Archive for April, 2010

Some comments from afar on Venezuela and its daily events

April 27, 2010

(I am going to burn all of this)

Away and disconnected. sort of, hard to be with primaries and all, but here are some things that caught my attention out of the main news:

1) The Miami Herald reports that the US Government is investigating payments made by US companies to PDVSA as bribes to obtain contracts, as well as for payments made to custom officials.

Of course, not  a beep from the Comptroller or anyone in office in Venezuela, as it becomes clear that corruption is everywhere you look, but particularly in Ramirez’ PDVSA and Ruffian the Comptroller looks the other way while asking even bank tellers of nationalized banks to file their holdings just in case they are ever investigated for corruption. (Obviously an unlikely occurrence)

2) Former rabid pro-Chavez supporter Luis Fuenmayor accused the President of the Armed Forces University (UNEFA) of fraud, saying the students quote by Chavez don’t exist. He also said recent untrained graduates become the Professors in order to grow.

It’s a great socialist model, graduate students who become Professors instantly so that the whole country can go to the University and be Professors.

3) Chavez’ corrupt friends the Kirchners came to town a few years ago and got Chavez to agree to give an Argentinean company IMPSA the contract for the expansion of the hydroelectric power plant Macagua I. The contract was forced on power company EDELCA who objected because IMPSA did not even qualify to work for it because it had failed in the past to fulfill a contract. A contract was signed for US$ 142 million, mysteriously expanded to US$ 242 million and US$ 350 million have been spent on it by now. After all this money has been spent, the power has not increased and the contract ahs little to show for it.

Viva Chavez! Viva Kirchner! Viva Argentina! Viva Venezuela!

4) General Rivero who recently retired after five years as Head of Civil Defense, said that one reason for retiring was the presence of Cuban military officials “beyond what should be allowed”. Rivero implied there was a threat to National Security by allowing this and  forced Chavez to acknowledge on his Sunday Variety Show Alo Presidente that the Cubans were indeed here “helping out”. As long as they don’t help themselves out to a country, for Chavez this is all right.

Wasn’t Chavez the guy who used to argue sovereignty at every turn? What happened to it? His personal survival is more important than the country? Who is the traitor in this?

5) And yes, there were primaries. Pity that they took place only in some areas, but they go done wrinkles and all, but at least a bunch of candidates in September will be able to proudly say they were selected and elected according to the law and the Constitution, not a small achievement for the country.

In my district I would have voted for the loser, but democracy went for the better known, I will vote for her in September in any case.

Back to the beach!

Lines, shortages, rationing and those wonderful things the Chavez revolution has given us

April 23, 2010

Tomorrow I go on a very special trip, I will likely post, but don’t necessarily count on it, if I relax too much you may not read much from me. It will be nice to get away, life is getting rough down here and I am not talking about politics, I am talking about the daily details, the grind.

While everyone talks about shortages, there are some undesirable effects that sometimes you don’t realize. This week, I went to the supermarket to get my usual lunch, some fruit that I eat at my desk. This is efficient and it’s a simple task, I go to a market with a tiny parking lot, so that there are never lines at noon.

Except this week, on two different days I had the bad luck that items of which there is a shortage were available, if albeit very briefly. The first day there was milk and the cell phone shortage network was quite active, there were maybe twenty people ahead of me and I managed to get in the shortest line. Mind you, the milk was not even liquid, it was bags of awful tasting (to me) powdered milk, but clearly people were desperate, the lady behind me asked me if I was buying some, I said no, so she asked if I could buy two bags for her (Limit two bags per customer). I did, it was a complicated transaction, I paid for my stuff, then I paid for the two bags of powdered milk with her money and gave her the change and, of course, the bags. The pear I had for lunch was delicious, but it certainly took too much effort to get it.

Just my luck, the next day the market had soft margarine, another item of which there is a shortage, lines were shorter, maybe only ten people. I decided to participate in the hoarding, I know we run out of margarine regularly, as I was leaving I realized this was not the “light” stuff my wife usually buys but it was the “good” brand she likes, I hope its ok, she hasn’t said anything so far.

Then, I get a call from my sister’s boyfriend, my sister is trapped in the elevator in the building where I work. It’s the same effect, there is a shortage of spare parts, little maintenance, elevators even in the best buildings and malls of the country mostly don’t work. People get trapped, this time one of my (seven) sisters. Hey! We are Catholic!

