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Falling oil prices dent Hugo Chávez's clout

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Coupled with production declines, Chávez's days as the ultimate benefactor could be coming to a close.

"In terms of revenue and oil dependence, Venezuela is by far the most vulnerable," says Ramon Espinasa, a former chief economist at Venezuela's state-company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and today an energy adviser for the Inter-American Development Bank. "It's not just prices falling but volumes are down, which compounds the drop in revenue. That's scary."

Oil income represents more than half of Venezuela's federal budget and more than 90 percent of export earnings.

With oil wealth, Chávez has poured billions into his social "missions," which provide services such as healthcare and literacy programs for the poor.

Spending on social programs, according to government figures, has increased from 8.2 percent of gross domestic product in 1998 to 13.6 percent in 2006.

PDVSA contributed another $13 billion in 2006, or another 7.3 percent of GDP.

Domestic spending is likely to remain stable for now, but Chávez's "Bolivarian Revolution" abroad – via subsistence programs like Petrocaribe and the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) – would probably be retooled, says RoseAnne Franco, lead analyst at PFC Energy in Washington.

Chávez sends 300,000 barrels of oil daily at subsidized rates to needy countries in the region.

Heating oil in the US and cut-rate fuel for London's buses have also been gifted.

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