PDVSA should be one of the most interesting and important stories that a person could write about, but up to now there hasn’t been a book or article that really captured the nature of this company-cum-state. Oil on the Brain, by Lisa Marginelli, remains the best thing I’ve seen in English, in its ability in one brief chapter to capture the contradictions of money, power, revolution, passion and intrigue, though it lacks currency and for brevity has to omit most of the fascinating details, especially about money and crime. Daily news reports and little blog entries can’t capture the state oil company’s vast weirdness. And maybe even a small book will struggle to get it all. But if there’s one person well set up to write the definitive book on this mutant octopus company, it’s Marianna Parraga, the long-time oil reporter at Caracas newspaper El Universal who for the past year has been a correspondent for Reuters.
Oro Rojo is her attempt to cover it all in 130 pages. If you care about PDVSA, and can read Spanish at at least a decent (but not necessarily advanced) level, buy this book.
The volume opens with an overview chapter that runs readers a bit too quickly through the the last 20 years of PDVSA history. Afterward, there is chapter after chapter detailing the various themes that are most mysterious and fascinating: the company’s sprawl into enterprises from filling gas cylinders to farming to training high-level athletes; its ability to go into debt while oil prices rose and profits stagnated; and most interesting of all, a profile of Rafael Ramirez, the company president and minister of energy and oil. The Ramirez interview alone is worth the price of the book, and it’s something that only Parraga could do — her persistence and frequent scoops have given her unique and enviable access to the minister.
Of course I have problems with the details of the book. The finance section could use some graphics so readers don’t get lost in the billions and billions of dollars. The whole book could use more quotes, and particularly the Ramirez section, which is short on quotes from both him and his detractors. And it’s odd to talk about his family without either confirming, denying, or even addressing the long-standing rumor that Ilyich Ramirez, aka Carlos the Jackal, is his cousin. There is a decent description of some of the company scandals, and for all her access, Parraga doesn’t hesitate to say that Ramirez and his allies have been implicated (albeit inconclusively) in these capers.
Oro Rojo isn’t the most compelling book that could be written about PDVSA, but it’s the best one that’s been produced so far. Buy it if you can find it — sadly, Venezuela’s currency controls hurt all exporters not working in dollars. For now you can read a bit of the book here (PDF).
(Disclosure: I know Marianna and have experienced the frustration of competing against her for years. We have never dined together. I have no interest in pushing this book except to help you get a grasp on PDVSA.)