An explosion at Venezuela’s largest refinery that killed at least 48 people and injured dozens on Aug. 25 is threatening to cast a shadow over President Hugo Chavez’s re-election bid.
The blast and ongoing fire at Amuay, 240 miles west of the capital, Caracas, adds to a number of events in recent weeks that have fueled concern over mismanagement, including a collapsed bridge connecting Caracas with the east of the country, deadly prison riots and protests by state workers over collective contracts.
Chavez will need to divert blame from a poor refinery maintenance record to avoid political fallout ahead of the Oct. 7 vote, said Luis Vicente Leon, president of Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis. The self-declared socialist, who is seeking to extend almost 14 years in power with another six-year term, trailed his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, for the first time in a Consultores 21 poll earlier this month.
“What’s risky for Chavez in terms of the campaign is that all of these events accumulate in the minds of voters,” Leon said in a phone interview. “One event can trigger off the perception that the government has lost control of the country.”
Capriles had 47.7 percent of support against 45.9 percent for Chavez in a poll taken two weeks ago, Consultores 21 Vice President Saul Cabrera said Aug. 24. The survey of 1,000 people had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points, he said.
In a separate poll of 1,288 people by Datanalisis between July 16 and Aug. 9, Chavez had 46.8 percent support compared with 34.2 percent for Capriles. The survey had a margin of error of 2.73 percentage points.
The explosion two days ago occurred after a gas cloud erupted into a ball of flames that engulfed a National Guard post as well as homes and shops in front of the refining complex. Chavez said he ordered an investigation into the causes and said they won’t discard any hypotheses.
The blast is among the world’s deadliest at an oil refinery. Fifteen workers were killed at BP Plc’s Texas City refinery in 2005, while more than 50 people died in a fire at Hindustan Petroleum Corp.’s refinery in Visakhapatnam, India, in 1997.
The National Guard members stationed at the refinery bore the brunt of the deaths, including 18 troops and 15 family members, according to Vice President Elias Jaua.
The official death toll may rise further after El Universal reported that two burn victims who were flown to a hospital in nearby Zulia state died yesterday.
Chavez, who visited the site of the explosion yesterday, ruled out negligence as a cause and described as “impossible” reports that the gas leak had begun hours before the explosion and that state-owned oil producer Petroleos de Venezuela SA had failed to respond.
Seven out of nine planned maintenance programs for the Amuay refinery were postponed last year because of a lack of materials, according to PDVSA’s 2011 annual report.
The accident follows several events that have shone a spotlight on defects in Venezuela’s infrastructure. A bridge on the main highway connecting Caracas to the eastern part of the oil-producing country collapsed Aug. 15, restricting transit to cities including Puerto La Cruz.
Four days later a prison riot at the Yare I prison in Miranda state killed 25 people after a confrontation between two armed groups.
Capriles today called for a “serious, responsible” enquiry into the causes of the accident and highlighted the collapsed bridge and the prison riots as evidence of government negligence.
‘Country of Accidents’
“A country of accidents isn’t the path Venezuelans want to take,” Capriles said in comments broadcast on Globovision. “There needs to be a serious investigation that honors the victims.”
Chavez could use the explosion to his advantage, said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Universidad Central de Venezuela.
“The president wants to convert this tragedy into a heroic narrative, obfuscating the principle problem which is the causes of why this happened,” he said.
While Chavez’s popularity has fallen in recent years he still retains strong support and many people are prepared to forgive events as long as they continue to benefit from social programs such as subsidized food markets and health clinics in poor neighborhoods, said Gregory Weeks, director of Latin American studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.
Still, Capriles may be able to capitalize on Chavez’s poor record in maintaining the country’s infrastructure, Weeks said.
“What Capriles needs to do is to create a narrative that connects all these things together that shows why this government needs to be defeated,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Charlie Devereux in Caracas at email@example.com.