Tag Archives: giordani

Ramírez demotion headlines Venezuela’s cabinet reshuffle


Since 2004, Rafael Ramírez has served as the president of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PdVSA), the country’s state-owned oil company, and since 2002, Ramírez has served as Venezuela’s energy/oil minister. Venezuela Flag Icon

That all changed on Tuesday, when president Nicolás Maduro announced a reshuffle of his government, the most significant since his controversial and narrow election in April 2013.

Ramírez, after Maduro and after Diosdado Cabello, the president of the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly), was the most powerful of the chavistas remaining in government in the aftermath of Hugo Chávez’s death almost exactly 18 months ago. Since that time, Ramírez became, in addition to PdVSA head and oil minister, vice president in charge of economic affairs.

A longtime old hand within chavismo, he was among the most pragmatic and moderate of the chavistas. Ramírez may have run Venezuela’s oil industry into the ground, and he may have been as corrupt as anyone in Venezuela’s government. But he didn’t radiate the kind of socialist, true-believer aura of other leading chavistas, such as former planning minister Jorge Giordani and former foreign minister Elías Jaua.

In the Maduro era, Ramírez endorsed reforms, such as reducing the gasoline subsidy that keeps the price of fueling Venezuelan cars lower than anywhere else in the world and otherwise liberalizing the economy, including with respect to the massively overvalued bolívar

Asdrúbal Chávez, the cousin of the late former president, will become the next oil minister, while PdVSA engineer and executive Eulegio Del Pino, a close Ramírez ally, will be the oil company’s next president.

Though he was simultaneously named foreign minister, it’s hard to see how Ramírez hasn’t suffered a demotion for a country where 97% of foreign earnings derive from oil. As PdVSA head, in particular, Ramírez controlled the most enviable element of Venezuelan economic policymaking — he controlled the profits.  So while the move to foreign minister would be a promotion for many ambitious politicians, in Venezuela, it’s a way of sidelining Ramírez.  Continue reading Ramírez demotion headlines Venezuela’s cabinet reshuffle

‘Pragmatic’ Merentes winning control over Venezuela economic policy, but to what end?


When Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro appointed Nelson Merentes as his new finance minister shortly after Maduro’s controversial election in April, no one knew whether Merentes would actually be the official in charge of economic policy.Venezuela Flag Icon

That’s because the former finance minister Jorge Giordani, the longtime policymaker in the era of former president Hugo Chávez, remained planning secretary — and in a huge public-sector country like Venezuela, there’s little left untouched by central planning.  Giordani, more than anyone else, was responsible for the statist economic policies of the Chávez era, including currency and price controls.

But this week, there was no mistaking that Merentes is now ascendant — Edmée Betancourt, who had served as president of Venezuela’s central bank (BCV) for just over three months, stepped down in favor of Eudomar Tovar, an economist who was most recently the head of Venezuela’s currency exchange (CADIVI).  Betancourt, a former commerce minister, was seen as closer to Giordani and the more ideological, statist wing of chavismo, while Tovar and Merentes are associated with a more pragmatic, moderate view of economic policy.  Rumors swirled last week that Giordani might soon leave the planning ministry, abandoning a recent push to raise taxes, to take up an ambassadorship soon.

Leave aside for a moment that in an era of central bank independence, neither Giordani nor Merentes would be dominating the BCV’s monetary policy in a country with sounder financial institutions.  If Merentes and Maduro really want to shake up Venezuela’s economy for the better, they should start by reintroducing a line between the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, United Socialist Party of Venezuela) and the institutions of the Venezuelan state — starting with the BCV, but also with the national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA).

Merentes’s rise should provide at least some cautious optimism — if Giordani would have doubled-down on statist Chávez-era policies, at least Merentes seems to realize that Venezuela’s basketcase economy has some problems.  The central bank’s reserves are dwindling, Venezuelan GDP growth has slowed to nearly nothing, and inflation has reached its highest level since before Chávez came to power in 1999 on the road to a potential hyperinflationary collapse.

