Venezuelan Daily Brief

Published in association with The DVA Group and The Selinger Group, the Venezuelan Daily Brief provides bi-weekly summaries of key news items affecting bulk commodities and the general business environment in Venezuela.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

May 01, 2018


Logistics & Transport

COPA Airlines reactivates flights to Venezuela

COPA Airlines announced the reactivation of these flights from Tuesday, May Day. According to a statement from the Panamanian airline, the resumption of operations will be step by step and will begin in the cities of Caracas and Valencia, from where it will connect Venezuela daily with the rest of the continent, as well as from Maracaibo. The note specified that passengers with tickets not used or in process of refunds, issued until April 5 and with a date of travel between that date and July 5, will be allowed to use the ticket for a new reservation on their original itinerary from or to Venezuela without charging a penalty. (Prensa Latina: http://plenglish.com/index.php?o=rn&id=27679&SEO=copa-airlines-will-reactivate-flights-to-venezuela)

 

Oil & Energy

PDVSA reportedly begins interest payments on 2020 bond

Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA reportedly has begun making payments towards US$ 100 million it owes in interest on a bond maturing in 2020 to some holders. The government began quietly halting interest payments on some US$ 50 billion in publicly traded debt last year. At least one Venezuelan bondholder committee has hired a financial adviser, ahead of potential litigation in the face of continued breaches. The latest payments would have reached some holders through U.S. custody firm DTC, the sources said on Monday. PDVSA used Citgo Petroleum, its refining unit in the United States, as 51% collateral on the 2020 bond. Venezuela may be complying with the payment to avoid putting the valuable asset at risk in a potential legal battle. (Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/venezuela-debt/update-1-venezuela-pdvsa-begins-interest-payments-on-2020-bond-sources-idUSL1N1S713E)

 

Venezuela oil price up in final week of April

The price Venezuela receives for its mix of medium and heavy oil fell rose during the final week of April.
According to figures released by the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining, the average price of Venezuelan crude sold by Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) during the week ending April 27 rose to US$ 64.28, up 93 cents from the previous week's US$ 63.35. According to Venezuelan government figures, the average price in 2018 for Venezuela's mix of heavy and medium crude for 2018 is US$ 60.28 so far. (Latin American Herald Tribune,
http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2455614&CategoryId=10717)

 

Venezuela's offer to India: Buy crude oil at 30% discount but through cryptocurrency

Venezuela has offered India a deal – 30% discount on crude oil only if India decides to buy it through digital currency. The 30% discount on crude oil, which recently touched a whole new high of US$ 75 a barrel, seems attractive, but India's disinterest in promoting as well as trading in cryptocurrency could pose a hurdle. Venezuela's blockchain-based digital Petro is the world's first state-backed virtual currency that recently tied up with a Delhi-based digital currency exchange COINSECURE. The bitcoin trading company will now sell oil-backed cryptocurrency Petro in India. Launched last year by the Venezuelan government, Petro is set to be formally recognized after the presidential elections in the country on May 20. Venezuela's blockchain department had sent a team of experts to India in March, after which the deal was struck with COINSECURE, reported Business Standard. The report suggests Venezuela is keen on promoting this in different countries due to the several economic crises in the country. The Venezuelan government is intending to make Petro an official currency by 2020, but sanctions by countries led by the US could hurt its ambitions. The currency, tied to oil, has been called as the safest digital currency to invest by many, for Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves of over 300 billion barrels. However, many have raised objection over its authenticity, fearing that though it would be a blockchain-based digital currency, the government would have full control over it and thus it would not be decentralized like Bitcoin. Indian imports of oil from Venezuela have fallen to their lowest levels in over half a decade. India's oil imports from Venezuela averaged around 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) between November 2017 and February 2018, a drop of about 20% from the same period a year earlier and the lowest such level since 2012, according to data from shipping sources and industry. (Business Today: https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/venezuela-offer-to-india-buy-crude-oil-at-30-pc-discount-but-through-cryptocurrency/story/275948.html)

 

