Petrocaribe: Triad of Issues Puts Future of Existing Arrangement in Doubt

Alicia Nicholls

On June 29th 2005, fourteen of the Caribbean countries which met with the late President Hugo Chavez Frias in the beautiful northern Venezuelan port city of Puerto La Cruz signed an energy cooperation agreement which would seek to be a beacon of south-south cooperation and solidarity. Nearly eleven years after the ink has dried on the Agreement, a triad of developments has added fuel to the growing fire of concerns about the sustainability and viability of the Petrocaribe Agreement which provides beneficiary countries in the Caribbean and Central America with Venezuelan oil on very generous terms.

First, oil prices this month have continued their months-long slide, dropping to twelve year lows. In light of current geopolitical realities, a recovery in prices is unlikely any time soon. Secondly, in December last year the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the party of the late President Chavez and his successor President Nicolas Maduro, lost its majority in the Venezuelan National Assembly. The newly elected Opposition majority is calling for a review of Venezuela’s oil agreements. Thirdly, Venezuela’s continued economic turmoils have prompted President Nicolas Maduro to decree a 60-day economic state of emergency. This decree is currently being debated by the National Assembly, Venezuela’s unicameral legislature.

This article argues that despite Petrocaribe’s popularity in the region and President Maduro’s pledge of continued support for the initiative, the triad of developments above will eventually force a revision of the terms of the arrangement. Beneficiary countries in the Caribbean should prepare themselves for this eventuality.

“Petrocaribe, towards a new Order in our America”

This was the title of President Chavez’s speech at the opening session of the Fourth Petrocaribe Heads of Government Meeting in Cuba in 2007 and sums up the philosophic underpinning of the arrangement. The Petrocaribe Energy Cooperation Agreement was the brainchild of President Chavez as part of his thrust towards creating an alternative, development-friendly model of integration based on the principles of solidarity and development as opposed to exploitation and neo-imperialism.

The stated goals of the Petrocaribe Initiative are to guarantee energy security, promote social and economic development and promote the integration of Caribbean countries “through the sovereign use of energy resources, sustained by the guiding principles of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA)”, which President Chavez offered as an alternative to the US-initiated and now shelved Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Petrocaribe has been continued under his successor, President Nicolas Maduro, after President Chavez’s death from cancer in March 2013.

Petrocaribe has largely benefited the Region

Seventeen countries of the Caribbean and Central America, plus Venezuela, are signatories to Petrocaribe. This includes Cuba and the Dominican Republic and all countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), except for Barbados and oil-exporter Trinidad & Tobago. Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago had declined to join, stating it would prejudice their other arrangements.

Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) provides Petrocaribe beneficiary countries with oil on extremely generous terms in keeping with Petrocaribe’s aim of facilitating development and not profit. Beneficiary countries pay only a percentage of the price of the oil up front (within 30-90 days) and are given grace periods of between one-two years, and up to twenty-five years to repay the remainder of the loan at interest rates of one percent if oil prices are above $US40 per barrel and two percent if they are below. The higher the price of oil per barrel the higher the percentage of the loan which may be repaid long term. The loan may be repaid in cash or in services and goods. Cuba has used medical and educational services as a way of repaying its loan, while until recently Guyana had a rice for oil arrangement with Venezuela.

These generous terms have made Petrocaribe extremely attractive, particularly to the small island developing States of the Caribbean which are highly dependent on imported fossil fuels (with the exception of Trinidad & Tobago). Fuel imports comprise a large portion of Caribbean countries’ import bills and high electricity costs have an impact on business competitiveness. Petrocaribe’s financing terms make oil much cheaper.

In a context where Caribbean countries are finding it increasingly difficult to access concessional financing, Petrocaribe has been an alternative source of financing. In the countries of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), Venezuelan support under ALBA has provided investments in social programmes, including the provision of eye care treatment services by Cuban and Venezuelan doctors under Mission Miracle. In Jamaica, the Government established the  Petrocaribe Development Fund which uses inflows accruing to Jamaica under Petrocaribe to finance critical development projects.

