Socialist Worker

Red Oil: profits, poverty and redistribution in Venezuela

A new film looking at Venezuela’s oil corporation gives a fascinating portrait of the contradictions facing Hugo Chavez, writes Phil Turner

Issue No. 2137

Workers at the PDVSA state oil corporation in Venezuela in a scene from the film, Red Oil

Workers at the PDVSA state oil corporation in Venezuela in a scene from the film, Red Oil

Imagine going into work to find a government supporter urging you through a megaphone to “say no to imperialism” and defend “our beautiful revolution”.

Such a scene appears in the film Red Oil, which looks at the state-owned oil corporation PDVSA in Venezuela, whose motto is “My country, socialism or death”.

It shows how the battlelines have been drawn in the ten years since the election of radical Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

Filmed in the soap opera style of a Latin American telenovela, Red Oil is an ingenious insight into the $90 billion multinational oil corporation, which Chavez wants to deliver his “socialist dream”.

The story is told through the eyes of Marienella Yanes, herself a former soap opera writer and actor, who becomes an unlikely manager for PDVSA in a country with some of the world’s biggest oil reserves.

Borrowing from Marienella’s TV past and powered by original music composed by the up and coming Caracas band La Redonda, the film is a punchy examination of the “heroes” and “villians” in the battle for control of the oil wealth.

Red Oil explores the class conflict behind the revolution by using an analogy of a family feud – featuring “uncle” Hugo on one side and the former oil bosses on the other.


Marienella describes Venezuela’s largest corporation as a “total soap opera”. “It’s a face-off a between two forces,” she says. “One side is revolutionary, the other side is conservative. It’s a real life drama.”

She was one of the volunteers who helped defeat a bosses’ strike in 2002 that aimed at stopping Chavez using oil money for social programmes.

Prior to bosses’ attempts at sabotage, the oil company worked closely with Exxon Mobil, BP and Chevon – despite the fact that it was nationalised in 1975.

In April 2002 Chavez sacked seven oil executives on his live TV show, Alo Presidente.

Oil bosses lined up with the right to mount a short-lived coup, swearing in a new president with US backing after Chavez was kidnapped.

But the masses came to the rescue and Chavez was back.

The following December the bosses struck against Chavez but workers organised to keep the oil flowing. The country was polarised during an epic two-month struggle.

After the bosses were defeated Chavez sacked 18,000 executives and took personal control of the corporation. PDVSA was charged with running projects – las misiones – aimed at ending illiteracy and giving the poor access to education, employment, electricity and healthcare.

The film brilliantly captures the contradictions running right through the Chavez government.

Land that had been abandoned now flourishes through cooperatives backed by oil cash. “This is the tractor of the revolution,” farm workers boast proudly.

It’s clear why Chavez is so popular with the grassroots. But the process of change has not advanced in the way many hoped for. The huge gap between the rich and the poor still exists.

Co-operative organiser Antonia Rada is dedicated to making sure every Venezuelan gets “their drop of the oil” and bringing “financial democracy” by developing trade between the biggest corporation in Latin America and grassroots co-operatives.


It’s the people’s oil – but it hasn’t reached everybody. Shantytown dweller Miriam Marquez is a Chavez supporter who says, “the oil company is god”, but she still lives in poverty as she waits for change.

Some grassroots activists blame the “new bosses” for getting rich from oil at the expense of the poorest.

While the PDVSA claims that trade with US arch-enemies like Cuba and Iran represents a new model of “socialist trade”, corruption is a widespread problem within the Chavez government.

Watch this great little film and you’ll have no doubt who the villains are. But it’s also clear that Chavez faces a choice in the months to come – protect those at the top, or turn people’s power from rhetoric into reality.

Red Oil is a media co-op international co production for More4 “True Stories” and Scottish Screen, produced by Aimara Reques and directed by Lucinda Broadbent. It will be shown on More4 at 10pm on 10 February.

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Tue 3 Feb 2009, 18:26 GMT
Issue No. 2137
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