deeply politicized" and understood their role in the president's socialist project.

"It's impossible for Capriles to win this year ... We the working class will not allow it," he said at his office, sitting before large pictures of Chavez and 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar, a small Cuban flag on his desk.

"We are not considering that scenario at all. We are working every day to push forward the industry and to strengthen politically an ideology."

Venezuela's economy has relied almost exclusively on its oil industry for the last 100 years.

The OPEC nation boasts the world's biggest crude reserves and is South America's top oil exporter.

But the management of such huge wealth is a politically charged issue, especially ahead of the election, in which Chavez is seeking a new six-year term.

The president has spent vast amounts of oil revenue on social welfare projects such as subsidized food, education and house-building programs that have helped shore up his support amongst the country's poor majority.

Rangel's federation represents as many as 100,000 PDVSA employees. Staff, often wearing distinctive socialist-red shirts and caps, are frequently bused to "Chavista" rallies, some privately complaining at being coerced.

The energy minister and president of PDVSA, Rafael Ramirez, has described the company as "red" to its core.

"WE WOULD REBEL"

On Thursday, two campaign trucks carrying speakers and posters of Chavez - "the candidate of the fatherland" - sat waiting in the parking lot of PDVSA's headquarters.

Capriles denies accusations from Chavez that he wants to privatize PDVSA, but he has vowed to de-politicize the company. He says workers' jobs are secure and that the only one facing the sack would be the boss, Ramirez.

While dissenting voices exist within the oil industry, Rangel heads a federation that was formed from the unification of four workers' unions in 2009. He said the workers felt valued and "deeply politicized" since the 2002-2003 strike.

"There has been a change of mentality ... For us, it is an honor to participate in President Chavez's government," he said.

He said PDVSA's staff guaranteed the continuity of oil production under any political scenario but that they would reject any efforts to take the company back to what he said were the bad old days under previous governments.

"We are not going to allow us to return to outsourcing, or let them dismantle the industry and hand it over to private capital," Rangel said.

"If another government were to come to take away all the benefits that we have received ... we would rebel against it and there would be a civil war here."

Critics say the demands on PDVSA by the government mean the company has been unable to invest enough in its own operations, holding back efforts to increase output and leading maintenance work to be postponed.

In the oil industry's worst accident for years, a gas leak last month caused an explosion at Venezuela's biggest refinery, Amuay, killing 42 people and wrecking hundreds of homes.

Then a lightning strike set fire to two storage tanks at another refinery, El Palito, on Wednesday night.

Rangel - who has been highly critical of PDVSA's safety record and wants management to improve standards - said his colleagues remained nervous after two incidents within a month.

"That's natural," the union leader said.

(Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Steve Orlofsky)

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