Tag Archives: ALBA

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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Is ALBA a threat to CARICOM integration?

Alicia Nicholls

CARICOM countries could soon make up the majority of member states in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). At the bloc’s 11th Summit last month in Caracas, both Suriname and St. Lucia  formally expressed their intention to become members of the eight-member group. They would join four other CARICOM countries which are already ALBA member states: Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, St. Vincent & the Grenadines and more recently, Haiti.

The wave of interest in ALBA, a regional bloc which like CARICOM envisions deep integration between its members, comes against a backdrop of stagnation and crisis in the CARICOM integration process.  While ALBA leaders at their 11th Summit agreed to move full speed ahead to deepen their integration with the creation of a single monetary union – ECOALBA, CARICOM Heads of Governments caught most people by surprise last year when they inexplicably put the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME) on ‘pause’ during their retreat in Guyana. It was a decision for which Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves recently expressed regret. In a candid letter sent to the Secretary General of CARICOM which effused both lament and frustration at the current ‘standstill’ in CARICOM, Dr. Ralph Gonsalves made mention of the augmented interest by CARICOM countries in courting ALBA. He predicted that more CARICOM countries were likely to follow suit and rhetorically asked what would be the implications of this for CARICOM.

ALBA is one of the most well-known South-South trade initiatives in the Western Hemisphere, not just because it was the brain child of the outspoken and no-nonsense President of Venezuela, Mr. Hugo Chavez, but because it potentially represents a more equitable alternative to the traditional neoliberal model of regionalism. It was launched by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004 originally as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, and as an alternative to the now moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas which had been pushed by the United States. Drawing inspiration from the political thought of freedom fighters Jose Marti and Simon Bolivar, ALBA’s stated aim is to be a political, economic and social alliance which seeks to protect the independence, sovereignty, self-determination and identity of its Member States, and to protect the interests of the peoples of the South from political and economic domination.

If the question of ALBA’s threat to the CARICOM integration process is considered purely on the compatibility of ALBA CARICOM countries’ obligations, the flexibility which ALBA gives its members in terms of the initiatives which they can choose to be a part of means that ALBA CARICOM countries are free to refrain from initiatives which could conflict with their CARICOM and OECS obligations.  In the declaration of accession signed by St Vincent and the Grenadines for example, the Gonsalves Government made clear that as a regional movement ALBA does not alter but complements its obligations in other regional movements such as the OECS and CARICOM.  Thus, St Vincent and the Grenadines, like the other OECS members of ALBA, has not introduced the new regional trading currency – the sucre in light of its membership in the OECS’ monetary union.

A more immediate domain for conflict between ALBA and CARICOM obligations appears to be in the area of foreign policy. Foreign policy coordination is one of the stated objectives of CARICOM per the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas and one of the pillars of functional cooperation.  While ALBA Members are given flexibility in foreign policy, ALBA as a group has been outspoken on several current conflicts, including throwing support in a recent declaration solidly behind Argentina in the recently escalating Falkland Islands dispute between that country and the United Kingdom.  The decision was made to join several other Latin American countries, including Argentina, to prevent Falkland-flagged ships from docking at their ports.  Although the ALBA CARICOM countries have not all come out and said whether their individual stance was in consonance with that of ALBA’s, one would not be unreasonable by taking their silence as agreement with the ALBA position. This position however is diametrically opposed to that taken by the non-ALBA members of CARICOM which have supported the Falkland Islands’ right to self-determination, that is, their right to remain British. Dr. Gonsalves’ stance on the issue caused some controversy in his country. However, on a larger scale, such divergence in policy position could be evidence of the potential threat of further fragmentation in the region’s foreign policy coherence.

Politics aside, there is no doubt that the main attraction of ALBA to those CARICOM countries which have acceded so far  is the developmental support provided by its founding countries Venezuela and Cuba. Havana has long been a development partner of many countries in the region. Through bilateral cooperation agreements signed between the Cuban government and the governments of the region, the people of the wider Caribbean have benefited from free eye care in Cuban hospitals under Operation Miracle, scholarships to study medicine at Cuban universities and free health care by Cuban doctors.  Haiti has also benefited from food and literacy programmes.

Under the Chavez administration, Venezuela has also taken a more active developmental role in the region. Since the establishment of the PetroCaribe Initiative in 2005, some 17 Caribbean countries, most of which are non-ALBA members, have benefitted from this arrangement which allows them to purchase oil on preferential terms of payment. Only part of the cost is paid up front and part can also be paid through the provision of agricultural goods. The remainder is repaid over a 25 year period at a 1% interest rate. The PetroCaribe deal has not been immune to criticism, and both Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago have not joined. Though such an arrangement helps in the short term to conserve much needed foreign exchange, it means that those countries which take oil on these terms are indebted to Venezuela in the longer term. Moreover, while PetroCaribe aims to promote energy security through the provision of “cheap” oil, Venezuelan fuel exports under the Agreement have decreased over time due to less available supply. Another criticism raised is that the ‘cheap oil’ provided under PetroCaribe increases the region’s dependence on the importation of fossil fuels. This latter argument is less persuasive given the increasing interest shown by CARICOM countries in renewable energy generation, through for instance geothermal, solar and wind energy.

