October 16, 2008
The world financial meltdown of 2008 is sparing no ideologies: It has crushed the Bush administration's brand of go-go capitalism and it will put a damper on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's oil-based leftist populism.
Most international economists agree that Venezuela will be the Latin American country hardest hit by the coming world recession.
This is because Venezuela relies on oil for 94 percent of its foreign income, and oil prices have plummeted from their record $146 a barrel in July to about $75 a barrel on Wednesday.
If the world recession is here to stay for awhile, as most economists predict, rich countries will buy less oil.
The Goldman Sachs bank projected this week that crude prices will be at $70 a barrel at the end of the year, and may drop further to $50 a barrel in the case of a deeper-than-expected world recession. Others estimate oil prices will be at $65 a barrel.
With these prices, Chávez will have trouble maintaining his domestic social programs, which could lead to growing social tensions. And his grandiose economic aid promises abroad will be very hard to meet.
PFC Energy, a Washington D.C.-based consulting firm, says Venezuela would need oil prices at $97 a barrel to balance its external accounts in 2009 -- way beyond current oil prices.
Rose Anne Franco, one of the authors of the PFC report, told me that this estimate does not include foreign aid promises that Chávez makes almost daily around the world, but that have not yet been included in Venezuela's budget. That would push the threshold even higher.
Venezuelan officials say the country's 2009 budget is based on oil at $60 a barrel, but independent economists agree that this figure doesn't mean much: Venezuelan presidents have historically used low oil benchmarks in their budgets to be able to spend projected oil exports at will, and Chávez has done so at record levels.
''In Latin America, Venezuela is without doubt the biggest loser from falling oil prices because of the immense importance of oil in its economy,'' says Augusto de la Torre, the World Bank's chief economist for Latin America. ``Things can get very difficult because public spending is very high, and it won't be politically easy to adjust it to a lower oil income.''
Venezuela's main problem is that while oil prices have increased five times over the past six years, public spending has risen proportionally.
Making things worse, the Chávez government has not substantially increased its foreign reserves to save for a rainy day, and it cannot increase oil production to make up for falling prices because many of the country's PDVSA oil monopoly's facilities have not been adequately maintained.
''The party is over, and there will be a major economic adjustment,'' says Ramón Espinasa, an energy advisor to the Inter-American Development Bank and former chief economist of PDVSA. ``It will be a major shock, given the steady rise in public spending over the past six years.''
Veneconomy, a Venezuelan newsletter, says the country may be ``on the threshold of one of the worst economic crises ever.''
With oil prices at current levels, the government is likely to devalue the currency before the end of the year, increase value-added taxes, announce a drastic cut in public spending, or a combination of all of the above, it says.
It will also ''start looking for scapegoats, and if [President] Bush is no longer available, perhaps Venezuela's private sector would do,'' it speculates.
My opinion: The sharp drop in world oil prices will not prevent Chávez from spending way beyond his means in coming weeks, as he seeks to win key state elections in late November. That's what populist demagogues do by definition, even if such policies lead to long-term poverty.
And the coming economic downturn is not likely to drive Chávez out of power anytime soon. He now controls Central Bank reserves, which he can use to cushion the impact of the crisis. And he can always blame the U.S. ''empire'' for Venezuela's inevitable economic belt-tightening.
But, if oil prices remain at their current levels, Chávez's petro-driven populism will run out of gas (pardon the pun). The megalomania of Venezuela's narcissist-Leninist president has been directly proportional to the rise of oil prices. With oil prices plummeting, get ready to see a less loquacious Chávez -- or one who will talk just as much but with fewer people paying attention.