‘A Bomb on the Doorstep’: Venezuela Fishermen Fight an Oil Giant

AMUAY, Venezuela — The aging fisherman — his sandals sinking into the sand, his optimism unflagging — looked out across the water and took the measure of his long, losing battle.

At his toes was Amuay Bay, and the life-giving fish stock it supported: That’s what he was fighting for. Way over on the opposite shore, beyond the wind-kicked whitecaps, sat his adversary: the hulking, state-run oil plant and its failing machinery.

“The company hates this man,” said the fisherman, Esteban Sánchez, a calloused index finger pointing at his own chest. “But I don’t care. I’ll continue denouncing them.”

For generations, Amuay’s fisherman have pulled snapper, mackerel, sardines, clams and crabs from these waters to feed their families and sell to wholesalers who cart the catch to markets and restaurants elsewhere.

But the plant, part of the largest refinery complex in Venezuela, has from time to time spewed contaminants into the bay and the adjoining Caribbean Sea, threatening the livelihood of families living in this poor fishing village of several thousand on the country’s northwest coast.

With each spill — scores of them over the past three decades, residents say — fishermen have been forced to suspend their work as plumes of contaminants turned the water’s surface into a shimmering toxic kaleidoscope, poisoned fish and waterfowl, killed mangroves and soiled the town’s beaches.

The fishermen and their families have been able to do little, as if trapped in the worst of forced marriages, the population lashed to the refinery by the bay they share.

Most recently, a storage tank overflowed in heavy rain last October, dumping thousands of gallons of refinery slop into the bay. Dead fish washed ashore in Amuay, and dozens of pelicans were killed. Fishermen who worked the bay could not fish there for more than a month, leaving them in a financially perilous situation amid soaring inflation and a national economy in free-fall.

Village residents said the company, Petróleos de Venezuela, known as Pdvsa, sent personnel to take a look at the damage but did not initiate a cleanup or compensate the fishermen for the lost fishing days. Pdvsa did not respond to requests for comment.

Some in Amuay now fear that such spills may become even more common. The sprawling refining complex, a cornerstone of Venezuela’s oil industry, has fallen into severe disrepair leading to cuts in operations, widespread layoffs and an increase in accidents.

“It’s like a bomb on the doorstep of the house,” said Francisco Sánchez, a fisherman and cousin of Esteban Sánchez.

The village — with its rudimentary one-story concrete-block houses, four churches, one school and a community center — is arrayed along partly paved roads on a small peninsula between the bay and the sea. Life, lived so close to the elements, has always been rugged here, but it has become even more so amid the nation’s economic decline.

As with the rest of the nation’s beleaguered population, the communal will in Amuay to protest seems to have declined amid the country’s economic collapse, and most seem resigned these days to suffer Pdvsa’s indignities quietly.

But not Esteban Sánchez, 70, an Amuay native who, like several generations of relatives before him, has fished the waters around Amuay his entire life. As other voices of protest have fallen away, he has maintained his at full volume.

He professes a nuanced view of the refinery: He respects its economic importance to the nation but criticizes its conduct.

“You know that this is a development that benefits the country, and we aren’t egotists,” he said. But, he added, “We don’t like when they look at us like a tick on a dog.”

Mr. Sánchez began his environmental crusade in 1996 when he filed his first formal complaint with the Venezuelan authorities after a series of spills in the bay.

At the time, he said, the Amuay fishing lobby was more unified, with two fishing associations representing the town’s several hundred fishermen. He was president of one, the Association of Artisanal Fishermen of Amuay Bay. The other represented fishermen who primarily worked in the Caribbean Sea.

But about a decade ago, his association splintered, with most members breaking away to join two new fishing groups, part of a national plan by then-President Hugo Chávez to create a system of community councils to oversee local development projects. The government has supplied the two fishing councils with boats, motors and nets.

Mr. Sánchez kept his association alive, even though it remained outside the government funding stream, because it provided an independent platform from which to agitate against Pdvsa.

But he also found himself increasingly going it alone. The government, he contended, bought the submission of the two fishermen’s councils with equipment, even while Pdvsa continued to neglect the underlying problems in the plant that were causing the contamination.

“The people remain quiet,” concurred Adrian Cosi, 47, a member of one of the two fishermen’s councils and a former member of Mr. Sanchez’s association. “The fisherman never says things the way they should be said.”

Other residents, however, say that while they respect Mr. Sanchez’s single-minded focus, they’ve chosen their battles more carefully. Some even accuse him of exaggerating the environmental impacts to create more noise — and bring more attention to himself.

His cousin, Francisco, 57, who serves as a spokesman for one of the two fishermen’s councils, said Esteban was “the tip of the spear” in the village’s efforts to protect the environment.

But he also suggested that his cousin might sometimes take his campaign too far.

“He is a fighter for society, but sometimes it’s time to leave it behind,” he said, before expressing support for the administration of President Nicolás Maduro and the assistance it had given his council.

Elio Coromoto Reyes Cuauro, 67, a retired university professor and owner of a small inn in Amuay, said the fight for justice had suffered from the political divisions among the fishermen. If they were more unified, he argued, more benefits might accrue to the village from Pdvsa, including much-needed improvements in public services like roads, schools and electricity.

“If the people don’t fight together, there isn’t any force and you can’t achieve the shared objectives,” he said.

The archives of Mr. Sanchez’s 21-year struggle are stuffed haphazardly in two briefcases in the small, green-and-mustard-colored cement home where he lives with his wife, 100 yards from the bay.

“This is why Pdvsa doesn’t like me,” he declared on a recent morning, smiling impishly, as he reached into one of the briefcases and started yanking out fistfuls of dog-eared and creased documents — formal complaints, legal papers, newspaper clippings, photographs. He spread them out on a glass table, which filled up quickly, then he grabbed the other briefcase and emptied its contents — more of the same — on a couch.

“There’s a lot of material from Esteban Sánchez,” he said, sifting through the piles. “With all this material, Esteban Sánchez will be heard internationally.” Among his documents was a certificate he received in 2013 from the Canadian Embassy honoring his defense of the environment and human rights.

He was dressed that morning in pinstripe slacks several sizes too big, cinched tight with a belt, and a well-worn collared shirt. He was planning to press his latest complaint at the state attorney general’s office in Coro, the capital of the state of Falcon. These trips were rare, but only because they usually took an entire day traveling by public transport and cost a crippling percentage of his monthly income.

In Coro, an assistant district attorney invited Mr. Sánchez to sit down and explain his business. Pop music was playing on the lawyer’s computer.

Mr. Sánchez revisited the October spill and cited statutes it violated, and recounted the long history of Pdvsa’s neglect of Amuay. “We feel kind of humiliated, but I’m a man of patience,” he said.

As the fisherman spoke, the lawyer tapped away on his phone, which periodically emitted assorted beeps, as if he were playing a video game. He rarely looked up from his screen.

Afterward, Mr. Sánchez seemed pleased. The attorney had given him far more time than usual. “We did well,” he said cheerily.