Venezuela’s oil decline reaches new depths
When Major General Manuel Quevedo became head of Venezuela’s oil industry last November, the former housing minister and national guard chief promised to boost oil output by a million barrels a day via “a complete restructuring” that would root out corruption. Six months later, though, managers at state oil company PDVSA are quitting en masse, theft has increased, and workers shout in company cafeterias that Quevedo should go. Allies such as Russia and China agree. Meanwhile, western partners such as TOTAL and CHEVRON are worried, and oil output has fallen an astonishing 23%, or 450,000 bpd.
The decline in the prospects of the world’s largest oil reserves looks set to continue. Venezuelan oil production could fall by another 500,000 bpd this year, analysts believe, boosting global oil prices further. That is especially so if the US imposes sanctions on Caracas after the May 20 presidential election, and foreign joint venture partners continue to struggle or even pull out. Medley Global Advisors, a consultancy owned by the FT, estimates that Venezuelan oil output will drop to 1.1m bpd by the end of the year, from 1.5m currently. JPMorgan estimates that production will fall to 1.2m bpd by December from 1.5m now, although the risk of its falling below 1m bpd “is very high”. Chinese and Russian representatives are meanwhile pressing Maduro to replace Quevedo, and to deploy measures to quell widespread violence and looting affecting their local workers in Venezuelan oilfields and cities, according to Argus, the specialist energy service. (Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/f9cbaec8-4c96-11e8-8a8e-22951a2d8493)

 

Commodities

Venezuela stops paying US$ 1 billion debt to Canadian gold miner

Venezuela has stopped making payments on more than US$ 1 billion it owes to a Canadian mining company, highlighting the country’s extreme difficulties in paying off its overseas debt. Gold Reserve sued Venezuela under the World Bank’s dispute settlement system more than eight years ago over the expropriation of its gold mining operations. The company finally agreed to a US$1.03 billion settlement in September 2016, mostly to be paid in monthly instalments that began last July. In June 2017 Gold Reserve was paid a US$ 40 million start and basically was to receive US $29.5 million on the 10th of every month until the US$ 1 billion was paid off. Venezuela also offered Gold Reserve the opportunity to partner with them in reopening a mining operation in Bolivar state. But fourth-quarter financial statements published by Gold Reserve at the end of last week show that the payments ended in November. It follows an apparent cessation of payments to holders of Venezuela’s sovereign bonds in September last year. Venezuela’s dispute with Gold Reserve is one of several involving foreign mining companies that invested in the country as the government sought to exploit what are thought to be some of the world’s largest deposits of gold and other metals. But gold mining has become chaotic as foreign companies have been forced out and illegal miners have taken over, often overseen by the army. “It’s completely haphazard, no companies are doing it, only wildcatters,” said Russ Dallen of Caracas Capital, an investment bank, who revealed the cessation of payments to Gold Reserve in a note to his clients. Mr. Dallen said gold from unregulated mining channeled to the central bank by the army had contributed about US$ 100 million to Venezuela’s foreign reserves in February. But gold production, too, has fallen, from an average of nearly 11 tons a year in the five years to 2009, to just over 500kg a year since 2015, according to Bloomberg data from the World Bureau of Metal Statistics. (Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/3c6180da-4c76-11e8-97e4-13afc22d86d4; Latin American Herald Tribune, http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2455452&CategoryId=10717)

 

Artisanal miners in Venezuela operate under illegal unions

Following an operation against illegal mining in the north-central Carabobo state, General Juan Carlos Du Boulay Perozo, Commander of the Carabobo Defense Operating Zone No. 45, said that illegal miners in Venezuela have created “unions” in charge of controlling gold trading activities. In the region under Du Boulay’s oversight, such illicit organizations operate in an area called Negra Matea, where food items are also sold illegally, and people can only pay by cash. In the past few years, illegal extraction of gold and other metals and their subsequent smuggling to foreign markets has started to be seen by many as a way to navigate the crisis. According to Du Boulay, in the areas where such activities take place, sex work, drug trafficking, extortion and targeted murders have become the new normal. The General also said that illegal operations are becoming more and more “industrialized,” as his team of 200 officials was able to corroborate during today’s operation. They found hoses and pumps that suggest that placer mining is happening in the area, as does the extensive damage they noticed on the topsoil. Authorities also noticed that the nearby El Torito river and its tributaries, which provide drinking water to different towns in the region, are getting polluted by such activities. (Mining: http://www.mining.com/artisanal-miners-venezuela-operate-illegal-unions/)

 