However, while the Petrocaribe arrangement allows cash-trapped governments more leeway to spend money on social and development programmes, the accumulation of Petrocaribe debt has added to beneficiary countries’ already high debt burdens. Critics also argue that despite its stated goal of improving Caribbean countries’ energy security, the cheap oil provided by Petrocaribe has arguably lessened Caribbean islands’ impetus towards transitioning to alternative energy sources.

…But Petrocaribe makes little financial sense to Venezuela

While largely economically beneficial to the Caribbean and rooted in a development-oriented philosophy, Petrocaribe’s generous terms have made little financial sense for Venezuela. The main benefit of the Agreement to Caracas is the diplomatic support it has been able to secure from Caribbean countries on hemispheric and international issues. The CARICOM bloc is an important voting bloc in the Organisation of American States and Caracas has benefited from CARICOM countries’ support. Petrocaribe has also expanded Venezuela’s sphere of influence in a region historically regarded as the United States’ backyard.

Although Venezuela has the largest proven reserves of crude oil in the world and oil accounts for about 95% of its exports, economic stresses have plagued the country for some time now and have only deteriorated as oil prices continue their plunge. At the time of Petrocaribe’s signature in 2005, oil prices hovered around $50 a barrel. As at the time of writing this article, the price of brent crude oil is $28 a barrel. In its October 2015 forecast, the IMF forecasted Venezuela’s economy to contract in 2015 and 2016 by 10% and 6% respectively.

Venezuela’s oil exports and international reserves are down and the country has been reliant on loans from China. According to El Universal, President Maduro has called for an emergency meeting of OPEC before the next meeting scheduled for June this year and has decreed a state of economic emergency.

Petrocaribe’s Terms will likely be revised

Petrocaribe’s generous terms were steeped in Chavez’s philosophy for an alternative integration model which was based on development and solidarity as opposed to profit and exploitation. Without doubt Petrocaribe has brought social and economic benefits to beneficiary countries, a fact recognised by Caribbean leaders who continue to speak  favourably of the Agreement and by President Maduro who has sought to reassure Caribbean countries of Venezuela’s continued support for Petrocaribe. In the midst of an escalation of Venezuela’s border dispute with Guyana, President Maduro undertook a Petrocaribe tour in October last year where he reiterated Venezuela’s commitment to the region.

However, as economic pressures continue to mount in Venezuela so has the internal opposition to the generous terms of the Petrocaribe deal. Back in 2013 Opposition Leader Alfonso Marquina had called on the Venezuelan Government to modify the terms of the Petrocaribe agreement as it was “seriously hurting Venezuela”. More recently in December last year, the newly elected Opposition majority in the Venezuelan National Assembly  announced its intention to  review Venezuela’s oil agreements, including Petrocaribe.

In light of the diplomatic and geostrategic importance of the Caribbean to Venezuela, it is likely the Petrocaribe Agreement will not be discontinued but modified in the short term. Modification of the Agreement’s terms could take various forms, including increasing the percentage of the loan which must be paid in the short term, raising the interest rate, reducing the repayment term, among mechanisms.

To some extent Petrocaribe’s numbered days have been recognised by some beneficiaries. Last year the Dominican Republic used money raised on bond markets to redeem a large portion of its outstanding debt to Venezuela under Petrocaribe, while Jamaica did a debt buy-back. Caribbean countries must also place renewed importance on reducing their dependence on fossil fuels and developing renewable energy options. Low oil prices at the moment should not be a reason for complacency. The plan by St. Vincent & the Grenadines for a geothermal plant by early 2018 is therefore encouraging.

Petrocaribe beneficiaries will have to brace themselves for the inevitability of its revision and for the eventual loss of this concessional financing.

Alicia Nicholls, B.Sc., M.Sc., LL.B. is a trade and development consultant with a keen interest in sustainable development, international law and trade. You can also read more of her commentaries and follow her on Twitter @LicyLaw.

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