But it remains far from clear that Merentes is willing to embark upon a program of true economic reform or whether Maduro has both the political capital and the political will to enable him to do so.  Moves to devalue the bolívar both officially and unofficially earlier this year was a start in bringing the Venezuelan currency’s stated value in line with its real market value, but the currency has decline further in value throughout they year: despite an official value of 6.3 bolívares to the dollar, its real value has dropped from around 20 at the time of the April 14 election to more than 30 or 35 today.  Maduro took steps to tweak the currency exchange system through the introduction of SICAD auctions earlier this spring — because the vast majority of U.S. currency comes to Venezuela through the government’s sale of oil products, the government must develop a mechanism to sell those dollars to importers who need hard currency.  But neither Maduro nor Merentes have been in a rush to hold regular dollar auctions (only around $600 million has been auctioned off so far in 2013) or to deliver the actual dollars from the government to the private sector.  But the fuss over SICAD and currency exchange is really just a stop-gap measure — if the ‘pragmatists’ can’t even get this right, it leaves little faith in their ability to overcome more fundamental problems with Venezuela’s economy.

Maduro and Merentes still hope that they can borrow their way out of Venezuela’s current malaise, and the government had the brass to float the possibility two months ago that Merentes would go on a roadshow to New York and London to gauge appetite for Venezuelan bonds.  That roadshow plan quickly fell apart when it became clear that there’s little appetite for risky Venezuelan debt among global investors — yields on Venezuela’s benchmark bond have been in the double digits since Maduro’s election. Continue reading ‘Pragmatic’ Merentes winning control over Venezuela economic policy, but to what end?

It’s Diosdado Cabello’s world, the rest of Venezuela is just living in it


Venezuela, just over a month after its still-contested presidential election, has made global headlines in the past couple of weeks for its chronic shortages of everything from toilet paper to church wine, with rationing soon to begin in the large western state of Zulia.  Venezuela Flag Icon

That means that the country’s economic collapse is proceeding more or less as depressingly predicted — with oil prices stagnating, and with the state-owned Venezuelan oil industry’s production reducing, it means that the country has fewer and fewer dollars to fuel its increasing dependency on imported goods, a shortage that’s been exacerbated by the government’s somewhat inefficient system of auctioning off the dollars to importers and the fact that the Venezuelan bolívar is fixed at an artificially high rate.

That’s one of the reasons that Nicolás Maduro, even with the full force of a government that has excelled at blurring the line between the Venezuelan state and chavismo, only barely won election follow Hugo Chávez’s death and why his challenger Henrique Capriles is still waging a campaign in the court system, however quixotic, to expose voting fraud in April’s election that could well reveal that Capriles won the election instead.

Maduro’s loss weakened his already tenuous position within the ranks of chavismo, and the key power brokers under Chávez have largely retained their roles under Maduro, including Rafael Ramírez, the energy minister and the president of the state-run oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), and Jorge Giordani, the former finance minister who remains the planning minister under Maduro.  Forget the fact that new policymakers could potentially reverse course on Venezuela’s economy or that Giordani, Ramírez and Maduro appear to be doubling down on the same policies that have led to Venezuela’s precarious situation — it shows that Maduro lacks the power to replace his rivals with ministers who owe their loyalty to Maduro.

But as the economy melts down, it isn’t surprising to see chavismo itself breaking down.  The first major breach came a couple of weeks ago, when a purported recording of a conversation emerged between Mario Silva, who hosts the popular, massively pro-chavista ‘La Hojilla’ television program, and Aramis Palacios, a Cuban lieutenant colonel in G2, the Cuban intelligence agency.  Silva is as much of a true believer in chavismo as anyone in the top circle of Venezuela’s ruling elite, so if Silva has such wide doubts about Maduro (at one point he says, ‘we are in a sea of shit’), imagine what the rest of the government thinks.

It’s also, of course, somewhat of an international scandal as well — though Cuban intelligence long worked hand-in-hand with Chávez and the Venezuelan government, what exactly was a pro-Chávez talk show host doing talking to a Cuban spook?  The link between the two countries became an issue during the campaign, with Capriles attacking the generous oil subsidies to Cuba that Chávez initiated a decade ago, and Maduro is widely believed to have been Havana’s top choice to succeed Chávez.