Economy & Finance

Venezuela faces heavy bill as grace period lapses on China loans

A grace period on Chinese loans to Venezuela has lapsed, potentially depriving the cash-strapped nation of billions of dollars in desperately needed oil revenue this year. China eased the payment terms two years ago on some US$ 19 billion in oil-for-loan deals, under which Venezuela sends shipments of crude oil and fuel to pay off debt, allowing Venezuela to make interest-only payments. But the grace period has lapsed without a renewal in recent weeks. That could deprive Venezuela of some US$ 7 billion in annual revenue, according to a Reuters’ estimate based on current oil prices, a crippling blow to a country already struggling to import basic goods like food and medicine. Venezuela continues to press for an extension but is responsible for making the full payments while the talks continue. The sharply increased payments would absorb roughly an additional 305,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Venezuela’s oil production, which has fallen to a 33-year low this year. “China maintains its position of not increasing its exposure to Venezuela and is adjusting conditions, given that the price of oil is now US$ 20 per barrel above its level when the (grace period) was created,” says an informed source. China’s Foreign Ministry, asked about the negotiations, said that cooperation was proceeding smoothly, and the loan contracts were in accord with international standards. Caracas could seek to preserve cash flow by sending those barrels to other clients who pay cash, defaulting on its obligations to China in the process and straining ties with a crucial political ally and its largest financier. Beijing would have little incentive to pursue an embarrassing commercial dispute with a government it supported for years and may simply turn a blind eye to a default. (Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-china/exclusive-venezuela-faces-heavy-bill-as-grace-period-lapses-on-china-loans-sources-idUSKBN1HY2K0)

 

Venezuela minimum wage up 155%, down 13% in dollar terms

Venezuela raised its minimum wage to 1 million bolivars per month on Monday, the third increase this year that puts the figure at just US$ 1.61 at the black-market exchange rate. President Nicolas Maduro’s announcement of the 155% rise - or 13% fall, in dollar terms - came three weeks before a presidential election. It accompanies a monthly food ticket now worth just over 1.5 million bolivars. Speaking to AFP, Marcela Maspero of the UNETE, one of Venezuela's biggest unions, described the measure as a "delusion" because it undermines the basis for calculation of employee benefits. (Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-economy/venezuela-minimum-wage-up-155-percent-down-13-percent-in-dollar-terms-idUSKBN1I11V9)

 

In Venezuela, 5 years of severance pay now buys a coffee

When Yolanda Abreu got her check for severance pay after five years working as a cardiologist, she let out a laugh of sheer disbelief: it was barely enough for a cup of coffee. Like her, millions of Venezuelans have seen their salaries decimated by rampant hyperinflation that is expected to drive prices up by 13,000% this year, IMF figures show. Her story hit the headlines after she tweeted a photo of the check for 156,584.29 bolivars, which equates to about US$ 0.20 on the black market. If she had received the check when she resigned in January 2017, it would have been worth $45. But her severance pay was decimated by the country's chronic hyperinflation and the accelerated collapse of the bolivar. Within a week, her indignant outburst had been retweeted 11,000 times, and commented on more than 1,400 times, with many relating similar stories. On the eve of International Workers Day, Venezuela's embattled President Nicolas Maduro moved to double the monthly minimum wage, raising it by 95.4% to 2,555,500 bolivars — or US$ 37 (30 euros), according to the central bank's official DICOM rate. But access to such a favorable rate is very limited for Venezuelan citizens and companies, meaning they have to use the black market where the same sum is worth just US$ 3.20 — just about enough for two kilos (4.4 pounds) of chicken. (Daily Nation: https://www.nation.co.ke/news/world/In-Venezuela--five-years-of-severance-pay-now-buys-a-coffee/1068-4538706-2y0x9gz/index.html)

 

16 cryptocurrency exchanges approved to launch in Venezuela, list Petro – none has

President Nicolas Maduro has reportedly approved the ‎registration of 16 cryptocurrency exchanges in the country, months after ‎introducing regulations for ‎the emerging space. According to local publication Correo del Orinoco, the authorities granted ‎approval to for the exchanges to list Venezuela’s newly released ‎cryptocurrency, the Petro.‎ Although he hopes that these exchanges will start listing Petro soon, none of them did confirm the inclusion of the Venezuelan government backed cryptocurrency. Maduro is also claiming that the pre-sale of Petro has raked in US$ 3 ‎billion and a record number of verified purchases. However, some analysts argue the vast majority ‎of the frenzy ‎surrounding Petro is either a scam or far too ambitious for ‎‎its own good.‎ Instead, ‎Venezuelans’ Bitcoin trading volume has ‎jumped to the equivalent of US$ 1.009 ‎million in bolivars on April 17.‎ Just this weekend, Venezuelan authorities shut down two cryptocurrency exchanges, ordering them to suspend operations as part of a crackdown against the growing bolivar-to-bitcoin market. On the same day, the Prosecutor General seized 1,382 bank accounts with balances exceeding US$ 10.6 million. (Finance Magnates: https://www.financemagnates.com/cryptocurrency/news/16-cryptocurrency-exchanges-get-approval-launch-venezuela-list-petro/)

 