I get back to the building where my office is and see some guys working on the elevators of the building and I tell them my sister is trapped. They look at them, only three of the six work, but that is what is expected. The three “good”” ones are working, so what gives?

Shoot, by the time I get in touch with her, I realize my sister is trapped in the parking lot elevator, not in the building. But she is out! Relief overall, she was in the only one of the two elevators to the parking lot that work, so when I left the office I had to walk down. Take a positive approach: Great exercize!

This morning, I got up at the usual time, read the news, then time for a shower. Plenty of time before rationing kicks in, twenty minutes to spare. Soap up, shampoo in, water pressure dies, I have suds all over the place as I try to catch every single drop that comes my way. I even kneel on the floor as the pressure dies! In the end, I dry mostly soap off and off to work, sticky, but smelling good.

I try to make a fuss when I go down asking why the water was shut off twenty minutes early, the lady (wife of the superintendent) smiles, laughing: “Oh! I made a mistake, I though we had changed the hours, but I have just been told I was wrong.”  What can I tell her? She was not even at the meeting when the time to stop rationing in the morning was not changed. She was just confused. No point arguing or getting mad.

So, hopefully, by the time I come back in ten days, a year and a decade older, things will have improved, my Electric Bill will come without a penalty, thanks to my efforts and the water rationing will be gone.

That is my hope, but somehow it is just wishful thinking. Things tend to get worse, not better.

At least I got some of those foreign exchange bonds at a 50% discount to the parallel swap rate, so hell, I should thank the revolution for at least one of their stupidities…

Obama’s reaction to Monday’s Military Parade in Caracas

April 22, 2010

Mrs. K talks about moral and ethics by Teodoro Petkoff

April 21, 2010

To round off the events of April 19,  a “happening” was staged in the National Assembly.

It was as partisan and sectarian an act as the military parade in Los Proceres had been. An election campaign rally. The  cap off the bottle (la tapa del frasco) was the invited speaker, which was Mrs. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

That a Kirchner would have been entrusted this honor would not have anything objectionable, since the first steps of independence in South America were close together in time in our country and the continent’s southern tip.

But Mrs. K was not the indicated person. She is no example of probity. Both she and her husband have been identified as having committed serious crimes against public funds in their country.

The multiplication of their fortune in the years they have been at the Casa Rosada is under investigation by the justice of their country.

To make matters worse, the case of Antonini’s suitcase (Maletagate) made very clear the murky links between PDVSA and Enarsa, the oil company in Argentina, and between Argentine and Venezuelan ministers and other senior Argentine officials in that scam.

While here in Venezuela, for a change, no instance of Justice showed any awareness of the details of this scam, the courts in Argentina have advanced some research that catches one-eyed Kirchner and his wife in a compromising position.

Elementary prudence would not have given Cristina Fernandez the opportunity to deploy all her skills and formidable histrionic cynicism that is needed, with such a criminal record, to go on the podium of the National Assembly to pontificate with such high doses of moral advise on the origins of our countries.

China and Venezuela: What exactly did the two countries agree to?

April 20, 2010

When the President of a country is his own Press Secretary, it becomes difficult to sort out the news in detail, because in this particular case, there are seldom questions and/or clarifications. Such was the case of the multiple announcements this week on new agreements between Venezuela and China both on oil exploration in the Junin 4 heavy crude oil field and a loan of US$ 20 billion given by China to Venezuela. All of these announcements were supposed to be part of high level agreements signed between Chavez and the Chinese President Jintao, during the latter’s visit, but the Chinese earthquake forced him to cancel his visit and the whole affair lost some of the thunder Chavez wanted to have.

Typical of the confusion is this news item from UPI, which only adds to the confusion since after a headline of the Chinese lending Venezuela US$ 20 billion, says the highlight of the deal is the US$ 16.3 billion investment in the Junin 4 field.

The two things have nothing to do with each other, they are two separate deals which are much different in nature. Let’s eal with them separately:

1) The PDVSA-China Junin-4 deal: This is nothing new, the Junin 4 field had been assigned to the Chinese company CNPC quite a while back, terms had been agreed to, this was just the formal signing and announcement of the bonus to be paid. As an example, Reuter published this summary of the Junin field at the beginning of April including the part about Junin-4 being assigned to the Chinese company, production levels, etc.

