By June Carolyn Erlick
I was waiting for the ship to come in. In fact, so was everyone else in Nicaragua. Gas lines stretched around the block. The supermarket shelves were nearly bare. Lights went out again and again, plunging the country into frequent darkness. Telex machines couldn’t work, and we reporters had to depend on the few places with generators to file our stories (for younger readers, this was pre-computer and smart phones). U.S. President Ronald Reagan had imposed a trade blockade on Nicaragua in May 1985. The Soviets were sending oil, dodging the blockade.
We reporters did what we always do: we reported on the ship’s arrival. But we also breathed a collective sigh of relief. The arrival of the Soviet ship meant hot showers and light to read by.
Energy is intensely political. It shapes nations and trade and fuels wars and blockades. Energy, I discovered then, is also intensely personal. It shapes our lives on a daily basis. It’s not only a matter of how we get around or whether we have enough food to eat; energy production affects the communities that receive it and those that produce it. It shapes attitudes toward gender and race and nationalism and identity. It pollutes the air and the rivers. It offers immense economic opportunities. Or it does both.
You might not think of Latin America and the Caribbean right away as a big energy producer or consumer. But Venezuela stands ninth in global oil production with gas reserves almost triple those of Canada. Three countries—Venezuela, Brazil, and Mexico—account for about 90 percent of the region’s oil production. And Latin America and the Caribbean also have the capability to provide abundant alternative and renewable energy sources: wind, solar, geothermal and biomass, among others.
Perhaps because of my experience in Nicaragua, I started to conceive this issue in terms of meta-politics. And there is certainly a lot of politics related to energy in the region: the political upheaval of Brazil as a result of corruption scandals in the national oil company; the turmoil in oil-rich Venezuela; the impact of the semi-privatization of Mexico’s oil industry; the targeting of Colombia’s energy installations by guerrilla forces in a show of strength in the context of the ongoing peace process.
But then I thought back on how the arrival of oil had been experienced on a very local and personal level. I began to hear stories about the production of energy: what it felt like to grow up in an oil camp, how energy production affects indigenous women in one particular region, how local communities involve themselves in deciding what is done with oil.
And just recently Alvaro Jiménez, Nieman Affiliate at Harvard ‘09, happened to mention to me that he was starting a website “Crudo Transparente,” a site that monitors the Colombian oil industry. Out of curiosity—and as a quick break from proofreading this issue—I took a peek. The site focuses on five areas: local economy, contracts and royalties, environment, security and human rights and ethnic conflicts. I was pleased to see how much overlap there was with the themes I had chosen for this issue of ReVista.
Although the website deals with only one country—Colombia—it felt like an affirmation of the focus I had chosen for this wide-ranging topic. Energy is political. Energy is personal. Energy matters.