Politics and International Affairs

United States puts conditions on lifting Venezuela sanctions

US President Donald J. Trump’s administration will consider lifting sanctions on Venezuelan officials provided they take steps to ease the political, humanitarian, and economic crisis that is gripping their country, a US State Department official said at the Atlantic Council in Washington on April 30. Noting that most of the US sanctions are on individual members of the regime, Michael Fitzpatrick, deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said: “What we are trying to do is to ensure that… we are not complicit in the wholesale looting of the financial coffers of Venezuela.”  Describing the sanctions as a means to an end, Fitzpatrick said that the Trump administration would lift them provided the targeted individuals show a willingness to respect the constitution and the National Assembly and open a humanitarian corridor.  Things have changed dramatically” in Venezuela, Fitzpatrick said. He referred to moves by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government to constrict the democratic space in the country, hyperinflation, and a sharpening humanitarian crisis that is causing people to flee. He said that the Trump administration is ramping up both its support for countries that are taking in Venezuelan refugees as well as a diplomatic effort to end the crisis that has caused the outflow in the first place. The Trump administration, meanwhile, is looking at ways to support independent actors in Venezuela—whether members of the National Assembly freely elected in 2015 or journalists—to “ensure that what’s left of the social fabric is maintained intact,” said Fitzpatrick. (The Atlantic Council: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/united-states-puts-conditions-on-lifting-venezuela-sanctions)

 

Venezuela, Panama restore envoys and resume airline service

Venezuela and Panama will restore ambassadors and allow for the resumption of airline service, turning the page on a diplomatic dispute between the two countries. Venezuela this month cut commercial ties with a group of Panamanian officials and companies, including regional airline COPA, for alleged involvement in money laundering, prompting both countries to recall ambassadors. The two governments said in a joint statement that they would send back their respective ambassadors, “reestablish air connectivity” and “maintain an open and respectful diplomatic dialogue.” (Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-diplomacy/venezuela-panama-to-restore-envoys-and-resume-airline-service-idUSKBN1HX3IM)

 

Without water & electricity, Venezuelans protest on Maduro's doorstep

A nationwide crisis in water and electricity services brought demonstrators to the gate of the Miraflores Presidential palace last Thursday night, with the crisis intensifying Friday afternoon, when a water main broke and destroyed several houses in Caracas. Although he is in the first week of a controversial re-election campaign, embattled head of state Nicolas Maduro did not emerge to address the protest, even if it took place only meters away from "The People's Balcony", from which he -- as his mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez used to do -- regularly addresses the crowds. (Latin American Herald Tribune, http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2455613&CategoryId=10717)

 

Venezuelan opposition nominees study having a single presidential candidate

Two of the five candidates for Venezuela’s presidential elections next May 20, studied the possibility of having a single candidate, the first of the nominees announced Saturday, an option which another of the candidates, Henri Falcon, has not rejected. Confirmation of the meeting between Luis Alejandro Ratti and Javier Bertucci supports the intentions shown in recent days by these three candidates to join forces against their powerful opponent, President Nicolas Maduro. Ratti said he hoped to have more such talks with Falcon and officials of the National Electoral Council (CNE). Bertucci said nothing about their meeting during a party rally in San Felix in the southeastern state of Bolivar, nor in his tweets. (Latin American Herald Tribune, http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2455560&CategoryId=10717)

 

OP-ED: Maduro set to abolish voting rights and other freedoms, Colombian president says

It’s hard to know what will happen next in Venezuela, but what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told me in an interview last week should raise alarm bells throughout the hemisphere. Santos said during a visit to Miami that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s hand-picked Constituent Assembly is drafting a new constitution that would be made public after Venezuela’s May 20 presidential elections. The new charter would officially turn Venezuela into a Cuban-style dictatorship, he said. Santos told me that Maduro’s Constituent Assembly is secretly drafting a new constitution of about 350 articles and 18 “transitory clauses” that would create a voting system like in Cuba, where government-controlled “mass organizations” elect local officials who in turn elect legislators, who ultimately pick the country’s top leaders. “The information I have is that among the proposed constitution’s articles is one that would abolish the universal right to vote and establish a system of corporative elections similar to that of Cuba,” Santos told me. “That amounts to the formalization of a Soviet-styled dictatorship.” Santos added, “I also understand that they will establish a series of changes in things such as the definition of treason to the fatherland.” The expanded definition of treason would allow the Maduro regime “to repress any criticism and to have more supposedly legal instruments to be able to further repress the population.” Asked where he got that information, Santos said it comes from “intelligence reports,” without elaborating. Maduro may radicalize his leftist revolution to prevent a popular rebellion as the country descends into near total chaos, Santos said. Venezuela is also creating neighborhood paramilitary cells to try to control any kind of dissent, Santos said. “At this very moment, they are creating about 13,000 cells throughout the country, with 40 militants per cell,” Santos told me. “Those are the people who, at the very moment there is an anti-government protest, go and repress it. Just like with Cuba’s neighborhood watch committees.” If Santos is right and Maduro goes ahead with these plans, we could soon see a Syrian-type refugee crisis in the Americas. By Andrés Oppenheimer.

