Of Lungos & Seoritos: A Colombian view of Venezuela

At the petroleum refinery of Barrancabermeja the workers who are consigned to hard manual labor are called “lungos.” There are a lot of them and they earn very little. They are almost all temporary laborers and they live in the poor neighborhoods. When the “lungos” go on strike, technology guarantees that production doesn’t totally stop-so even when the majority of the workers are united in protest, if they can’t actually stop the plant from functioning, the engineers, supervisors, and managers can keep the refinery going under ‘contingency plans.’

Right now the oil-workers union of Colombia, USO (Union Sindical Obrera), is getting ready to go on strike in response to the Uribe government’s offensive. That offensive is headed by Isaac Yanovich, a businessman from the private banking sector who has been named president of the state oil company. The workers, who struggled and won the creation of a national oil company (Ecopetrol), have resisted its privatization for the past 25 years. They have paid a terrible price for their resistance: 100 union leaders and activists assassinated (four during 2002, which saw 160 Colombian unionists killed), two disappeared, 10 kidnapped, 31 imprisoned (six of whom are still in prison), and 250 fired (11 of whom were fired just a few days ago).

It is in such difficult conditions that the Colombian oil-workers are preparing their strike for the beginning of 2003. The victory of their movement will depend on their ability to halt production. For this reason the union and the government are both putting forth massive efforts to win the engineers and supervisors to their side. If the union is unable to win these over, the workers will have no option but to occupy the plant. This will mean that they will face military repression like they did in 1971. In that year, as workers in the union remember well, worker Fermin Amaya was murdered as he was about to stop production at the Barranca refinery.

Next door in Venezuela, the world is flipped entirely upside down. There, the “lungos” are working intensely while the call to strike is followed with fervor and without hesitation by the managers. On Dec. 2 the managerial body of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDV (Petroleros de Venezuela), blocked the entrance to the refinery and used their vehicles to stop the workers, the “lungos” – who had showed up to work in massive numbers – from entering.

The same managerial body was joined by the executive of labor relations in its attempts to bar the entry of workers.

But the real strength of the strike in Venezuela has been in the computers that control the giant and highly automated petroleum industry. Even though the PDV is nominally state-owned and run, the computer system is in the hands of the “mixed” (public-private) enterprise Intesa. The party with the technical skill in the partnership is the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) – a transnational computing company. Among its directors: ex-U.S. Secretaries of Defense William Perry and Melvin Laird; ex-directors of the CIA John Deutsch, Robert Gates; Admiral Bobby Ray Inman (ex-director of the National Security Agency); other retired military staff including Wayne Downing (former commander in chief of U.S. Special Forces) and Jasper Welch (ex-coordinator of the National Security Council).

The hold-up of the oil-tankers was directed from these computing centers.

The hold-up was welcomed by various captains, but the tankers were forced to shore in any case: nothing moves without direction from the computers, which also stopped key operations in the refineries and the entry of vital gas for the iron and steel industries of eastern Venezuela. “Lungos” from Guayana had to recover the gas.

The high salaries, privileges, and commissions of the managers, labor relations chiefs, systems engineers, and tanker captains has become a useful weapon of political control for the transnational corporations who seek to privatize Venezuela’s (and Colombia’s, Ecuador’s and Brazil’s) petrol industry.

This “middle” class with its disposable income is the political base of the right in Colombia and Venezuela (and its heroes are Bush, Aznar or Berlusconi). It is the electoral force behind Colombia’s president Alvaro Uribe Velez and behind the coup in Venezuela. Washington uses the mailed fist in Colombia and the velvet glove in Venezuela, but in both cases its local support is from these “middle” classes who, like Bush himself, are too deaf to hear of the assassinations of unionists in Colombia but scream in rage if a hair on the head of a manager or oil-tanker captain in Venezuela is touched; who are quiet when two million Colombians are displaced from their lands but enraged by the Venezuelan Land Law when it threatens the unproductive ranches of large Venezuelan landowners.

On Sept. 16, 2002, Colombian peasants were treated cruelly for their protests on the highways. Their food was burned. They were denied drinking water. They were surrounded by the military and their leaders were arrested. Three were disappeared. International delegates were deported. Seven of the protest leaders have since been assassinated, one disappeared, and many others harassed and threatened with murder. They stand accused-of blocking the roads. In Venezuela on the other hand, the “middle” and upper classes blocked roads with their Mercedes Benz and BMWs, and their rights were respected.

In Cali, Colombia, the public service workers have been protesting privatization. The young workers of the apprentices’ union have been protesting to maintain state control over the apprenticeship institution, SENA. Both sectors have been incessantly, brutally attacked and the international media have nothing to say. The media are silent as well on the daily confrontations on the Caribbean coast of Colombia when the privatized electricity company tries to cut electricity to thousands of indebted, poor people. Neither popular protest nor state repression make the international news if they occur in Colombia, which, to the media, is a land strictly of terrorism and drugs.

The “middle” class ought to watch out though-sometimes it can end up the victim of its own heroes, whether they be politicians like Bush or the mainstream media itself. That was what happened with the “corralito” in Argentina, when the whole country-including the “middle class” – mobilized against the banks and were denounced for it in the media.

Until this happens the “señoritos” in wealthy eastern Caracas, in the Chico of Bogota and of Miami, will be the darlings of the media.

Hector Mondragon is an economist and activist in Colombia. This is a commentary first published on Znet (www.zmag.org) and has been translated from Spanish by Justin Podur.