Amid all the hero worship of the late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez Frias, that poured forth from the pages of the newspaper this past week, may I be permitted by my six or seven readers to strike a slightly more dissident note today?
"El Comandante" has been widely portrayed, by, among others, spokesmen (and women) for the People's Partnership government, as a friend of Trinidad and Tobago.
Clearly, no government official discussed that posture beforehand with the man who would have been able to advise them properly, their energy and energy affairs ministerial colleague, Senator Kevin Christian Ramnarine.
Because the fact is, the late Chavez was not a friend of this country's all-important energy sector.
Quite the contrary: if Chavez had had his way, state-owned Petroleum Company of Trinidad and Tobago's (Petrotrin) refinery might well have been obliged to close down. At the very least, it would have converted whatever slim profit it currently makes, into a thumping loss.
How come? Well, you have to lay this threat at the feet of Chavez's PetroCaribe initiative, introduced in 2005 as a means of helping to lift the foreign exchange burden off the backs of oil Caricom states and selected ones in the rest of the Caribbean (Cuba, the Dominican Republic) and Central America. (Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras).
Contrary to popular belief, PetroCaribe did not offer "cut-price" oil: that would not have been permissible under the rules of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), of which Venezuela was a founding member.
Instead, PetroCaribe beneficiaries were offered a "downpayment" on the market price, ranging from 95 per cent when oil was trading at US$15 a barrel (an unlikely event, even then) to 40 per cent when the price climbed to US$100 a barrel and over.
The difference between the downpayment and the market price (60 per cent in the case of the latter) was converted into a loan, which the countries concerned could apply to domestic projects, with the say-so of Venezuela.
While easing the strain on limited foreign exchange reserves was obviously helpful, PetroCaribe beneficiaries probably welcomed the loan part more than they did the downpayment part.
Of course, the loan had to be paid back, eventually, though the terms were generous: a two-year grace period and 23 years to settle the outstanding amount at a one per cent interest charge, far below any conceivable rate of inflation.
The flip side was that this saddled the beneficiaries with long-term debt, which would count against them if they wanted to borrow money from any other country or international lending institution in the years that followed. The International Monetary Fund's (IMF) recent tortuous negotiations with Jamaica, for example, over a new loan agreement, would certainly have taken that Caricom country's increasing debt to Caracas into account.
But back to Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago.
Former prime minister and oilman, Patrick Augustus Mervyn Manning, is on record as noting that Chavez never once considered the potentially harmful effect on the Petrotrin refinery from "downpayment" — and therefore cheaper up-front – oil flooding the market Petrotrin had claimed as its own for decades. Chavez was even sympathetic to requests from several Caricom states to assist them in establishing "mini refineries" on their own soil (fortunately, none of those requests were followed up).
At one time, Petrotrin was nervously contemplating the loss of as many as 49,000 b/d out of a refinery throughput that could amount to around 160,000 b/d, roughly equivalent to more than its entire "regional market," as it calls it, which stretches from St Kitts/Nevis all the way down to Suriname.
As it has turned out, Petrotrin has lost only between 5,000-10,000 b/d in sales (it fluctuates on a continuing basis) but that had nothing to do with a sudden conversion on Chavez's part to safeguarding Trinidad and Tobago's welfare. Rather, it had to do with state company Petroleos de Venezuela South America's (PdVSA) inability to deliver the small cargoes (Grenada, for example, needs only 1,000 b/d of refined products) required to fuel the economy of mainly mini states.
Petrotrin has had to fill the breach. As the company's former president, Ken Allum, once told me: "PdV Caribe, the shipping company formed by PdVSA to undertake the PetroCaribe trade, has been unable to offer what Petrotrin can – reliability and security of supply. These are small markets that we are set up to supply. Chavez is moving over a million barrels a day so he can't concentrate on the small fellows: he has to concentrate on the big fellows. The bigger Caribbean markets, like Jamaica (23,500 b/d under PetroCaribe); the Dominican Republic (50,000 b/d) and Cuba (100,000 b/d) appear to have received what they were promised but it doesn't look as though the smaller eastern Caribbean states have benefited very much, very little, if anything."
If Petrotrin has managed to escape losing a major portion of its traditional business, then a matter of major interest to Trinidad and Tobago – involving the continued development of our natural gas industry – remains in limbo thanks to Venezuelan inaction.
I refer to the joint exploitation of cross-border gas straddling the maritime boundary line between northern Venezuela and the south coast of Trinidad.
Trinidad and Tobago has been rearing to go with this one for years: we have, after all, made a reputation out of being able to monetise limited gas resources in a more diversified way than any other country in the world.
But Venezuelan intransigence has been holding up any cross-border deal. A framework treaty was signed by former Prime Minister Manning and president Chavez in Caracas in 2007 and former energy and energy affairs minister, Carolyn Seepersad-Bachan went to Caracas in August, 2010 to move the process forward through an actual unitisation agreement for the Manatee (block 6d, Trinidad) and Loran (block 2, Venezuela) gas discoveries but that's where the matter has rested. Ms Seepersad-Bachan's successor, Minister Ramnarine, held a meeting with Venezuela's Petroleum and Energy Minister, Rafael Ramirez, also in Caracas, in December, 2011 during the first summit of the new Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac) and Venezuela indicated that it was anxious to make progress. Venezuelan delegations were supposed to come to Port of Spain for further discussions but none have so far turned up. A Unit Directing Committee composed of all the interests involved in Manatee/Loran — the Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuelan governments, BG, Chevron (Trinidad and Tobago), Chevron (Venezuela) and PdVSA - is supposed to get on with the job of selecting a unitisation operator (certain to be Chevron), which will, in turn, draw up a development plan for the 8 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of gas straddling the two blocks but that has not yet happened, as far as is known.
Since the late Chavez was apparently required to sanction any important initiative of any kind in Venezuela, and since he was pre-occupied with his fatal illness and the presidential election in October last year, paralysis has reigned in Caracas. Meanwhile, the 1.8 tcf of gas that lies in Manatee on the Trinidad and Tobago side of the border remains just where it is.
Both Chevron and BG must be getting increasingly frustrated as, undoubtedly, is minister Ramnarine.
As he told his Venezuelan counterpart at the December, 2011, meeting: "The gas does not benefit the people of Trinidad and Tobago, nor the people of Venezuela, if it stays in the ground."
Will anything change now that President Nicolas Maduro has taken over in Venezuela?
I wouldn't bet on it if I were you.
David Renwick was awarded the Hummingbird Medal (Gold) in 2008 for the development of energy journalism in Trinidad and Tobago.