 

Malaria outbreak in Venezuela spreading North into the Americas

The WHO’s 2017 annual malaria report shows some countries are beginning to see unfortunate reversals in the gains achieved over the past years. Venezuela is currently the leader in the Americas with 406,000 cases reported in 2017, which is the largest increase worldwide said the WHO. This data represents a 69% increase from 240,000 cases in 2016. "In the 1960s, when the WHO launched its first campaigns, Venezuela was the first country to have entire regions declared free of the (malaria) disease," Pedro L. Alonso, MD, Ph.D. said. "Today, however, it has the largest increase in the world," he said. Additionally, the WHO reports Venezuelan migrants are carrying the mosquito-borne disease into Brazil and other parts of Latin America. (Precision Vaccinations: https://www.precisionvaccinations.com/venezuela-reports-406000-malaria-cases-during-2017)

 

The following brief is a synthesis of the news as reported by a variety of media sources. As such, the views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Duarte Vivas & Asociados and The Selinger Group.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

April 10, 2018


International Trade

Venezuela “may” charge for exports in oil-backed cryptocurrency Petro

President Nicolás Maduro has revealed that the country’s state-owned companies may start charging for exports in the country’s oil-backed cryptocurrency, the Petro (PTR). According to the country’s Cuatro F newspaper, even real estate is set to be purchasable with the cryptocurrency. In a piece published in the newspaper, Maduro stated that as of April 20, it will be possible to use the Petro to buy products throughout the country, as well as real estate. As part of the move, Maduro informed the country’s interior minister, General Néstor Reverol, to make it so that these transactions can be made through the country’s Autonomous Service of Registries and Notaries (SAREN). It also reveals that state-owned companies will start creating Petro wallets, so they can start charging for exports in the oil-backed cryptocurrency. The Venezuelan leader reportedly specified PDVSA, a state-owned oil and natural gas company that was targeted by the US’ sanctions. Cuatro F’s piece adds (roughly translated): “This means that Venezuela will be able to charge in petros its oil, gas, steel, aluminum, petrochemical products, cocoa, among other goods exported”. Likewise, the Central Bank of Venezuela (BCV) was authorized by decree to collect in petros for the export of gold from small mining and handcrafted items. Additionally, the piece notes, private companies will be able to pay taxes in Petros “including the huge debt they have for their operations during the years 2016 and 2017.” (CCN: https://www.ccn.com/venezuela-may-charge-for-exports-in-its-oil-backed-cryptocurrency-petro/)

 

Maduro regime claims Russia accepts payment for goods from Venezuela in cryptocurrency

Venezuela will pay the Russian Federation for providing automotive parts in its own digital currency, the Petro, according to the Venezuelan minister of foreign trade Jose Vielma Mora, who said: "[The issues of cooperation] include the purchases of automotive parts and components, of tires and batteries, as well as assembling of these vehicles in our country and the forms of payment, in which we include the payments with the use of Petro."  (CoinIdol: https://coinidol.com/russia-accepts-payment-in-national-cryptocurrency/)

 

Logistics & Transport

Chaos, isolation grows as COPA halts service to Caracas

Scenes of chaos at the Caracas counter of Panama’s COPA -- one of Latin America’s best regarded airlines -- were visible Friday morning, as the carrier was ordered to stop operating in Venezuela by the embattled administration of Nicolas Maduro, part of a wider tug-of-war between Panama and Venezuela. Besides the diplomatic confrontation, Venezuelans – who have fled the country by the millions since the start of the Bolivarian "Revolution" in 1999 -- complained Friday of being more isolated. And with good reason: while there were 23 airlines flying out of Venezuela in 2013, the year Maduro took over from his mentor and predecessor Hugo Chavez, there were only 6 remaining as of Friday. AeroMeteo, a Twitter account that tracks airline activity in Venezuela, said there were only six flights crisscrossing the oil-rich nation Thursday afternoon, compared with 30 for neighboring Colombia. (Latin American Herald Tribune, http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2454254&CategoryId=10717)

 

Maduro regime reopens air, sea links to Caribbean islands

Venezuela on Monday reopened air and sea links to the islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, three months after cutting them off in an attempt to curb smuggling. The move is a welcome relief to those in Venezuela who can afford to fly out, after COPA, one of the last major airlines still operating here, was forced by authorities to suspend services last week. The majority of international airlines have pulled out of the crisis-hit country over the last few years, citing economic and security concerns. An Aruba Airlines plane took off from Valencia airport, some 150 km (93 miles) from Caracas, on Monday morning on its way to the Aruban capital of Oranjestad. Transport Minister Carlos Osorio announced the reopening of links from the runway. (CNBC: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/09/reuters-america-venezuela-reopens-air-sea-links-to-caribbean-islands.html)

