September 2, 2012

THE FIRES ARE finally out at the giant state-run Amuay oil refinery in Venezuela that exploded on Aug. 25, setting off an inferno that cost 48 people their lives and left another 150 injured. In addition to the human toll, the blast — one of the largest oil-industry disasters in modern times — will damage Venezuela’s already sagging economy and possibly affect gasoline prices in the United States, which gets 10 percent of its oil imports from Venezuela.

It is also a political challenge for Venezuela’s authoritarian president, Hugo Chávez, who faces his stiffest challenge yet in elections scheduled for Oct. 7. Characteristically, Mr. Chávez was quick to deflect any suggestion that his regime might be to blame for the blaze. “I recommend we don’t speculate,” he said, “and that we raise the human spirit above any political interest.”

It’s not surprising that Mr. Chávez wants to change the subject, since a thorough investigation of safety and efficiency in Mr. Chávez’s oil industry would definitely not be in his interest. Once a well-managed company, Petroleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA) has decayed dramatically under Mr. Chávez. Instead of investing PDVSA’s profits in the firm, he spends them on patronage and grandiose public works at home — and political adventures abroad. Between 2006 and 2010, he doubled PDVSA’s staff, even as output fell from 3.2 million barrels per day to 2.9 million. Production has declined further since 2010.

Many in Venezuela believe that systematic neglect of PDVSA’s infrastructure and maintenance needs is the true cause of the deadly fire, which began before dawn Aug. 25. Local residents reported sensing a powerful odor emanating from the plant for several hours before the blast, suggestive of a gas leak. Unions representing workers at the refinery have complained of numerous breakdowns in recent years, as well as a series of accidents, some of them fatal.

In a functioning democracy, of course, such charges might have been aired in the press when officials failed to respond. But Mr. Chávez has energetically clamped down on journalists and bullied many dissenters into silence or exile. In July, he warned that a victory for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles would “put an end to the social programs promoted during 14 years of government, and as a result the country would enter into a civil war.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Capriles, 40, is fighting on; the latest opinion polls show him gaining ground on Mr. Chávez, who is 58. During Mr. Chávez’s 13-year rule, Venezuelans have known political repression, inflation, rampant crime, corruption, and international conflict, and perhaps they are finally getting fed up enough to vote for change. The horrible disaster at Amuay may give them one more reason to do so.