The only question is the usual one: PDVSA announces a huge investment, in this case US$ 16.3 billion, but PDVSA has to put up 60% of that, in this case US$ 9.78 billion. It sounds great, but where is the money going to come from, as I discussed in a previous post. This is something not even Ramirez can answer, his and the administration’s management style seems to be “oil and God will provide”. PDVSA is in the end a typical Venezuelan family.

2) Then, we come to the US$ 20 billion, ten year loan. Sounds great, no? At a time of tight cash flow and foreign currency problems the Chinese advance you the not irrelevant amount of 20 billion dollars.

But did they?

I have no idea. According to the CNPC website:

“Under the long-term financing cooperation framework agreement, China will provide Venezuela a 10-year wholesale financing loan. PDVSA and CNPC also signed an oil purchase and sale contract to guarantee PDVSA’s repayment.”

which makes it clear the loan will be paid with oil, but “wholesale financing loan” is a strange term.

While I may not understand it, many interpret this as the Chinese giving Venezuela US$ 20 billion now, to be paid in dollars. With this, Venezuela’s foreign currency deficit for the year is no longer an issue, Morgan Stanley’s concerns get pushed until at least 2011.

But then, we read that:

“framework agreement on financing” under which the China Development Bank (CDB) will provide a USD 10 billion loan and other credit amounting to 70 billion Yuan (USD 10.25 billion)” (note that when you subtract the 10.25 billion yuan, you get almost exactly what PDVSA needs to finance its shares of the Junin-4 field, is that all Venezuela is getting, Junin’s financing over the years plus the Yuans for Chinese purchases?)

So, over half the credit is now in Yuan, a non-convertible currency, last I heard. And “other credit” sounds like loans to buy Chinese products in Yuan, if I am reading this correctly. But really, I am not sure, it is all very fuzzy. Ramirez also said PDVSA will not need to issue new bonds in 2010, which is good news for Venezuela and PDVSA bonds, but immediately said that PDVSA was looking into financing from banks to the tune of US$ 1.5 billion in the next few months.

Once again, It may be as high as US$ 21.5 billion or as low, as…anybody’s guess. Are the US$ 10 billion of the US$ 20 billion not in Yuan a one time ten year loan? It sounds like it, but I can’t swear to it.

So, it appears as if: Venezuela signed a project for US$ 16.3 billion with China and received US$ 20 billion in financing from China. But, about half of that (the 20 billion) is in Chinese local currency and the other half, happens to be exactly what is needed in financing for  PDVSA to fund its share in Junin-4.

But I don’t know which one it is. Does anybody outside the Government?

Footnote: My next post was going to be on the Guri dam and the electric problem. I was going to estimate how much rain we needed to have the dam in good shape for 2011 and talk about the funny statistics of Opsis which at some point made me doubt that I was right in thinking there would be no collapse in 2009. But then I saw this post in this very professional new blog about Venezuela called Setty’s Notebook and it made no sense to duplicate. Please check it out!

Declaring peace on the world, a letter by Oscar Arias

April 19, 2010

(In Spanish here)

In 1990, even before Hugo Chavez had stumbled into the world of Venezuelan politics, I was advocating the eliminations of the country’s Armed Forces, with only a corps like the National Guard remaining, overseen by civilians, not Generals, in order to maintain internal security. Last night, I used the hashtag #sinmilitares in Tweeter to send messages about this topic. Today, I had decided not to write about the grotesque spectacle of today as Hugo Chavez showed his military might, as Venezuelans live in the same squalor as when he got to power.

But then fate put the letter that I translate below in my Inbox, which expresses more eloquently that I could ever expect to express why Venezuela and all Latin American countries should get rid of their respective Armed Forces. Chavez’ toys and his own presence, in military custome, showed today more than ever why this should become a rallying cry for a post-Chavez Venezuela. Once again Oscar Arias shows why development is a state of mind, not something that depends on wealth. Kudos to the President of Costa Rica, let Venezuela get a guiding light like his sometime in what is left of my life!

