WASHINGTON - Oil-rich Venezuela’s near economic collapse may make it easier for U.S.-backed opposition leaders to reverse socialist policies instituted by late President Hugo Chavez, if they are able to oust his successor, Nicolas Maduro, according to analysts.
“I do think at the very beginning, because the Venezuelan people have suffered so much there, they're going to be willing to give a lot of political capital to the new leadership to do all of these changes,” said Dany Bahar, an Israeli and Venezuelan economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington.
In the last five years, Venezuela’s economy has shrunk by nearly half. Nationalization of much of the private sector, including the oil industry, has driven away foreign investment. Hyperinflation, aggravated by the increasing fiscal deficit, is now close to 180 percent, with prices of goods tripling every month. More than 3 million people have fled the country to escape increasing poverty.
The government-subsidized assistance programs for the poor have been plagued by chronic food and medicine shortages, due in part to corruption and declining oil revenues that account for more than 95 percent of Venezuela’s export earnings.
Maduro has claimed the humanitarian crisis in his country is a “fabrication,” and blamed U.S. sanctions and capitalist sabotage for the economic shortfall.
The United States, as well as most of Latin America and Europe, has recognized Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s interim leader, and support opposition claims that Maduro’s reelection last year was illegitimate after he banned most opposition parties from running.
With the “Chavista” socialist model discredited, new Venezuelan leadership aligned with the United States would be expected to embrace strong market reforms that would entail an infusion of international aid and credit, privatizing state-controlled industries and cutting government subsidies.
“Market mechanisms have been completely destroyed. The government centralizes everything, decides who gets what, rations all sorts of goods, food, medication, everything. So, you have to get rid of that and just allow the market to reappear, which doesn't really take very long if the situation on the ground is stable,” said Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
Fighting inflation will likely be the top priority for any new government. Recommended fiscal controls would include introducing a new currency tied to international exchange rates, as was done by Brazil and Argentina in the past. Venezuela’s bolivar has lost most of its value, as the Maduro government reacted to inflation by printing more money while its oil revenues plummeted and its deficit grew.
“The moment you move from very high inflation to low inflation, the first thing that you see is a dramatic reduction in poverty rates. This is what happened in Argentina. This is what happened in Brazil, you know, at the time when they were fighting their own inflationary problems,” said de Bolle.
Privatizing oil industry
The International Monetary Fund would likely require Venezuela to lift price controls and privatize state-owned companies, including the oil and gas company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), in exchange for billions of dollars in aid and loans. The reforms and influx of capital would help ease food and medicine shortages.
Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves, but production has fallen from three 3 million barrels per day (bpd) in 1997 to just over 1 million bpd in 2019. Maduro contributed to the decline by putting generals in charge of the company rather than industry professionals, and replacing qualified staff with thousands of political supporters.
“If we're generous with the interpretation, they have also been doing social programs and things like that. If we're not generous, it has become a vehicle of corruption for the regime. So, there's going to need to be a deep restructuring of the oil company,” said Bahar.
A U.S.-aligned government in Caracas would likely seek to restructure its debts to creditors like China and Russia, two countries that continue to support the Maduro government. China has loaned Venezuela $20 billion in exchange for future oil shipments.
Ending Venezuela’s free oil shipments of an estimated 50,000 barrels per day to Cuba, another key Maduro ally, could redirect billions of dollars to support limited social programs at home.
If Maduro is removed from office, Washington is expected to ease oil sanctions imposed this year that are estimated to cut Venezuela’s oil exports by two-thirds. Oil sales to the U.S. had provided nearly 90 percent of Venezuela’s hard currency before the sanctions were enacted.