With the Venezuelan state owned PDVSA’s contract to run Curaçao’s refinery (Isla) expiring at the end of 2019, the Multidisciplinary Project Team (MDPT) was created in November 2013 to find an operator to modernize Isla and to look for alternatives should Isla close. What happened since, is troubling.
In mid-2016 Prime Minister Whiteman went to Caracas on what should have been a high-level summit about Isla’s future. Instead he was humiliated, left waiting for hours without being able to talk to anyone. Later, the Venezuelan Energy Minister declared that PDVSA had no money for Isla’s upgrade.
Late September 2016 it finally became clear what the MDPTs president, Mr. Wiels, had been doing on his mysterious (private)solo travels in Asia. China’s Guandong Zenhrong (GZE), a rookie with zero experience in refinery building, was chosen (we still don’t know how it was selected) and signed a MoU with Mr. Whiteman to build a state-of-the-art refining facility. Progressively a ‘GZE-mania’ came about. GZE was considered by the current Administration as a wonder that was going to make everything shiny. At least 6 state enterprises signed MoUs with GZE. We were also told that GZE would build theme parks and big hotels. It took US$ 10 million and 2 costly years to realize, despite my warnings, that these penniless wannabe refinery builders played us.
Turns out we were also played by Mr. Wiels, who left MDPT in June 2017. An investigation uncovered grave misappropriation of public funds and the fact that Mr. Wiels was hiding official documents (on his personal computer) which he refused to release. These findings led to the dismissal of the then director of the refinery, Mr. van den Wall-Arneman, who was replaced by Mr. van Kwartel.
Back to square one. But a few months later came the announcement of a preferred bidder for Isla. We breathed a sigh of relief. Our hopes were however soon shattered when it was announced that the selection of a new operator had to wait for an investigation into corruption allegations involving individuals close to the bidding process, including the refinery director who was later fired. The bidder, Motiva, the US-based arm of Saudi Aramco withdraws.
So far we have botched this process. I know that one never gets all that he wants during negotiations. But some of these wounds are self inflicted.
- We’ve never been able to take the Isla discussion to a national level. Instead, we’ve been placing party line officials in key positions in order to execute the party groups interest goals. This issue doesn’t belong to a handful of people. Its a national concern. Outreach to all stakeholders and giving the community the opportunity to voice concern is key.
- Transparency since the get-go was not executed in practice and the Isla dossier is, even for connoisseurs, a black box. No one seems to know what’s happening with the redevelopment path of Isla. Is this path no longer followed as Mr. Whiteman tried to do in February 2016? The need for transparency and communication at every stage of the project is essential.
- We have not been able to control corruption and abuses of power within our ranks. Certain actors have been given a carte blanche without any meaningful oversight. We need to develop and implement detailed approaches to prevent, control, and minimize such corruption risks.
- We have not been able to show a balanced approach regarding the Isla dossier. So far we have created a somewhat desperate and internally belligerent attitude. Curaçao should carefully balance its position to ensure that our negotiators are not blindsided to the point that Isla’s future will come to the detriment of our overall well being and development. This danger is real, especially as we approach the December 2019 deadline.
- Looking at the current and past composition of our negotiating team, it seems that we have not considered sufficiently creating leverage, looking into other mutual beneficial activities with the negotiators at the other side of the table. I miss (advising) team members with a cross-section of skills, especially a geopolitical strategist and someone with relatable experience of the opposing team.
Are we back where we started? No. We are further away from home, especially considering the showdown between some unions and the Government last week. We need to realize that yet another start, long after the tip-off does not bode well. There is less time on the board, less resources, more fatigue and less game plans. So far we have botched this process.