The Venezuelan President may be forced to moderate his revolutionary policies and ease regulations on foreign investment
Caracas - Petrod?lares. As oil prices soared in recent years, Venezuela's fiery President, Hugo Ch?vez, doled them out to win friends and influence people both at home and abroad. For Venezuela's poor he built health clinics and schools and funded farming co-ops. He distributed cheap oil to Cuba and other Caribbean neighbors while bankrolling his debt-ridden allies in Argentina. Three years ago he even ventured onto the turf of his archenemy, the U.S., and offered cut-rate heating oil in poor neighborhoods. The day the first deliveries arrived in the South Bronx, the front-page photo on New York's Spanish-language El Diario showed a smiling Ch?vez wearing a Santa Claus hat.
But while Ch?vez built his "Socialism for the 21st Century" on a foundation of crowd-pleasing gestures, he scrimped on traditional investments??he ones that pay economic returns. So traffic crawls on Caracas' crumbling highways. An overtaxed power grid has led to three nationwide blackouts this year. Businesses, fearful of revolutionary taxes and confiscation, have trimmed investments to the bare essentials. And while the government says oil production tops 3 million barrels per day, industry sources think it's fallen to a mere 2.4 million barrels, down by a quarter from 1999.
As long as the price of oil rose, none of this bad news held back Ch??vez or his revolutionary ambitions. He was flush. As it turns out, it took the Wall Street collapse and the specter of the worst global recession in decades to drag down the oil market and hit Venezuela where it hurt.
The question now is how Ch??vez will respond to the economic constraints. Will he trim back his revolution and warm up to private investors??erhaps using the arrival of the Obama Administration to seek d??tente with the U.S.? Or will he bull ahead, seizing on economic unrest to nationalize more industries and establish authoritarian rule?
On a stormy afternoon, as thunderclouds empty onto the valley of Caracas and turn the snarled highways into rivers, economist Ignacio de Leon hurries in from a patio restaurant at the swank Hotel Tamanaco InterContinental. Finding a dry table, he sits down and draws a Y with his finger on the white tablecloth. "We're at a fork in the road," says De Leon, a managing director of economic consultancy Econlex. "Ch??vez has to choose??o moderate or radicalize."
Whatever his choice, it's clear that Ch??vez must adjust to more frugal times. He counts on energy sales for 95% of export revenue and half of his government budget. Prices for Venezuela's crude have fallen by nearly 60% since July, to as low as $52.92 per barrel. That leaves him dangerously short. Deutsche Bank (DB) estimates that Ch??vez needs $95 per barrel to finance operations and pay for imports, including much of the nation's food. Less than a year ago, Ch??vez chopped three zeros off the bolivar and vowed to defend the new currency. But on the black market this "strong bolivar" fetches half what it did in June. Venezuelan government debt, meanwhile, now yields nearly 20% annually, double its level of six months ago.
The full impact of the downturn hasn't yet reached Caracas. Oil revenues, based on contracts made three months ago, are still coming in at August's higher prices. But the prospects are darkening just as Venezuela heads into state and municipal elections on Nov. 23. True, the voting might not mean much, since Ch??vez in July issued a decree empowering him to appoint regional leaders. But a decisive loss would signal that Venezuelans may be weary of his revolution??nd reluctant to rewrite the constitution so that the 54-year-old leader can stay on beyond the end of his term in 2012.
Naturally, both foreign and Venezuelan businesses are hoping that Ch??vez's growing needs will force him to moderate. But there's little sign of softening as he storms through the country campaigning. Most recently, he has threatened to jail Manuel Rosales, governor of the northwestern state of Zulia and Ch??vez's biggest domestic rival, on corruption charges. Rosales, he says, is a "tumor in the body of the state." For economic relief, Ch??vez is hoping oil will climb again. "It's not the end of the world," Deputy Oil Minister Ivan Orellana says while checking his BlackBerry for the price of crude. "A rebounding global economy and OPEC [production] cuts will push prices higher."