San Jose, March 26, 2010

José Alberto Mujica Cordano
President of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay
Montevideo, Uruguay

Dear Mr. Chairman:

I do not write today to Don Jose Alberto Mujica Cordano, but to “Pepe” the revolutionary , that man who in the midst of the mud of horror, always kept intact the flower of justice, that dreamer who never turned off the light of utopia, not even in the darkest corner of his overlooked cell , that idealist who championed , despite insults and threats, an abiding faith in a better future for Uruguay and Latin America. I write to “Pepe” to say that there is still, in the backpack of time, a final utopia: the abolition of the Uruguayan army.

My words emerge from affection and from goodwill. I know that I have no mandate on the fate of your people. I do not mean to disrespect the sovereignty of a sister nation. I just want to give an advice that I see written on the wall of the history of mankind: armies are the enemies of development, the enemies of peace, the enemies of freedom and the enemies of joy.

In much of the world, and especially in Latin America, the armed forces have been the source of the most thankless collective memory. It was the military boot that trampled human rights in our region. It was the general’s voice that issued the most violent arrest warrants for students and artists. It was the hand of the soldier who fired into the back of innocent people. In the best of scenarios, the Latin American armies have meant a prohibitive expense for our economies. And in the worst one they have been a permanent trap for our democracies.

Uruguay does not need an army. Its internal security can be handled by the police, and its national security gains nothing from a military that will never be more powerful than its neighbors, which are also democracies. No matter how much it invests in its armed forces, Uruguay can not win an arms race against Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Chile and Venezuela. In the present circumstances, helplessness is a better national security policy for your people, than a military apparatus below that of your neighbors.

I speak from experience. Costa Rica was the first country in history to abolish its army and declare world peace. More than sixty years ago, another revolutionary Pepe, Commander José Figueres, decided to banish forever the armed forces from my country. Since then, Costa Ricans have never had to live in a war. They have not shed their blood again in a civil war. They have feared a coup, a dictatorship or a regime of political persecution. My people live in peace because they bet on life, they live in peace because they trusted the power of reason to govern the impulses of violence.

You will tell me, my dear friend, that Costa Rica lives in the middle of peaceful countries. But that was not always so. There was a time when my people bordered to the north and south with a dictatorship. There was a time when the whistle of shrapnel sounded very close to our borders. Instead of taking up arms, Costa Rica came out to fight for peace in Central America. We did not need the army. On the contrary, being demilitarized allowed us to be perceived as allies of all parties to the conflict. In truth I tell you that there has been no decision that has strengthened the Costa Rican national security more, than to eliminate the army.

Two other Latin American countries have followed our example, Panama and Haiti. In 1994, the Panamanian Congress approved through a constitutional reform, the abolition of the armed forces. Since then, Costa Rica and Panama have shared the most peaceful border in the world. And not coincidentally, they are also the two most successful economies in Central America. Because the money we used to destine to our armies, we now destine for the education of our children, the health of our citizens and the competitiveness of our industries and businesses. We have reaped the dividends of peace, also garnered to a lesser extent, by the people of Haiti, that with the abolition of their army ended an eternal string of coups.

There are so many martyrs in history against military tutelage! You who suffered under the yoke of oppression, now have the opportunity to rid forever from that yoke the children of tomorrow. When the future comes, in the words of Mario Benedetti, “With its sharp blade and its scales, asking firstly about the dreams, and then about the homelands, the memories and the newborns” We must know what we will say. We need to know what we have been. Let us hope that future will recognize in you, my friend the President, “Pepe” the revolutionary, who declared peace to the world and decreed life to be holy  in Uruguay.

A fraternal embrace,

Oscar Arias Sanchez
President of the Republic of Costa Rica

Two Dictators, each one wearing the other’s uniform

April 19, 2010

We despise you and dislike you, but please gringos send some dollars, the arepa project ain’t working well

April 16, 2010

It was a remarkable strategy, as Hugo spewed his usual vile against the imperialists and the Empire, Minister of Energy and Oil and President of PDVSA was in Washington, looking for US investment in Venezuela’s oil industry. Ramirez said the US “can’t miss this opportunity”, as if everything was normal in the relations between the two countries.

But wait, the US has no Government oil companies and most oil companies whether US based or not, simply were not that interested in what PDVSA and Ramirez had to offer. In fact, the Carabobo oil field only managed to sell two of the three projects, for reasons that go from high royalties, to high taxes, to PDVSA cpntrol, to no international arbitration to quationable financing.

