Fleeing Chavez, oil workers flock to frigid Alberta
By JOEL MILLMAN, The Wall Street Journal
Associated Press Financial Wire
June 26, 2007 Tuesday 2:10 PM GMT
FORT McMURRAY, Alberta Before he left Venezuela in April for this
petroleum outpost in northern Alberta, Freddy Mendez heard tales
about bone-chilling winter cold and lumbering moose. Since he's come
to town, he's seen two black bears in his neighborhood. Still, the
toughest adjustment is the late-night sun.
"You get a lot of work done when the sun doesn't set until 11," he
says, stifling a yawn. "But it's so hard getting the kids to bed."
The 45-year-old engineer is part of a swelling colony of Venezuelan
expats who say they were driven into exile by a hostile government.
Many assert they were purged after a long strike in 2002 at Petroleos
de Venezuela SA, the state-owned oil giant known as PdVSA. More
recent arrivals initially found work with private oil companies
operating in Venezuela in 2003, but lost their jobs this year when
Hugo Chavez wrested control of the companies' holdings. They call
themselves the "twice fired."
Frigid, remote Alberta has become one of the world's fastest growing
enclaves of Venezuelans, rivaling such warm-weather spots as Weston,
Fla., outside Miami; and Sugar Land, Texas, near Houston. There are
now 3,000 Venezuelan-Albertan families, up from 800 or so last year.
Some Albertans now call Evergreen, a Calgary housing development,
"Vene-green" because of the 100 families who have bought split-level
homes there, and dangle Venezuelan flags from car rearview mirrors.
The new arrivals are hardly huddled masses. Many are oil-field
veterans who have taken positions in Canadian refineries at salaries
topping $100,000 a year. Canadian bosses prize the Venezuelans'
ability to apply techniques pioneered in South America, where oil
deposits in Venezuela's Orinoco region are mined much like Alberta's
gooey oil sands.
Other Venezuelans followed their relatives to Canada and found
opportunities, including Orlando Morante, who opened a Calgary
nightclub, the Conga Room. This past winter, a Venezuelan-born karate
instructor led Calgary's delegation to an international martial-arts
competition in Tokyo. The new arrivals are frequently bilingual and
usually arrive with enough cash to buy into the booming real-estate
markets of Calgary and Edmonton.
The loss of so many skilled oil workers has hit PdVSA hard. Since Mr.
Chavez took power in 1999, Venezuela's oil production according to
U.S. government statistics is down to 2.4 million barrels a day, from
3.1 million barrels a day, despite high prices. (Venezuela has
consistently accused the U.S. of undercounting PdVSA's production in
Venezuela's loss is Alberta's gain. With the province's oil industry
perpetually short of skilled labor, Canadian companies recruit
overseas professionals. Champion Technologies of Calgary, which has a
unit drilling in Venezuela's Orinoco oil region, brought employees
north. So did the oil-sands giant, Suncor Energy Inc., which has
nearly 100 Venezuelan professionals on its payroll. Jacobs Canada
Inc., the local unit of the U.S. engineering company, has sent teams
of headhunters to Caracas to conduct interviews, returning with
dozens of PdVSA veterans.
After Pedro Pereira lost his job directing Venezuela's petroleum
technology center following the 2002 PdVSA strike, he fielded offers
to return to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in
California, where he had been a research fellow in the 1980s.
But he chose the University of Calgary. Over the past five years,
he's received $5 million from the Alberta Ingenuity Fund, a
provincial program for scientific ventures, to develop advanced
methods of extracting bitumen from oil-sand deposits. Canada's
liberal immigration rules also let him recruit colleagues, and
Canadian firms often hired the spouses of academics he hired,
increasing family salaries.
Remote Fort McMurray, 476 miles north of Calgary, is the easiest
entry point for oil families looking for a Canadian haven. There are
plenty of unfilled jobs. When oil-sands development began in 1967,
the town had just 4,000 people and few paved streets. Now it has
65,000 residents, including 200 Venezuelan families, up from 30 a
year ago. Suburban housing developments sprawl toward the heavily
forested hills that hug the banks of the Athabasca River.
The Venezuelans do their best to hold on to their home culture,
importing chili peppers, which they cultivate in pots set under heat
lamps and making traditional cachapa pancakes with Canadian corn
meal, which is much finer than the coarse flour used at home.
The men fill their weekends by playing softball in neighborhood parks
where hockey has ruled. Some wear caps and shirts emblazoned with the
logo "Gente de Petroleo," or "Petroleum People," the civic
organization led by PdVSA managers opposed to the Chavez regime.
St. John's, Fort McMurray's local Catholic parish, now conducts a
Spanish-language mass every month. New immigrants from Venezuela
pitch in to help the Rev. Gerard Gautier with the liturgy. "They keep
saying to me, 'You're doing good, just watch those
mispronunciations,'" the cheery Canadian priest says.
Locals say that salsa music may be the Venezuelans' biggest
contribution to Fort McMurray's quality of life. Fed up with sunless
days, frozen car engines and husbands gone for long shifts at the oil
refinery, two winters ago Marife Valderrama launched Baile Terapia
Dance Therapy in her basement. Wearing tropical spandex outfits and
other exercise gear, she and her ladies dance for hours to cumbia,
merengue and reggaeton beats. Word spread, and soon natives clamored
Ms. Valderrama, a 31-year-old chemist and former professional dancer,
has moved Baile Terapia to the cafeteria at Father Mercredi High
School, where she has branched into couples' classes and mommy-and-
baby salsa groups. She does salsa consulting on the side.
"I charged $80 to do a bachelorette party for 15 Canadian women," she
says. "The wedding was in the Dominican Republic and they wanted to
be able to dance when they got there."
Many Venezuelans also flock to tiny Foothills Stadium in Calgary to
watch the minor-league Calgary Vipers, which has two Venezuelan
ballplayers on the roster. One, outfielder Jorge Tang Jr., is a
former Cincinnati Reds prospect who trained at the Reds' Venezuelan
baseball academy. Mr. Tang's father is a surveyor recruited by
drilling-services company Multi-Shot LLC to work in Canada.
The other, pitcher Daivis Burguillos, was a prospect of the New York
Mets' organization who says he got tangled in the political strife
between Caracas and Washington. "I was supposed to get a visa to join
the Mets in Port St. Lucie (Fla.)," the 24-year-old Caracas native
says. "Because of all the diplomatic fighting, they never got one for
me. The Mets released me." (The Mets say Mr. Burguillos was cut for
his performance, not due to visa problems.)
At a recent Vipers game, dozens of Venezuelan fans, dressed in bright
reds, blues and yellows to match the colors of Venezuela's flag,
filled seats along the right field line. "Hip, Hip! Jorge," the
Venezuelans shouted in unison, echoing an ESPN TV ad, when Mr. Tang
strode to the plate. He went one for four in the game and is hitting .
The 20-year-old Mr. Tang says he sees Venezuelan transplants at road
games in Edmonton and Winnipeg: "It's like having a family here."