 

Oil & Energy

Venezuela oil price slips in first week of April

The price Venezuela receives for its mix of medium and heavy oil fell during the first week of April. According to figures released by the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining, the average price of Venezuelan crude sold by Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) during the week ending April 6 fell to US$ 59.69, down US$ 1.58 from the previous week's US$ 61.27. WTI in New York averaged US$ 63.67 -- down US$ 1.72 -- for the week, while Brent crude traded in London averaged US$ 68.29 -- down US$ 1.66 from the previous week. According to Venezuelan government figures, the average price in 2018 for Venezuela's mix of heavy and medium crude for 2018 is US$ 59.66 so far. (Latin American Herald Tribune, http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2454255&CategoryId=10717)

 

Commodities

The bloody grab for gold in Venezuela’s most dangerous town

In Venezuela’s gold capital, national guardsmen block the roads. Military convoys and motorcycles circle while soldiers keep wary watch behind sandbag checkpoints or patrol with faces covered by balaclavas and rifles in hand. The military has been fighting for months to master El Callao, the dangerous nation’s most dangerous town, and a beachhead in efforts to develop a mineral-rich region the government calls the Arco Minero del Orinoco. President Nicolas Maduro granted the army the handsome prize, a move that helps ensure the unpopular autocrat’s power. But the takeover has been punctuated by blood and bullets as soldiers raid neighborhoods and clandestine mines across 70,000 square miles from Colombia to Guyana, asserting themselves over gang lords and claiming revenue both legal and illicit. On Feb. 10, the army seized weapons, burned vehicles and killed 18 civilians — including a woman and a youth — in one of the deadliest clashes since the project’s inception. Many victims were shot in the head and face, according to police photos and death certificates obtained by Bloomberg. Maduro faces a May 20 election with support from only about a fifth of the population and he is turning over swathes of the economy to the 160,000-member military, the strongest power in a failing state. Active and retired officers hold 14 of 32 cabinet posts. Soldiers have replaced many of the 80 state oil company leaders whom Maduro has imprisoned since August. The ports have been militarized and the Defense Ministry oversees the hungry nation’s food supply. The Arco Minero is another lucrative franchise granted by Maduro. “It’s an incentive for loyalty,” said Rocio San Miguel, president of the Control Ciudadano watchdog group in Caracas. “It’s indicative of where the forces of power lie in Venezuela. Military power is hegemonic and in control of everything.” Maduro has promoted hundreds of officers since he became president in 2013 — there are now some 1,300 generals and admirals. High-ranking members of the military control legitimate industries, black markets and the nation’s security, creating a “perverse relationship,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an Americas analyst at IHS Markit, a London consultant. In El Callao, years of dwindling oil revenue and failed statist policies have the government craving gold deposits it claims total as many as 8,000 tons, which would be the world’s second-largest behind Australia. The Arco Minero produced 8.5 tons in 2017, while Maduro hopes to raise production to 24 tons by year-end, according to mining minister Victor Cano. Official production fell to a single ton in 2016, according to the CPM Group, a commodities researcher. But that year, Maduro granted the armed forces wide-ranging security powers and let them create a company that would provide mining services. He invited 150 companies to exploit diamonds, gold and coltan in the region, but few partners materialized. Now, shootouts regularly erupt among soldiers and rival gangs. Over the past year, local news outlets have reported dozens of killings by state forces in El Callao and surrounding areas. Cano, the mining minister, said in an interview the armed forces respect human rights, but miners must put themselves on the right side of the law. “If they’re doing criminal activities, they can’t be expected to be treated like saints.” The miners are extorted by all sides, but still they flock to muddy pits and hand-dug shafts to pick and pan. At the apex of this isolated economy sits the national guard. The force manages the flow of gasoline for generators and water pumps, and controls commerce. In the almost 120-mile (190 kilometer) drive from Puerto Ordaz to El Callao, there are more than a half-dozen military and police checkpoints. “They control the territory, they control the legal system — the rules — and they have the guns,” said San Miguel of Control Ciudadano. “It’s an area that functions in a completely feudal sense.” Low-ranking soldiers shake down individual miners and smugglers, while officers extract tributes from armed groups for the right to do business. Those gangs in turn extort anyone wishing to work. Then, there’s the official business: The Venezuelan central bank purchases gold in El Callao from select brokers, mill associations and groups of registered miners, dubbed “mining brigades.” State gold processor MINERVEN melts the ore into bars, which military aircraft take to airbases around Caracas. Soldiers unload the riches into armored vehicles bound for the Central Bank. The bank is selling off gold to keep the country afloat, drawing down its reserves of the metal to US$ 6.6 billion from almost US$ 20 billion at the beginning of 2012. (Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2018-04-09/the-bloody-grab-for-gold-in-venezuela-s-most-dangerous-town)