But the recording was most tantalizing with respect to Diosdado Cabello (pictured above) and his role in Venezuela’s future — no one has more power in post-Chávez than Cabello, including even Maduro. Continue reading It’s Diosdado Cabello’s world, the rest of Venezuela is just living in it

Not a banana republic, but an avocado economy


CARACAS, Venezuela — Since the end of the Bretton Woods system, or at least since the end of the ‘currency snake’ in Europe that preceded formal monetary union, it’s become difficult not to think about currency in terms other than a floating price determined on the free market.Venezuela Flag Icon

Sure, China still sets its own currency, and the renminbi may well be undervalued, but that matters less to China because its whole macroeconomic game is exporting. Manufacturers from a factory in Guangdong province assemble their goods, sell them to the United States, and promptly turn over their dollars to the Chinese government, which then exchanges them for renminbi. That’s how China ended up with such a glut of dollars in the early 2000s, and that’s why relatively fewer exports could mean fewer dollars, which could be one of the few market pressures to cause U.S. bond yields to rise after five years of historically low borrowing costs for the U.S. government.

Of crude oil and curses

But in Venezuela, there’s one major export — oil — and that revenue is in the hands of the government. In one sense, economics in Venezuela or in any other petrostate is pretty facile: when the oil price goes up, the country has a boom; when the oil price goes down, the country goes bust. That’s why the oil crisis 1970s and early 1980s were such a great time for Venezuela but such a bad time for the United States, why the cheap-oil era of the 1990s was so bad for Venezuela and, conversely great for the United States. It’s why Hugo Chávez was riding so high in the early 2000s, and why the brief drop in oil prices with the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 was bad for Venezuela as well as everyone else.

Unlike China, which had a $231 billion trade surplus in 2012, however, Venezuela’s trade surplus masks its growing dependence on imports, and so the key market for dollars is among those who import those goods (and for Venezuelans who want to take business trips — or shopping trips — to Miami).

For lots of reasons,there are disincentives for homegrown production in Venezuela. Many of those reasons have to do with the behavioral economics aspects of the ‘resources curse’ and the petrostate, but they also include the uncertain business climate under the last 14 years. Why start a farm in 2003 when the Chávez government might decide to expropriate it on live television in 2008?  So the country is increasingly importing even those products, such as fresh produce, that it could arguably grow for itself more efficiently. It’s even started importing refined oil products rather than develop the capital to clean the ultra heavy crude that comes out of the ground in Venezuela. A similar dynamic exists in Puerto Rico, where the U.S. government intervened in the 1950s with subsidies for industry during ‘Operation Bootstrap,’ thereby decimating the boricua agricultural sector to this day — produce in tropical San Juan is imported from Florida, Texas and California.

Of dollars and devaluations

Today, the official rate of the Venezuelan currency, the bolívar, is 6.3 per U.S. dollar.

But no one actually pays that, especially these days.

There’s a black market rate, rumored to be up to four times the official rates, a tourist rate that’s discounted a little from the going black market rate, and even a couple of weeks ago, when the Venezuelan government auctioned off dollars through a new system called SICAD (Sistema Complementario de Administración de Divisas) to currency-starved importers, they didn’t release the price for which the dollars sold, but it’s rumored to be something like between 10 and 15, which is quite a devaluation from the 6.3 rate.

It’s still technically illegal for local media to report any black market rates for the bolívar, of course — through March, at least, you could follow the price through a plucky Twitter account, which slyly presented the daily price for ‘fresh avocados.’ That account — and another one, for ‘fresh lettuce,’ shut down after Venezuelans, their businesses starved for vital dollars, lost their bolívares in a twisted online scam.

The new SICAD dollar auction comes after a formal devaluation in February, which lowered the rate from 4.3 bolívares to 6.3.

It’s fairly common for people to talk about two devaluations, in fact — the first formal devaluation of the official exchange rate from 4.3 to 6.3, and the second informal devaluation, whereby Venezuelans may have been buying dollars from the government for as high a price as 15 bolívares.

(Oh, by the way — the actual price of an avocado? I bought a huge one today for 60 bolívares. A tube of imported toothpaste manufactured in the United States, which is subsidized, costs just 20 bolívares. Another example of the distortions in a heavily-subsidized economy that depends on imports for many of its staples.) Continue reading Not a banana republic, but an avocado economy

The policy case for Maduro in Venezuela


In my earlier companion piece today, I discussed the policy case for electing Henrique Capriles as the next president of Venezuela in an attempt (however vain) to separate the emotional divide in Venezuela from the policy rationales that underline each candidacy.Venezuela Flag Icon

Separating the policy from the personal is even more difficult in the case of Nicolás Maduro, however, whose campaign at every turn has been one massive embrace of Chávez, not only as a predecessor, but as nearly a deity in his own right.  So far, the Maduro campaign begins and ends with ‘Chávez,’ and there’s no guarantee that once elected, Maduro would wield a sufficient personal mandate even to take sufficient control of Chávez’s Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV, or United Socialist Party of Venezuela).

