Inside, confidential and off the record
Ramon Espinasa was, for my wife Mercedes and for me, a dearest friend and mentor. We feel a deep pain for his early departure. Early because he was a young man, he was about to turn 67, but also because his intellectual and professional work, of several decades, made him a key player for the reconstruction of the Venezuelan oil industry and economy, which we all trust will start soon. Ramon is going to leave us a big gap in this immense task. Few like him were able to articulate and execute the creation of a new institutional framework for oil to become an engine for prosperity and for us to overcome the petro-state and become a sustainable country in the long term. Fortunately, Ramon created a school, mentoring dozens of outstanding professionals, in PDVSA, in the IDB and other institutions that will continue his legacy.
At the beginning of the seventies, Ramon graduated as an industrial engineer at the UCAB in a time of much political and social activism. There he strengthened ties with the Jesuits and once he graduated he worked in the organization of coffee cooperatives in Lara and unions in Guayana. He had the opportunity to go to study in Europe, but he felt guilty about leaving social work. According to what he told me, it was his friends the priests Arturo Sosa and Luis Ugalde who convinced him to go to study abroad, that he had a lot to give the country with his intellectual work. And thank goodness that it was because Ramon excelled in his master's studies at the Institute of Higher Social Studies in The Hague in the Netherlands and then in his Ph.D. in Petroleum Economics at the University of Cambridge in England. His doctoral thesis, which I had the privilege of reading in manuscript, is an extraordinary and profound analysis of the dynamics of the world oil market. It is one of the best works I have read on the subject and continued reporting his work (and mine) up to the present.
But Ramon's thing was not academics. He returned to Venezuela to work in the oil industry and where he developed a successful career of two decades that culminated in the nineties with his appointment as the first chief economist of PDVSA. Throughout those years, in addition to his brilliant analysis of the oil market, he developed studies on the impact of oil on the evolution of the Venezuelan political economy. He demonstrated how not only the tax income side of oil had had an impact on the development of the economy, but that the productive activity related to its extraction, contrary to what was thought, had had a fundamental impact. Ramon became one of the intellectual authors of the venezuelan Petroleum Aperture of the nineties, led by the president of PDVSA Luis Giusti. More than one million barrels a day of production generated by private investment was the successful result of that strategy. In fact, despite the destruction to which they have subjected the industry during the Chavismo, at present those projects constitute more than half of the production of Venezuela.
I met Ramon when I was an economics student at the UCAB, at the beginning of the nineties. At that time his presentations at economics conferences were legendary. I have known few with the brilliant use of graphics to explain long-term trends. Ramón created a first-class team in PDVSA. He recruited two dear friends, Javier Peraza and Osmel Manzano, from the most brilliant students of those generations of economists. He also invited me to participate, but despite the temptation, I told him that I preferred the academy to a corporate job. Even so, he became my mentor and often invited me to meetings with his team. When I went to do the doctorate, he again offered me a PDVSA scholarship in exchange for returning to work with him. As Stanford University granted me funding, I did not accept its generous offer, but during the research of my doctoral thesis I did two internships in his office and had the privilege of working on several projects with him and his team. It was a fabulous place where one day we met to discuss politics with Diego Urbaneja or Luis Castro, the next day we discussed with Roberto Rigobon or Luis Carlos Palacios if the price of oil was a random path, or we met with brilliant oil executives like Juan Szabo and Paul Reimpell to discuss the strategy of the company. I owe Ramon's generosity much of what I know about oil, economy, politics, state-owned oil companies and a long list of other things. In his PDVSA years he was a mentor to outstanding professionals from the best universities in the world, such as Harvard, MIT and LSE. All of them attribute to Ramon a determining role in their professional careers. Prominent Venezuelans such as Leopoldo Lopez and Luis Pedro España are among his pupils.
Ramon played a very prominent role in the venezuelan economic policy of the 1990s. Given the declining capacities of the Venezuelan State, PDVSA had to assume a very active role in this area. Again Ramon stood out for his brilliance. President Caldera twice offered to be Minister of Planning and Teodoro Petkoff had him as one of his closest collaborators in the development of the Venezuela Agenda. I think it was wise not to have accepted being a minister because Ramon was not made for the intrigues and troubles of politics, he was from a very pure and generous heart.
With the arrival of Chavez to power, Ramon is taken out of PDVSA, a hard blow for him and his boys. Always wanting to stay in Venezuela, for a few years he worked between Caracas and Washington with the CAF and the IDB, and was the architect of the creation of the International Energy and Environment Center of the IESA. Finally, the situation in the country led him to establish himself at the IDB where he developed an outstanding career as a leading energy economist. There he again made a school for training excellent professionals and developing important research agendas at the regional level. In particular, his work on the institutional framework for oil in Latin America where he is an international reference and served in part as a support for the development of models of energy regulatory agencies. He became an authority in global energy policy, sought as a lecturer and consultant by governments and institutions globally. He also made excellent analysis of the cycle of high oil prices, returning to the models of his doctoral thesis. From Washington he also developed teaching activities, mainly at Georgetown University, but also occasionally at IESA and Universidad de los Andes in Colombia, among others. In this stage we coincide in several projects and events, as well as in the discussions about Venezuela, often together with our great friend of many battles, Luis Pacheco. Pacheco and Espinasa formed a formidable duo as much for their brilliance as for their human quality and humor.
Been in exile was hard for Ramon. He often woke up dreaming of returning to Venezuela. His passion for Venezuela was only comparable to his love for the Barsa or his love for his family. He missed his family, his friends and disciples that he did not see often. He always spoke to me with deep love and pride of his daughter Fernanda. In the last decade, the stars seemed to align: he married Alicia, Fernanda moved to Washington, retired but continued working as a consultant on projects that he loved and with many of his best friends involved. He told me: "I do not remember feeling so happy and at peace in a long time."
Unfortunately, a liver disease affected him last year and his health began to deteriorate. A week before his departure I had the privilege of going with Mercedes to visit him, it was a very beautiful and emotional moment, but at the same time very hard and sad. He was surrounded by his family, two of his most beloved friends from La Salle School, several of his disciples from PDVSA and the IDB. The love that he sowed all his life could be seen everywhere. He was at peace. Pacheco arrived a few days later and accompanied him on the last day.
We are going to need you Ramon, we are going to miss you a lot. However, he left a great legacy: his family, his disciples, his friends and his work. He left a school of thought like few.
That legacy will have much to contribute to the reconstruction of Venezuela.
Francisco Monaldi / Prodavinci / March 28, 2019 /
Free translation: Petroleumworld