 

Economy & Finance

Venezuela debt crisis nears new low as riskiest bond matures

The Venezuelan debt crisis could be on the verge of a new milestone as a US$ 650 million bond matures Tuesday with little hope it’ll get paid. The notes from the state-run electric utility were always considered among the country’s riskiest securities because the downsides to a default are relatively minor. They don’t contain any cross-default rules that would affect sovereign debt or notes from the state oil company, and the utility doesn’t have any overseas assets that investors could try to seize. A missed principal payment would mark a new low for Venezuelan investors who are already confronting US$ 2 billion in late interest but haven’t yet seen the government skip out on paying back maturing notes. Electricidad de Caracas (ELECAR)’s notes trade at about 33 cents on the dollar, signaling that investors view them as the riskiest debt maturing this year in the world’s riskiest nation. Fitch Ratings puts them one notch above default. Only some holders received an interest payment due in October and the trustee declared a default. If the bond does get paid, investors who bought the notes now would make a quick 150% profit. It could also spur a rally in other Venezuelan debt. The last glimmer of hope money managers can cling to is unsubstantiated speculation that a group of wealthy Venezuelans with government connections holds a large chunk of the debt, and Maduro’s administration wouldn’t want to give them reason to be angry. (Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-09/venezuela-s-debt-crisis-nears-new-low-as-riskiest-bond-comes-due)

 

Venezuela stopped bond payments in September

Venezuela stopped paying bondholders in September, according to local Central Bank data, contradicting statements by President Nicolás Maduro that the country would continue to honor its debts while negotiating a resettlement with its creditors. The data show that regular foreign debt payments of hundreds of millions of dollars a month, in line with the country’s sovereign obligations, fell to a few tens of millions from last October for fees and the legacy of a 1980s-era restructuring. “This proves that Venezuela is deliberately hoodwinking bondholders and engaging in a stealth default,” said Russ Dallen of boutique bank Caracas Capital, who follows Venezuelan debt closely. The data were posted in an Excel file as part of a recent revamp of the central bank’s website and include monthly expenditures in US dollars on public foreign debt payments going back to 1996. Previously, data on foreign debt payments were published in the form of a ratio that revealed little information. Maduro announced on November 2 that the country would restructure and refinance its debts after making one last payment on a bond owed by PDVSA, the state-owned oil company. S&P Global, the rating agency, declared the country in default shortly afterwards. Yet holders of bonds issued by PDVSA and ELECAR, a state-owned electric utility, have continued to receive sporadic payments, which have amounted to about US$ 2.5 billion since Maduro’s announcement. Several payments have been made late, sometimes after the 30-day grace payment for coupon payments. No payments at all have been received on bonds issued by the government of Venezuela, despite assurances that the process of payment was under way. The Central Bank data, which cover payments of sovereign debt only and exclude obligations by PDVSA and other state entities, show that just US$ 83 million was paid in October, compared with sovereign obligations amounting to US$ 465 million, according to data from Caracas Capital. Payments in November fell to US$ 28 million, compared with obligations of US$ 183 million, and in December declined to US$ 23 million, compared with obligations of US$ 242 million. October’s payment included about US$ 74 million due on a “Brady bond” that resulted from Latin America’s debt restructuring in the late 1980s. The payments in November and December attributed to foreign debt service would include lawyer’s fees and other costs, he said. Mr. Dallen said no money had been received by any holders of Venezuelan sovereign bonds. He said Venezuela had chosen carefully which PDVSA and ELECAR bonds to continue paying. Payments included US$984 million owed by PDVSA on a bond due in 2020 that is secured by 51% of the shares in CITGO, Venezuela’s US refining and distribution subsidiary. But he said evidence from clearing houses suggested these payments, too, had come to a halt. (Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/c291cb76-3c20-11e8-b9f9-de94fa33a81e)

 

Venezuela horror is warning for Russian traders after sanctions

Investors in Russian assets can look to Venezuela for an idea of what may be in store for them after the Trump administration levied sanctions against some of the country’s richest men. If Venezuela’s experience serves as a guide, the impact could stretch on for a while as companies confront the fallout from restrictions on international banking, communications and even the currencies they use for business. Here are some lessons Russian investors can take away from the saga faced by bond investors in Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state-owned oil company known as PDVSA, which is currently behind on $730 million of interest payments:

