Posted on Tuesday, 01.06.09
Falling crude prices squeeze Chavez oil diplomacy
By IAN JAMES and RACHEL JONES
Associated Press Writers
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela's slumping oil earnings are starting to
squeeze President Hugo Chavez's public spending spree and curb the
international aid he uses to counter U.S. influence.
State-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp., which is based in Houston and
distributes Venezuelan oil in the U.S., suspended a free heating oil
program for poor Americans this week, according to Citgo's nonprofit
partner Citizens Energy.
Some are now predicting a drastic pullback in Chavez's oil-fueled
"Venezuela's oil diplomacy will retrench," said Larry Birns, director of
the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "The government is
not in a position to continue the subsidies, so at the very least this
is going to reduce Chavez's clout as a regional power-maker."
Citizens, based in Boston, said a program that distributes free fuel for
200,000 American households in 23 states has been suspended by Citgo.
Last year the program cost Venezuela $100 million.
Citgo has refused to comment since the announcement Monday.
Oil is the financial engine behind Chavez's socialist government.
Accounting for nearly 94 percent of exports and half the national
budget, it pays for everything from subsidized food to free
universities, allowing Chavez to expand the state payroll and
It has also bankrolled an international aid bonanza in which Chavez
showers allies with cheap fuel, refining projects and cash donations.
With international aid, Chavez has forged ties with left-leaning allies
and promoted his vision of a united Latin America increasingly
independent of the United States.
In 2007 alone, Venezuela pledged more than $8.8 billion in aid,
financing and energy funding abroad, according to an Associated Press
tally at the time.
But oil prices have fallen 67 percent since their July peak and the
Venezuelan economy has come under strain. Annual inflation now tops 32
percent in Caracas, and growth fell by nearly half last year to 4.9
percent, the slowest rate since 2003.
Oil prices are now well below the $60 a barrel Venezuela budgeted for
2009, making a deficit likely for the first time in five years. And
experts say output is sagging at state oil company Petroleos de
Venezuela SA, where profits are often used to finance Chavez's social
programs instead of to explore for new oilfields.
Chavez, campaigning to abolish presidential term limits, vows not to cut
back on the public spending that has made him popular. He has
accumulated $42.2 billion in Central Bank reserves and billions more in
savings as a cushion.
But he may now be forced to spend much of that money at home. Critics
are asking that Venezuelan ally Cuba pay cash for the nearly 100,000
barrels it receives every day.
"Chavez is going to have to significantly pare back his diplomatic
ambitions" to maintain support at home, said Patrick Esteruelas, an
analyst at the New York-based Eurasia Group.
One of Chavez's biggest international initiatives has been the
Petrocaribe pact, which sells oil to Caribbean and Central American
countries largely on credit, charging 1 percent interest over 25 years.
Venezuela has financed more than $2 billion in sales to the pact's 18
members since 2004, sometimes accepting as partial payment cattle,
bananas, sugar, and medical care from Cuban doctors.
Plunging oil prices have changed the terms of that deal: Recipients now
pay for at least 50 percent of the oil up front, up from 40 percent when
crude prices topped $100 a barrel.
Still, the pact isn't likely to disappear soon: The allies it has won
Venezuela are too useful in international forums such as the United
Nations, where small countries' votes sometimes carry the same weight as
those from larger nations, said Alejandro Grisanti, a Latin American
analyst at Barclay's Capital in New York.
Officials in more than a dozen beneficiary nations report no cuts in
aid, and Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez insists that Petrocaribe
shipments will continue: "There is no plan to modify that contract."
Yet even if cutbacks are not publicly disclosed, analysts including
Rafael Amiel, managing director for Latin America at IHS Global Insight,
expect Petrocaribe shipments and other assistance to dwindle
substantially by the third quarter of 2009.
Some beneficiaries have amassed large debts to Venezuela. Analysts doubt
Bolivia will be able to repay the more than $100 million it owes.
Meanwhile, Venezuela is reevaluating how to finance refineries planned
for Nicaragua and Ecuador.
"The government is attempting to project the image that it has put away
resources that will enable the country to function more or less as it
now is for upwards of a year," Birns said. But, he said, "Venezuela is
beginning to hurt and will hurt a good deal more in the near future."
Associated Press writers contributing to this report included Theresa
Bradley in Mexico City, Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, and
correspondents in Petrocaribe countries.