Venezuelan Energy Minister Takes Top Post at OPEC

OPEC has named Venezuelan Energy and Mines Minister Alvaro Silva as its new secretary-general. Silva will replace his countrymen, Ali Rodriguez, who was summoned back to Caracas to run PDVSA after a strike there led to a coup attempt against the government. Rodriguez had completed just 18 months of his three-year term. Qatari Oil Minister Abdullah al-Attiyah said OPEC had agreed on the appointment after an informal meeting of ministers. The nomination is due to be ratified at a formal session at 4:00 p.m. local time.

Silva, a lawyer and politician, will bring a 50-year career in oil politics to the largely administrative role at OPEC's Vienna headquarters. One obstacle to his nomination was his weak mastery of English, the official language of the 11-member cartel. Because of the division among the mid-east members, there Silva was the logical choice.

Having developed a left-wing ideology in the radical days of OPEC's formation of the 1960s and 1970s, when successive price shocks sent the West into recession, Silva has held unswervingly to the defense of the interests of Third World resource holders. "He is a high price man, always on the left of center. He has changed his ideas very little since the 1960s," said Maruja Tarre, a Venezuelan university professor who has followed his career. "He has a way of seeing the laws and how the industry should be and has held on to that ideological vision firmly," she added.

Silva took his first job in the oil ministry of legendary Venezuelan statesman Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, who helped found OPEC in 1960. During the nationalization of Venezuela's industry in 1976, when radicalized Third World governments beat western capital into retreat, Silva wrote the law which forced the foreign companies to hand over their assets before leaving the country. He also co-wrote a 1975 law reserving the oil industry to the state, which is still in force in the world's fifth largest oil exporter. He sat in Venezuela's Congress as a deputy with a fringe social democrat party called People's Electoral Movement (MEP), but spent years in the political wilderness when that party all but disappeared in the volatile Venezuelan political scene. "Silva will not modify or modernize OPEC, he will preserve it," Tarre said.

Foreign investors returned to Venezuela in the 1990s in a liberalization process which was unsuccessfully challenged in the Supreme Court by Silva and Rodriguez among others. Silva returned to the political limelight with the arrival of Hugo Chavez, a left wing revolutionary, to the presidency of Venezuela in 1999. Having begun as deputy oil minister under Ali Rodriguez in the first Chavez cabinet, Silva followed Rodriguez into the ministerial job when Rodriguez was appointed head of OPEC at the start of 2001. In that role he helped reverse the liberalization process, drafting a new hydrocarbons law which raised royalty rates to 30 percent and was heavily opposed by foreign investors.