The financial support offered by ALBA is  highly attractive to debt-ridden CARICOM countries faced with an uncertain global economic and financial climate. Loans are given at favourable terms and without most of the usual conditionalities insisted on by traditional donors. Through its loan funds, ALBA has provided funding for projects, including infrastructure, housing and agriculture projects in Dominica for example. St Vincent and the Grenadines also received a loan from the ALBA Bank for the construction of a new international airport.

The availability of credit under ALBA’s several funds can be contrasted with the limited capitalization of the CARICOM Development Fund. The CDF is provided for under Article 158 of the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas as a fund to provide financial and technical assistance to disadvantaged countries, regions and sections within the grouping. The limited capitalization of the CDF, plus problems with the Petroleum Facility and the perceived lack of sensibility to the OECS countries’ unique vulnerabilities, were some of the many shortfalls of CARICOM about which Dr. Gonsalves complained in his previously mentioned letter. Frustrations like these over ill-functioning regional aid mechanisms plus the more readily available economic aid under ALBA, could lead to more CARICOM countries turning their attention to ALBA.

One area in which CARICOM arguably maintains an upper-hand over ALBA is in trade. With a population of 70 million people, ALBA represents a larger market for regional goods than does CARICOM. That being said though, the export capabilities of the ALBA CARICOM remain too weak to effectively take advantage of this.  It is true that over the period 1999-2008, it is reported that average yearly trade between Venezuela and Antigua & Barbuda was USD 6.5 million, between Venezuela and Dominica, USD 179 million and between Venezuela and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, 4.5 million dollars. However, given that petroleum trade accounts for most bilateral trade between Venezuela and ALBA CARICOM countries, the balance of trade is skewed in Venezuela’s favour.  While trade asymmetries do exist within CARICOM as well, the regime created by the Revised Treaty of Chaguaramas envisions the freedom of movement of goods, services, people (skilled) and capital within the Community, the right of Community nationals to establish businesses in other territories, as well as a competition commission which is charged with ensuring the rules of the market are respected.  ALBA has not as yet reached this level of integration. That being said, however, the large gulf between what the Revised Treaty provides for and what operates in practice in CARICOM has led to frustration that the expected benefits are not being seen.  Moreover, ALBA does intend to become an economic union, something which continues to elude CARICOM.

Although there is an undisputed role for ALBA as a development aid and trade partner for our countries, their main integration focus should be on deepening CARICOM integration. CARICOM is more than a trade group. It was founded on the vision of our regional founding fathers who believed that strength comes not through parochialism but through the political, economic and social unification of a people already united through a common history and a shared culture and values. Regardless of its many shortcomings, CARICOM, its organs and associated bodies, have played a tremendous role in the region for the past nearly forty years and can play an even greater role once a serious attempt is made at reform by our Heads of Government.

Moreover, although Venezuela is a useful ally for countries in the region by virtue of its stronger bargaining power in the international community, CARICOM’s interests as small states and those of Latin American countries, including Venezuela’s are not always complementary as seen in the Banana Wars in the WTO. It should also not be forgotten that Venezuela continues to have border disputes with two CARICOM States (Guyana and Dominica) which have still not been resolved and for which Venezuela has not changed its position.  A further caveat to bear in mind is that given the strong ideological divide in Venezuelan politics, there is no guarantee that whichever president eventually succeeds President Chavez would be leftist in political orientation or that he or she would be as sympathetic as his or her predecessor to the region’s concerns, or be committed to continuing ALBA and its component programs. Therefore, there is some concern about ALBA’s survivability in a post-Chavez era.

The real threat to CARICOM is not ALBA though, but CARICOM itself.  Impatience with the slow process of integration and its associated benefits at the CARICOM level has had as its natural corollary a desire to explore more seemingly attractive alternatives. It is not surprising therefore that the poorer countries in the region, and some of the larger countries like Suriname as well, have set their compass to ALBA for the superior economic security it provides and its seemingly better alignment with their interests.  Unless our Heads of Government act seriously on their commitment made at the last inter-sessional meeting to formulate a plan of action designed to reform CARICOM to make it more effective, there could be a day when all of our countries eventually turn their backs completely on CARICOM in favour of other blocs which they believe have both the ability and will to better cater to their peoples’ interests and needs. That would be a sad day.

Alicia Nicholls is a trade policy specialist and law student at the University of the West Indies – Cave Hill. You can contact her here or follow her on Twitter at @LicyLaw.

ALBA Cultural Research Scholarships 2011-2012 – Call for applications

I was just perusing Professor Norman Girvan’s blog (a favourite pastime of mine) and came across this call for applications from ALBA’s Cultural Fund.

ALBA is the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America. Three of its eight member states (Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines) are CARICOM states. Its Cultural Fund is offering eight (8) scholarships each with a budget of $5,000  under its “Programme of Research Over Latin America and the Caribbean Cultures”.  The current theme is “Construction Processes of Inclusive Societies, Culturally Diverse and Environmentally Responsible in Latin America and the Caribbean”.

For more information, please check out: http://www.normangirvan.info/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/alba-cultural-research-call-for-applications.pdf