I was recently on vacation in Aruba, and a few days in my husband and I rented a Jeep to travel to the much-hyped Baby Beach on the other end of the island. Upon entering the area, I was completely taken back by the extraordinary eyesore that is the Valero oil refinery. Sitting as a callous backdrop to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world were stacks of furious fire and black smoke. I was so curious about the refinery and how the locals felt about it that I began asking around to gain some sort of consensus on the corporate presence. I, for one, found it offensive.
When we asked the locals around the beach about the refinery, one pointed to the dozen or so seemingly-homeless dogs running around on the beach. “Those dogs were abandoned by previous Valero employees. They just leave them here when they leave because they only come for a specified amount of time to work at the refinery.”
While that does not speak to Valero as a company and its impact on the economical and social issues of Aruba and its people, it did hit a nerve with me, and obviously did with some of the locals. I also found blaring irony in the Valero-sponsored garbage cans that dotted the beaches, urging tourists to “keep Aruba’s beaches clean.” This as the Valero smoke stacks littered the air.
When I returned home, I researched the refinery, sure there was some sort of story here. I discovered that when Valero acquired the refinery in 2004, it initiated all sorts of feel-good programs, including scholarship programs for students, skills training programs for local workers, and charity and volunteer committees aimed at improving the local community. I then came across a post on the subject from someone who seemed to be a previous employee:
“Valero has been absolutely awful for Aruba. All the previous oil companies that were there like Exxon, Coastal and El Paso invested in their workers and the community. But Valero measured every single dollar. Personally I have begged Valero many times to give me a scholarship and instead they gave scholarship to rich kids that were not even from Aruba. While we Aruban students here studying in the U.S. with plans to return to Aruba struggle to pay tuition and fees. We are very happy to see Petrobas come in and fill the huge gap left by Valero.”
Petrobas is the Brazilian state-run company that is set to purchase the Valero refinery. An anonymous source, presumably an employee, was quoted in a Caribbean Net News article saying “Whoever buys [Valero] is buying a lot of headaches.”
Besides being a tremendous eyesore, the Valero refinery’s existence seems slightly narcissistic, evidenced by the fact that its gung-ho idealisms and promises to improve the Aruban economics seem to have been completely abandoned shortly after their inception.
It is essentially the same old hegemonic concept the government never tires of: move in to a less fortunate, economically developed, or socially stable geographical area that is in some way beneficial to the invasive party and “spread democracy,” promising a better life, better access to needs, and educational, economical, and political opportunity. Too often these “programs” and initiatives are poorly thought-out, poorly executed attempts at distracting from the real reason for the presence.
Pictures to come