PDVSA Oil Spill Exposes Fissures in Chavez’s Socialist Party

An oil spill at a facility operated by Venezuela’s state oil company has sparked the first public spat in the ruling party since President Hugo Chavez was diagnosed with cancer in June.

Jose Gregorio Briceno, a government loyalist and governor of Monagas state, an oil producing region in the east of the country, said the government is trying to restart a water treatment plant that has been off line for more than a month when there are still traces of oil in the river that supplies the state capital Maturin.

“I opposed turning the water back on until we were sure after conducting laboratory tests, because it’s a problem of public health and after 33 days my decision was justified,” Briceno said yesterday in an interview with Globovision, a private news network critical of the government. “They shot me down, they said all sorts of things about me and I held on.”

Chavez, who is convalescing in Cuba following an operation to remove a second cancerous tumor from his pelvic region, has repeatedly called for unity within his United Socialist Party of Venezuela as doubts linger about whether he’ll be fit enough to contest an Oct. 7 election where he’s seeking to extend his 13-year rule until 2019.

“There’s an interesting process occurring here over time that’s an indicator of what could happen in the future depending on what happens with the president’s health,” said Vladimir Villegas, a columnist at Caracas-based El daily Nacional and a former Chavez ally.

Chavez will have to react to Briceno’s rebellion when he returns. Still, expelling the Monagas state governor would “open a big hole in Chavismo,” and lead to the possible loss of the state in December’s regional elections as Briceno commands his own support in the state, Villegas said.

Public Safety

A pipeline at Petroleos de Venezuela SA’s Jusepin complex in Monagas ruptured Feb. 4, sending a 30-meter (295 feet) column of oil in the air, El Nacional reported.

While PDVSA President Rafael Ramirez told reporters Feb. 29 that 5,000 to 6,000 barrels of oil had been spilled and that the water supply was fit for drinking, opposition lawmaker Juan Pablo Garcia said that as many as 300,000 barrels may have been spilled into the river that services 500,000 residents of the state capital.

PDVSA Vice President Eulogio Del Pino was shown on state television drinking a glass of the brown water to prove that the river no longer posed any threat to public health.

‘Restore Order’

The oil company’s arguments haven’t convinced Briceno, who has been governor since 2004. He also said that PSUV party officials, including the party’s vice president, Diosdado Cabello, are taking advantage of Chavez’s absence while he recovers from an operation in Cuba, to attack him.

Ahead of elections in December, Cabello has unleashed “a pack of hounds” on him in an attempt to wrest control of the governorship, Briceno said.

Cabello, who participated in a failed coup with Chavez in 1992 and was briefly sworn in as president during a two-day toppling of Chavez in 2002, was promoted to party vice president in January after winning a seat as a lawmaker in the National Assembly in 2010 representing Briceno’s state.

He’s since been promoted to National Assembly president. Speaking on state television yesterday during a party meeting, Cabello declined to comment on Briceno’s accusations.

“I ask God that Chavez recovers from his illness, but he needs to come here and restore order and clean up the house. He needs to protect me from an ambush,” Briceno said.

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