So while the deranged leader spewed out his best stuff here, Ramirez was in DC, asking and lobbying for a meeting with the US Secretary of Energy in a clear sign that the Government of Venezuela or someone in it knows that that there is a serious financing problem going forward. So serious that we let Chevron get a piece of Carabobo and if Obama asked nicely, we may give an oil company of his choice the field that nobody wanted.

A truly amazing spectacle and turn around. What’s next? Alvarez Paz as Chavez’ VP?

But the truth is that to undo what Chavez has so carefully worked on in the last eleven years will not be easy. Both US and European oil companies distrust PDVSA and Venezuela and have better places to invest their money than in the overall uncertainty of a Venezuela with law. order, money and electricity.

At this time, it looks very difficult for these projects to ever be completed unless oil soars to $150-$200. PDVSA simply has no money. In fact, it is my personal opinion that the economic puzzle of how come if oil is up, the swap rate is also up, CADIVI outflows are down and international reserves are also dropping (even if Fonden money is ignored) has a simple answer: PDVSA has not been handing over enough foreign currency to the Central Bank because of its own cash flow problems.

So, Ramitez comes to Washington with his hat in hand, reversing Giordani’s ten year old promise that he would need to use his hat to get rid of all of the investors trying to get in Venezuela.

But I doubt he will accomplish much. The changes made are simply to vast to make Venezuela interesting at this time.

Somehow, even the simplest projects are not working. To begin with, any PDVSA controlled project implies a limit of Bs. 12,000 per month to the highest ranked engineers, while independent contractors offer four to six times more. Ad to that that the company is supposed to be everything to everyone and the whole thing is simplynon-sensical.

Meanwhile at the other end of the spectrum, the “Arepera Socialista” that started operations barely three and half months ago, is already in trouble: The “solidarity” price of Bs. 5 per arepa, had to be increased by 50% to Bs. 7.5, as the reality of such silly things like markets, inventories and costs hit the project. I guess Saman is no longer a volunteer, and cheese went up, and they paid a penalty for too much electric consumption or did not open often enough. Of course, if the idealists increase prices by 50% it is not speculation, it is good management and nobody goes after them. It is the oligarchs that can’t increase prices.

So, please my good gringo friends, we have always admired you in our revolutionary Government, we just had to express hate and dislike because we only care about getting elected and being anti-US is very popular. So, please send us some dollars, we really don’s care if oil projects are not working well, but when our incompetence affects serious stuff like eating arepas on the cheap, it is time to invite you back.

Images of the “armed people” of Venezuela

April 14, 2010

The last three rallies that Hugo Chávez has held show a qualitative change over the heyday of the now fat Dictator’s popularity. In one, in the El Valle area of Caracas, attendance was so bad that Huguito had to cut short his speech.  The buses were there, but the people weren’t

Then we had the rally in El Calvario with the “Peasant Militias”. The militias attended in brand new uniforms and Cogollo hats, evidence that they recently got to their attire. They surely got paid to go, I guess they got to keep the hat and the uniform, but had to return the rifle. There were no bullets.

Then we had yesterday’s militia rally, once again a way of guaranteeing attendance. We don’t know how much they  got paid for attending, but note the uniforms are different below from those in El Calvario.

And yes, it was supposed to be a militia rally, but it was also supposed to be a celebration of the phantom rise of the “people” in favor of Chavez in April 13th. 2002. This time, like then, the “people” decided to stay home as evidenced by the pictures below, taken from the front:

or from the back:

There are more “militia” than  people. It is not that the people have become militia, it is that dressing them in fatigues and giving them guns, it is harder for them to escape to the Malls or parks of Caracas.

Not all of them had guns, I guess you did not get your unloaded gun if you were in bad shape:

or if you were too weak or to old to carry one all day around the heat of Caracas:

Some people say that the rally was made to scare the Venezuelan military. I am not sure they were scared by this not-ready-for-prime-time-force, I would hope that the real Venezuelan military is in better shape than this one. I would be afraid of leading these people with loaded weapons to go visit Parque del Este, even if only for an ice cream, let alone to fight someone who has fired a weapon once in his or her life.