There’s frustratingly little substance as to what Maduro (pictured above) would do with a six-year presidency, let alone whether he could come to dominate a governing regime with a handful of key powerbrokers, such as energy minister Rafael Ramírez, finance minister Jorge Giordani, and national assembly president Diosdado Cabello, none of whom will easily step aside from their relative and significant fiefdoms in government.

But, as I asked with respect to Capriles earlier today, what policy arguments should motivate a moderate voter who enthusiastically supported Chávez in 1998 but who’s become increasingly disenchanted about the reality of Venezuelan governance and who may be flirting with supporting Capriles — is there a rational case for supporting Maduro over Capriles?  Continue reading The policy case for Maduro in Venezuela

In death, the Chávez cult has become even creepier


If you already thought that Venezuela was the Turkmenistan of Latin American politics, you need no further proof than the latest stunt on Tuesday from acting president Nicolás Maduro.Venezuela Flag Icon

In the clip below, Maduro has launched an oversized check up to the heavens to a grateful Hugo Chávez, representing the dividends received by CANTV, the Venezuelan telephone company that Chávez nationalized in 2007.  It’s another great find from Caracas Chronicles, which has been on quite a roll in the post-Chávez era in covering Venezuelan politics:

‘!Vuela, Vuela!, ¡en homenaje al Comandante!,’ Maduro exclaims (‘Fly! Fly! In tribute to the comandante!’), as red balloons (red symbolizing the color most associated with Chávez) float the check of 1,800 million bolívars upward to the skies.

As outrageous as it seems, it’s part of a series of impressions that the post-Chávez era is featuring an even creepier cult of personality in Venezuela than when el comandante was alive.

It began with the plans — now apparently aborted — to embalm Chávez and place him on display, just like Vladimir Lenin is on display in Moscow or Mao Zedong is on display in Beijing.  Those plans were belatedly phased out after officials determined that officials had waited too long after Chávez’s death in order to embalm him.

Then there are the over-the-top tributes like this, mingling the legacy of Chávez with that of Venezuelan founding father Simón Bolívar and other left-wing martyrs, and even Chávez’s Cuban benefactors have a thorough celebration of his life at Granma. 

Maduro even joked (or was it a serious claim?) that Chávez, his place in heaven secured, nudged God to make Argentine cardinal Jose Maria Bergoglio the world’s first Latin American pope.

It wouldn’t surprise me if, like in Turkmenistan, Maduro started trying to rename the months of the calendar after Chávez — there’s even a snarky website, madurodice.com, that tracks the number of Maduro’s mentions of Chávez on the campaign pre-campaign trail.

But the massive miles-long queues of people waiting to pay tribute to Chávez in death, and an extremely elegant funeral that drew nearly every leader in Latin America from Chile to México, with a ley seca (dry law) implemented to keep life in Caracas especially a bit more subdued in the potentially challenging days following Chávez’s death should have been enough to mark the extremely oversized impact that Chávez played within Venezuela’s political system — and above all in the spoils system that funneled oil wealth from the government to its supporters, from top government officials on downward.

All of this and Venezuela’s formal campaign season doesn’t even kick off until April 1.

French public intellectual Bernard Henri-Lévy has already decried the growing chavismo cult of personality:

What is less known, something that we will regret overlooking as the posthumous cult of Chávez swells and grows more toxic, is that this “21st-century socialist,” this supposedly tireless “defender of human rights,” ruled by muzzling the media, shutting down television stations that were critical of him, and denying the opposition access to the state news networks.

For Chávez supporters, there are certainly myriad policy reasons to support Maduro in the upcoming election over challenger Henrique Capriles — like him or not, he fundamentally transferred Venezuela’s oil wealth to the poorest Venezuelans in amounts unknown in nearly a century of the country’s oil wealth.  You can argue that Chávez’s redistribution of wealth has been inefficient, that his expropriations and other economic policies have left Venezuela mired in debt, a pariah of the global financial system and ill-prepared for the day that oil prices drop, and that other more moderate regimes from Perú to Brazil have notched records of poverty reduction just as impressive as — or more so than — Venezuela under chavismo. Continue reading In death, the Chávez cult has become even creepier