Fleeing Chávez, Veteran Oil Workers Flock to Frigid Alberta

By Joel MillmanFrom The Wall Street Journal Online

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 Petróleos 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 Chávez 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. Chávez 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 recent years.)

Alberta’s Gain
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 Petróleo,” or “Petroleum People,” the civic organization led by PdVSA managers opposed to the Chávez 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.

Biggest Contribution
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 Marifé Valderrama launched Baile Terápia — Dance Therapy — in her basement. Wearing tropical spandex outfits and other exercise gear, she and her ladies dance for hours to cumbia, merengue and reggaetón beats. Word spread, and soon natives clamored to join.

Ms. Valderrama, a 31-year-old chemist and former professional dancer, has moved Baile Terápia 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 .264.

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.”

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