ESPARZA, Puntarenas – Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez this week confirmed plans to close a Venezuelan state-run aluminum plant that employs 400 people in this humble Pacific-slope town.
The socialist President denied rumors he is closing the plant because of a grudge with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. But the plant closure controversy seems to have further frozen already icy diplomatic relations between two nations whose leaders are on opposite sides of an ideological rift in Latin America.
“Mr. President of Costa Rica likes to stick his nose into things he shouldn’t …
How does he want to have good relations offending the Venezuelan people like that?” Chávez said Wednesday while visiting an oil plant in southeast Venezuela.
The future of the plant was called into question after Arias criticized Chávez for usurping power and “negating democracy” in an interview that aired on Costa Rica’s Radio Columbia earlier this month.
Arias said in the past several years, South America has reached a “peak of populist leadership that is the disease of Latin America.”
His comments came after the Venezuelan legislature gave Chávez the power to legislate by decree, and after Chávez announced plans to nationalize businesses in key industries such as telecommunications.
Though Chávez said the Esparza factory closure is part of a three-year-old plan to restructure the industrial sector, Costa Rican officials remained skeptical.
“It seems to us there’s a political motive,” said Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, President Arias’ brother.
The statements came after Costa Rican officials took shots in the dark all week as to why employees of the Venezuelan state-run aluminum company CVG Aluminios Nacionales S.A. (ALUNASA) sent a letter to Arias Feb. 14 saying Chávez ordered the plant’s closure.Workers spread unconfirmed reports the plant had stopped ordering prime materials for production, and might move to Panama or Nicaragua.
“We don’t know if they’re going to close operations, or if they want to move part of the plant or something else,” Arias told reporters at a press conference Monday.
By the time Chávez finally spoke, the Arias administration was already frustrated after the Venezuelan government gave Costa Rica the cold shoulder all week.
“We’ve tried every means to table a discussion with the Venezuelan government,” said Foreign Minister Bruno Stagno, adding that the Venezuelan Embassy in San José, factory representatives and the Venezuelan Foreign Minister gave “all kinds of excuses” to avoid talks.
The Presidents of Nicaragua and Venezuela last month discussed plans to build an aluminum plant in Nicaragua. At the inauguration ceremony for Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega last month, Chávez invited Nicaragua to be part of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a free trade alliance including Bolivia and Cuba.
Meanwhile, Costa Rica’s exports to Venezuela have stagnated in recent years (TT, Jan. 19).
Though he confirmed the Esparza plant’s closure this week, Chávez didn’t clarify when it would close or whether operations would move to another country.
Venezuelan Embassy press attaché Beglis Alfaro told The Tico Times the embassy couldn’t comment on the matter.
Arias said Tuesday he is willing to speak with the leftist President to avoid a plant closure, and added he supports the idea of the Costa Rican government buying the plant.
A Venezuelan government-owed company bought ALUNASA in 1990. The plant has been in Costa Rica nearly 30 years, and exports nearly $50 million worth of rolled aluminum sheet, foil and other items annually.
Foreign Trade Minister Marco Vinicio Ruiz said there is no sign the closure is because of poor performance of the company, which has nearly doubled exports since 2000.
Minister Arias said the government is seeking ways to assist workers if and when the plant closes.
Though ALUNASA employees have met with administration officials and sent a letter to Chávez Monday requesting he consider their plight, company managers haven’t said a word in public. The Tico Times made repeated calls to Manager Ramón Rosales, and visited the plant in Esparza Tuesday, but to no avail.
“If the plant closes, there will be serious consequences for Esparza,” said Mayor Dagoberto Venegas, sitting in one of the few air-conditioned offices in his muggy town with a 7.5% unemployment rate. The aluminum plant is the “only significant” employer in this city of 27,000, he said.
ALUNASA employees The Tico Times talked with in Esparza declined to comment on the record.
In Esparza, everyone has a friend or family member who works at the plant, and no one here wants it to shut down.
“It would affect business, the families, all the taxi drivers and the whole market,” said area restaurant owner Alan Cerleños.