Rafael Ramírez, Venezuela's oil minister, is a bookish-looking engineer. A tall, impeccably dressed, light-skinned man who speaks almost in a hush, he stands in contrast to the rest of Venezuela's boisterous political leadership. But one should not be fooled by appearances: Ramírez may seem like the odd man out, but he is now arguably the most important person in the government. A few months ago, President Nicolás Maduro promoted Ramírez to vice president of economic affairs -- essentially putting the mild-mannered man in charge of the country's economy. And he's determined to make some big changes.
Ramírez was not a public figure during the rise of Hugo Chávez. He was not a military man, nor was he a hard-line Marxist, two recurring characteristics of the chavista leadership. Instead, he was a medium-to-high-ranking executive in the nation's oil and gas industry. His fate, though, dramatically changed in 2002, when he was named to the board of PDVSA. It's difficult to overstate how important the company is to Venezuela: In 2012, the company reported revenues of $124 billion, roughly 30 percent of Venezuela's GDP. Ramírez's appointment was part of Chávez's mission to establish a politically-oriented board in what had then been a "technocratic," state-owned company -- and the move sparked a crisis that led to a brief coup against Chávez. A few months after surviving the coup, Chávez named Ramírez his oil minister, and he has held onto the job since, 12 years and counting. (In the photo above, Ramírez opens the valve of a new pipeline in southeastern Venezuela.)
Among other achievements, Ramírez was instrumental in helping the government survive a shutdown of the oil industry in December 2002. With Ramírez's support, Chávez fired tens of thousands of the company's best and brightest that had decided to go on strike -- sacrificing the company's crucial knowledge base in order to preserve power. Ramírez is also infamous for being captured on video saying that PDVSA was "red, very red" ("roja, rojita," referring to the crimson color of the governing party) and that if anyone was uncomfortable with that, they should leave. Instead of backtracking when the video surfaced, Ramírez doubled down, repeating his statement over and over again since. His words have proven prescient: PDVSA now finances the government's electoral campaigns, and the entire government likes to boast that the nation's cash cow belongs to them, paraphrasing Ramírez's infamous remark.
It is not surprising to find that, in a populist petro-state such as Venezuela, the man with the checkbook holds considerable sway. But with Maduro's rise to power, Ramírez has seen his power grow even more.
A few months after taking office, Maduro named him to head the Economic Cabinet, something akin to being "first among equals" with regards to other ministers. His main obstacle to complete domination over economic policy seemed to be the country's previous economic czar, Jorge Giordani, who is now on his way out. (Maduro fired him for failing to correct the country's deep imbalances.) Giordani is now making quite a ruckus. On June 18, he published an open letter in which he accuses the president of a "lack of leadership," and warns that Maduro (aided by Ramírez) is going to undo most of Hugo Chávez's "socialist" policies.
With Giordani out of the picture, Ramírez is in charge. What does he expect to do with his power?
He has already hinted at where he wants to take the economy. In a high-profile speech in front of investors in London last week, he said that Venezuela had to "unify" its exchange rate, i.e. do away with the massive distortions caused by multiple exchange rates. He has insisted that the price of gasoline (the cheapest in the world) needs to go up. He is also aware that Venezuela needs to offer better terms when dealing with multinationals looking to invest in the oil sector.
Whether he has the power to implement this "pragmatic" agenda is unknown. There is strong resistance to his ideas among some of the members of the cabinet, particularly from the foreign minister, Elías Jaua. Furthermore, it is not clear whether Venezuela can be made viable simply by tinkering with the exchange rate -- the country has been running double-digit deficits for a few years, pointing to deeper problems with the way it runs its business. Finally, Venezuela faces parliamentary elections next year, and with the government's popularity in free fall, they may need to postpone unpopular measures such as increasing the price of gas.
Given the government's terrible political situation, Ramírez may not have much room to maneuver. Implementing tough decisions may prove too costly for the government, and Ramírez may not have the time to convince the rest of the cabinet about the wisdom of his measures.
Yet after years of dealing with the world's oil companies, he could be described as a skilled negotiator. Ramírez will need all the skills he possesses to navigate the waters of power in Caracas. Regardless, his is a star on the rise.