The government said the plant would be operating again within two days, but the fire was only subdued on Tuesday and the administration now says it won’t be operational until Friday.
Critics blame Chávez, who they say has used the state-run oil company PDVSA, which operates the refinery, as a cash-cow for his pet projects even as it neglects maintenance and repairs.
In 2011, the company invested $39.6 billion in popular social programs, including $4 billion in the government’s housing program. But seven out of nine maintenance programs planned for Amuay that year were postponed due to lack of materials, wrote Daniel Kerner, with the New York-based Eurasia Group, citing PDVSA’s 2011 annual report.
The Amuay accident “highlights PDVSA’s significant operational problems stemming from both severe mismanagement and underinvestment,” he wrote. “In recent years, the firm has become a key financing arm for President Hugo Chávez’s social programs limiting PDVSA’s investment capacity in a context where crude production… has steadily declined.”
The man fighting Chávez for the presidency, Henrique Capriles, 40, has called for full investigations into Amuay, the jailhouse riot and the bridge collapse. Earlier this week, he likened the string of problems to a disaster film.
“This isn’t a movie that unfolds chapter by chapter,” he said. “It’s unconscionable that the government’s candidate [Chávez] can irresponsibly and insensibly say that the show must go on.”
For the moment, Chávez is leading most polls. Datanalisis, a closely followed pollster, has Capriles with 34.3 percent of the vote and gaining versus Chávez’s 46.8 percent. Consultores 21, another major polling firm, however, shows Capriles with a thin lead, at 47.7 percent versus Chávez’s 45.9 percent.
It’s too early to tell if August’s woes will move those numbers. But Kerner predicted the Amuay disaster is “probably not a game changer...Chavez still remains favored to win, but the accident could sway some undecided voters.”
Chávez has pledged millions in aid and offered to build thousands of new homes for Amuay residents. He’s also trying to turn the tables, accusing opponents of being “vultures” who want to turn disaster into political gain.
“Just as we see streams of foam putting out the fire in Amuay,” he said this week, “the bourgeoisie is also using disgraceful streams to try to put out our patriotic fire and fervor.”