July 13, 2008
MARACAIBO, Venezuela -- Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Sunday touted a pact delivering fuel to Caribbean nations and loosened the financing terms to aid countries struggling with high oil prices.
Chavez said nations taking part in the Petrocaribe initiative will now be required to pay just 40 percent of the bill within 90 days - down from the current 50 percent. He said the rest can be paid over the next 25 years at a fixed interest rate of 1 percent as long as oil prices are above US$100 a barrel.
"That could compensate for the horrible curve of the jump in oil prices," Chavez said. He added that 70 percent of payments may be deferred if oil reaches US$150 a barrel.
Chavez said Venezuela aims to continue strengthening the Petrocaribe accord and make it into an "anti-hunger shield" for countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
Three years after Petrocaribe began, though, figures released by officials show the initiative is still not operating at full strength because of transportation and storage problems.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez said member countries other than Cuba are receiving a total of 86,000 barrels of oil a day - significantly less than their quota of 125,000.
Ramirez said Venezuela expects performance will improve with the expansion of an oil distribution network in the Caribbean, including installing storage tanks and rehabilitating Cuba's Soviet-era Cienfuegos refinery.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines expects to complete construction of a storage facility next year with Venezuelan help, allowing it to boost the 300 barrels a day it currently receives - less than a third of its Petrocaribe quota, said Thornley Orsino Myers, who heads a St. Vincent electrical utility and accompanied his country's delegation.
The pact has helped Chavez promote his vision of regional independence from the United States. He used the summit to blame Washington for international economic problems, and called U.S. military spending in Iraq "madness."
He also denied criticism from Venezuelan opponents who say he is giving away Venezuela's oil wealth.
Reading from an opposition statement accusing him of "bribery diplomacy," Chavez mused: "It's very probable this was written in the U.S. Embassy."
Some Petrocaribe member countries have the option of paying partially for oil with services or goods such as rice, bananas and sugar.
To help boost agriculture, Chavez said Venezuela will donate US$460 million from its oil proceeds annually to create an aid fund providing farming supplies and machinery in the region. He also offered to supply subsidized fertilizer to other countries.
Leaders at the meeting in the western city of Maracaibo included President Alvaro Colom of Guatemala, which was welcomed as Petrocaribe's 18th member. Venezuela said delegations from 15 countries attended, including 11 heads of state.