During the boom, Ch??vez rewrote contracts on oil projects while jacking up taxes and royalties and demanding that foreign investors such as ExxonMobil (XOM), Total, and ConocoPhillips (COP) cede majority control in their operations to the state oil company, Petr??leos de Venezuela. Since then, production has continued to ebb. In late October, Venezuela announced plans to open four new projects in the oil-rich Orinoco Belt to private minority partners. But even in the best case, those wells won't be minting new petrod??lares for three years??robably too late to help Ch??vez balance his books.
This leaves Ch??vez with limited options. "He can either cut spending or devalue the currency," says Patrick Esteruelas, an analyst with New York consultancy Eurasia Group. "There are risks in both." A devaluation would give the government more bolivars to spend, but would also spur inflation and risk more shortages. Observers in Caracas expect Ch??vez to put off a devaluation until well past the election.
He could of course cut spending??ut there are complications. Government subsidies, for instance, keep gasoline at 12 cents a gallon??purring Venezuelans to drive more and leaving less oil to export. But attempts by previous governments to raise gas prices have provoked angry uprisings. And the stakes are even higher now. Over the years, Ch??vez has armed many of the poor, creating revolutionary militias. At least some of their weapons are contributing to an unprecedented surge of violent crime. With more than 4,000 killings per year, Caracas now tops the world in murders per capita. And the U.S. State Dept. warns visitors of armed gangs who throttle victims until they pass out before robbing them.
Many Venezuelans fear that a suffering economy could stir even more violence. From his high-rise office at Banco Venezolano de Cr??dito, Oscar Garcia Mendoza, the bank president, gestures out the window to the working-class neighborhood below. It's a warren of tin and terra-cotta rooftops extending toward the dark green ??ila mountains that separate Caracas from the Caribbean coast. "It's going to get ugly," he predicts. In the worst case, Ch??vez's opponents fear that economic crisis and an outbreak of violence might lead the President to assume emergency powers and steer Venezuela toward a Cuba-style regime. His rhetoric suggests as much. "Socialism is the only way to save us," Ch??vez said at an early November election rally.
In a sense, Venezuela's economic mess parallels the crisis in the U.S. Venezuelans, like American homeowners, jacked up spending as the value of their assets soared. Ch??vez, focusing on his political agenda, led the charge, driving up government outlays from 22% to 33% of gross domestic product in only five years. Imports increased fivefold, to an estimated $52.2 billion, from 2003 to 2008 as domestic production stalled, hampered by an overvalued currency, price controls, and a welter of regulations.
Venezuela reports foreign reserves topping $40 billion. But its finances are largely shrouded in mystery. One of its development funds, known as Fonden, reportedly has $30 billion to $50 billion. Ch??vez has dipped into it routinely to finance pet projects at home and abroad. But those outside the inner circle have only the faintest idea about the nature of the fund and fear it may be full of little more than IOUs from Ch??vez's pals throughout the region. And financial convulsions in Argentina stoke concern that troubles in Buenos Aires could put losses in Ch??vez's books.
The most prominent forces poised to provide relief??rivate investors, both domestic and foreign??ave long been punching bags for Ch??vez. This is especially true since his reelection in 2006, which Ch??vez saw as a mandate for socialism. Since then he has moved to nationalize "strategic" sectors, including steel, cement, telecom, and electricity, and the Banco de Venezuela. That leaves the investment climate frigid. "It's the definition of high-risk," says Edward D. Jardine, president of the Venezuelan American Chamber of Commerce. And by all signs, Hugo Ch??vez's Venezuela is getting riskier.
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Warning that easy oil wealth leads countries astray, Juan Pablo P??rez Alfonso, a Venezuelan and a co-founder of OPEC, called oil the "devil's excrement." A lively blog by that name at Salon.com chronicles events in Venezuela and its oil industry. One recent post looks at the country's murky ties to Argentina, while another explores apparently common fears in Venezuela that Barack Obama could become a new Hugo Ch??vez.
For more from the blog, go to http://bx.businessweek.com/oil-and-gas/blogs/