But in the end it is all a matter of images. To someone in Santa Cruz de Mora, these images may impress or intimidate, but only as long as they did not see that the militias are in the end protected by the images of Hugo, Che and, of course, Snow White:

Some numbers about Venezuela just don’t lie

April 12, 2010

Numbers, numbers, numbers, they can be painful, but they tell the truth. Some interesting ones from around the country and the world.

1) Today Chinese company Synopec bought Conoco’s 9.03% stake in Syncrude for US$ 4.65 billion.

What does that have to do with Venezuela?

Easy. The Chavez Government nationalized Cerro Negro, a heavy oil crude project, in which Exxon Mobil owns 41.6% of the company. It also nationalized Petrozuata, a similar project in which ConocoPhillips had 50%. Both companies have gone to arbitration as Venezuela offered a tenth of what these companies want in compensation.

The World Bank arbitration Court always looks at comparable transactions in the world when awarding compensation. Thus, this becomes a good comparable, a very recent one at that. Moreover, ConocoPhillips sold a minority stake, while PDVSA took control of these projects, the price is different but we will ignore that in this discussion.

Syncrude produces 280,000 barrels a day according to their website, but they can take it to 500,000 barrels a day. But both Cerro Negro and Petrozuata can be expanded and that requires money in any case. So, I will consider all three projects to be static, valued at their current levels of production.

At the transaction price, the value of 100% of Syncrude is US$ 51.5 billion for a project that produces 280,000 barrels of oil a day, that says each 1,000 barrels is valued at 184 million dollars. That means that Cerro Negro with 120,000 barrels of production is valued at US$ 22 billion and Petrozuata at US$ 36 billion.

This also means that Exxon Mobil’s stake is worth around US$ 9.1 billion and CoconoPhillips’ stake is worth around US$ 18 billion. ExxonMobil is asking the arbitration Court for US$ 12 billion, I have not seen a number for what ConocoPhillips is demanding.

So, just there Venezuela has a debt of some US$ 27 billion. Not a pretty number. It will take four or five years, but the number is final, no appeal.

2) We continously hear about Carabobo and Junin, those wonderful projects that are the future of PDVSA. Except that they cost money and PDVSA has to come up with 60% of the money, to wit:

Carabobo 1 and 3 Total Cost 40 billion, Financing 2 billion, PDVSA’s share US$ 22 billion

Carabobo 2 Total cost 20 billion, PDVSA says it will go at it alone                   US$ 20 billion

Junin signed projects (3) in partnership with Russia, China and ENI. Total cost US$ 60 billion, PDVSA’s share US$ 36 billion. Assume Russia and China finance US$ 4 billion, PDVSA’s share US$ 32 billion.

Junin 10 field which PDVSA says it will do alone Total cost US$ 20 billion

PDVSA is responsible for US$ 3 billion in infrastructure, such as pipelines, power plants and the like.

That gives you like US$ 97 billion in five years if all of the promises of Hugo and Ramirez become reality, which, of course they will not. Half of that would be too much. I wonder if these companies or countries will sue Venezuela or ask for more if PDVSA can’t come up with the funds. BTW, the “oil opening” model of each project issuing its debt is looking better and better, except that PDVSA did not control them, the partner did. Hard to repeat now. Losing sovereignty one stupid mistake at a time.

We are talking 20 billion a year in debt, loans, whatever. Simply impossible. The stupidity of the last few years is coming back to haunt the Government. Add to this the other deficits and it gets very tough. And the arbitration in part 1) adds US$ 27 billion.

3) Venezuela’s reserves went under US$ 28 billion for the first time in one year.

Around US$ 12.7 billion is in gold.

Around US$ 10 billion is invested, mostly  euros.

Around US$ 4 is not there, it is rights, or money available to be borrowed

Getting tight there, no wonder CADIVI is so stingy. Reserves (without Fonden) are down US$ 2 billion so far this year.

You do the math, unless oil prices go up. Oh baby!

4) Good one (For once!). It must have rained quite a bit in the Caroni river basin. Flow jumped from something like 775 m^3/sec. on Friday to 2,886 m^3/sec on Sunday. Rarely has flow jumped down below 1,000 m^3/sec after being so high this late in the spring.

And since we are on the topic of Guri, here is a truly historical char, since 1950 of the flow into the area

So, as I have said for a while it looks ok, like we are going to make it, 2011 may be trouble, but it does not look like we will get to the critical point this year.