Entrepreneurs prospering under Chavez

Caracas, November 20:

Arturo Sarmiento rides in a chauffeured BMW, recently bought a television station and has profited handsomely by trading Venezuelan oil.

The 35-year-old acknowledges one factor behind his success was a decision to keep doing business as an oil trader with president Hugo Chavez’s government during a strike that nearly paralysed the state oil company four years ago.

Sarmiento says he was a strike-buster out of principle, believing it was a ‘criminal’ attempt at regime-change - and his decision has brought dividends.

“Other people were striking and I was working,” Sarmiento says matter-of-factly, adding that for a time “you’d become almost a social pariah if you dared to work with the Chavez government.” But nowadays, Sarmiento and many other entrepreneurs are making deals and prospering, even as Chavez says he is leading Venezuela toward socialism and away from capitalism. A new well-connected business class, ranging from shipping executives to bond traders, has spotted opportunities in a shifting political landscape and is flourishing. “I think when you get societal changes, then spaces become open for new emerging actors,” says Sarmiento, who has been trading oil since 1999.

“Venezuela’s always been fluid. Right now it’s going through a major flux.” Some anti-Chavez businesspeople have called Sarmiento a sellout and an opportunist. But even some wealthy Cha-vez opponents who used to try to undermine him seem to be following suit and putting their economic interests before politics.

An infusion of petrodollars into the economy has fed a boom in consumption of products from cars to cell phones, while banks are enjoying unprecedented profits and demand for newly issued government bonds this month outstripped supply by nine to one.

Economic growth is expected to reach nine per cent this year. Chavez, who is leading in the polls ahead of December 3 elections, holds sporadic meetings with top business leaders. He assures them he is no enemy of the private sector, even as his government has increased regulation, seized some farmlands and instituted price controls on foo-ds. “Business is being done. If there are some who refuse to do it, well they’re losing opportunities,” says Miguel Angel Perez Abad, who heads the pro-Chavez business group Fedeindustria. Perez Abad, who distributes propane bought from the state oil company, says he knows many Chavez opponents are quietly doing business with the government, which is flush with oil profits and is a dominant force in the growing economy.

A watershed conflict between business owners and Chavez came in the devastating two-month strike cal-led by the opposition in 200-2. It began in the oil industry as an effort to oust Chavez and soon spread, causing shortages of everything from milk to cooking oil.

Like most successful entrepreneurs, Sarmiento has been at the right place at the right time - and has often filled the right niche. Before he got into buying and selling oil, Sarmiento did a brisk business importing Scotch whisky, which he saw as a natural market since Venez-uelans are among world’s top consumers of the spirit.

Many wealthy entrepreneurs remain among Chavez’s most vehement opponents.

Sarmiento, however, says he sees opportunity rather than looming problems.