A funny thing happened the last time I was in Venezuela. I’m in this cab. Long ride. We’re going from Caracas to Valencia, 90 minutes away, and then the driver’s going to be my chauffeur all day for $100. We’re out on the freeway rolling down out of the coast range to the savannah and he asks me about my work.
I tell him I sometimes write about oil and he tells me, all conspiratorial-like, that I must have good contacts at PDVSA, the state oil company. He asks how to get into the oil business. I tell him most people go go to university and study engineering. And he says no, I want to get into oil deals, selling Venezuelan oil. I try to explain how Venezuela decided a long time ago to put that business in the hands of the state. So if you like that sort of thing, you need to work for PDVSA. He says, no, no, all frustrated-like. I want to sell oil to a foreign country.
I repeat that PDVSA is in charge of that sort of thing, and that average José on the street can’t just start selling oil. That’s when he backs up and tries to explain why he needs contacts in PDVSA. It’ll make us both a lot of money, he says.
He had another fare, not long before, a Chadian diplomat. Yes, Chad (a country that happens to lack diplomatic representation in Venezuela). The diplomat was apparently asking all and sundry, including this cab driver, for contacts at PDVSA, because he wants oil. I tell the cabbie none of this makes any sense. Oil companies that actually have a way to receive oil know perfectly well how to go about buying it. You call the commercialization office, I tell him.
The cabbie tells me it’ll make more sense if he puts me on the phone with the diplomat. So he calls the dude and after a short explanation, I am talking to some guy with an African accent who tells me that he is representing an Indian oil company. The Indians had a deal to buy a certain quantity of Venezuelan crude at “preferential” prices. They want more. But they haven’t had any luck getting meetings with the high-level people who can sign off on such a deal.
So, he says, the Indians are ready to pay a commission to whoever can score them the oil, cheap. This is where we come in. The diplomat wanted me to work my contacts at PDVSA to get a meeting, where he, the cabbie and I could go and secure discounted oil, for India. We’ll get a commission of about $2 million that we can divide up, he says.
(I am giving you this story for free on the Internet. But, Mr. Coen and Mr. Coen, I want a cut of the box office.)
I try to explain to the guy, whoever he is, that even if for some reason I were interested, and somehow could set up such a meeting, as far as I know nobody at PDVSA can sign off on anything like this. You need a meeting with the president, I tell him. Have you tried calling the president? Gotta run!
Now aside from all the other weird things about this, to me the weirdest of all is that this guy knew I was a reporter. He had never seen my face. And yet he was so eager to make some sort of deal, and so secure that he won’t face any fallout, that he talked to me as though we were old colleagues. He was either a total fake, or unaware that this sort of deal is corrupt, or is so accustomed to it that he has no worry at all.
Anyway, not my problem. The cabbie wouldn’t give me the guy’s phone number, out of fear that he’d be cut out of the deal. I enthusiastically changed the subject and haven’t thought much about all this since.