CARACAS, Venezuela — I reported earlier today in Deutsche Welle on the state of U.S.-Venezuelan bilateral relations, which aren’t exactly gangbusters, if you’ve been paying attention for the past 14 years.
The bottom line is: don’t expect acting president Nicolás Maduro, if he wins, to transform the chilly relationship between the United States and Venezuela.
To me, however, the more interesting factor is the commercial ties between the two countries, already strong throughout the reign of the late president Hugo Chávez, but now growing ever faster as Venezuela’s economy sputters and becomes increasingly import-dependent:
Venezuela’s obvious top export is oil – and the United States is its top customer, and that’s been true during both the Bush and Obama administrations, even when relations were at their worst. The United States purchases up to 900,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela – it officially funds around 40 percent of Venezuela’s export receipts. Given the complex financial arrangements between China and Venezuela and Venezuela’s subsidies to Cuba and to the rest of Central America and the Caribbean, US demand for oil has directly funded Chávez’s government, despite the rhetoric against the supposedly evil, imperialist gringo empire.
But precisely because of Venezuela’s dependence on the oil industry, the other sectors of its economy have atrophied, especially under the business climate during the Chávez era, when domestic and foreign businesses alike were subjected to ad hoc expropriation. That’s made Venezuela increasingly reliant on imports of staples, such as food and even fresh produce. Venezuela is even starting to import refined oil products, in part due to a gasoline subsidy that keeps gas prices at the lowest level worldwide.
Obviously, U.S. policymakers would prefer that Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate, wins the election. But given the incumbent advantages of the Maduro campaign, who has inherited the political infrastructure of his predecessor, Maduro’s election seems much likelier. If the Venezuelan economy does continue its downward spiral in the months and years to come, Maduro could well use anti-American rhetoric to deflect criticism from the failures of economic policy.
That means bilateral relations might get worse before they get better.
It’s uncertain whether that growing dependence would improve ties with the US – it’s easy to envision a fall in gas prices or a financial crisis result in even more brinksmanship in a Maduro administration as a distraction from harder budget choices.
Photo credit to Kevin Lees — Caracas, Venezuela, April 2013.