  • Payment chain: Investors typically pay little attention to financial institutions that help process bond payments. But Venezuela traders were forced to learn the names of all these intermediaries -- even having them on speed dial -- as payments came under extra scrutiny and some were ultimately held up on concern they might run afoul of sanctions. A similar ordeal in Russia would be a headache for overseas holders of its corporate notes.
  • Currency: Restrictions on U.S. dollar transactions could increase borrowers’ reliance on alternate currencies such as the Chinese yuan. Venezuela started publishing its weekly oil basket price in yuan rather than dollars last year, and now hold auctions for its currency in euros instead of the greenback. Nicolas Maduro’s government has even gone so far as trying to issue a sovereign cryptocurrency, an idea also floated by Russia.
  • Communication restrictions: Sanctions targeted at individuals limit, and in some cases prevent, money managers from meeting with company officials. When Venezuelan Finance Minister Simon Zerpa invited bondholders to Caracas for restructuring talks in November, many declined for fear of running into trouble with the U.S. Treasury, which had sanctioned Zerpa. That’s in effect made it impossible for the company to restructure its debts.
  • Dependence: Venezuelan sanctions have also made PDVSA increasingly reliant on other pariah nations for financial assistance. Zerpa’s globetrotting has included recent trips to Russia, Turkey and China in a bid to drum up support.
  • Patience: Bondholders who haven’t exited their positions may be stuck for the long haul as they await some resolution. For PDVSA, it’s due to the mix of defaults and a restructuring ban. Already we’re seeing something similar in Russia, where debt from United Co. RUSAL -- whose owner came in for sanctions -- is being removed from many bond-trading platforms.
(Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-09/venezuela-horror-is-warning-for-russia-traders-mulling-sanctions)

 

Politics and International Affairs

Venezuela court-in-exile calls for Maduro trial on corruption charges

Venezuela’s Supreme Court in exile on Monday asked their country’s armed forces and Interpol to detain President Nicolás Maduro, saying there was probable cause to put him on trial for corruption and other crimes. Speaking from Colombia’s capital, the court — which isn’t considered legitimate by the administration in Venezuela — said Maduro had overseen a web of corruption that allowed Brazilian construction firm ODEBRECHT to defraud the country to the tune of US$ 2.5 billion. “This criminal organization scheme needs to be investigated not just in Venezuela but internationally,” the court said.  The ruling comes after Venezuela’s former prosecutor general, Luisa Ortega, presented documents last week outlining Maduro’s role in what she says is widespread and systemic fraud. She said Maduro received US$ 35 million in illicit campaign contributions from ODEBRECHT in exchange for giving them lucrative construction projects — many of which were never started or are incomplete. The court asked INTERPOL to arrest Maduro if he leaves the country, saying it was the only way to ensure justice could be served. While the court’s rulings will be shrugged off in Venezuela, the exiled judges hope foreign governments will recognize their authority. The court said it will be sharing its Monday ruling with the United Nations, the Organization of American States and at the Summit of the Americas, a gathering of the leaders of the Western Hemisphere set to take place this weekend in Peru. The Maduro regime has charged the exiled Supreme Court justices with treason. (The Miami Herald: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/venezuela/article208338564.html; Fox News: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2018/04/09/exiled-jurists-launch-graft-trial-against-venezuelas-maduro.html)

 

Whoever is elected on May 20th must be sworn in by National Assembly

Omar Barboza, President of Venezuela’s National Assembly, says that whoever is elected in the upcoming May 20th snap presidential elections must be sworn in by the National Assembly as the only legitimate representative of the Venezuelan people. He adds that if the so-called National Constitutional Assembly performs the swearing in it will be usurping a role it does not have. He says the group is not all-powerful because sovereignty remains with the people, who are the only ones who can call for a constitutional assembly. More in Spanish: (Noticiero Venevisión, http://www.noticierovenevision.net/noticias/politica/omar-barboza-quien-sea-electo-en-los-comicios-del-20-m-debe-juramentarse-ante-la-an)

 

Venezuela dominates agenda ahead of Trump’s Latin American visit

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has disparaged Latin American countries over immigration, narcotics and trade, heads to the region this week for a summit that diplomats say is likely to be awkward and tense. Trump will arrive in the Peruvian capital, Lima, on Friday for the Summit of the Americas with an agenda of encouraging commercial ties and urging allies to take a hard line on Venezuela, according to U.S. officials who briefed reporters on the trip. The White House wants to turn up regional pressure on Venezuela's socialist president, Nicolas Maduro - disinvited from the summit - who called an election for May that his opposition and Washington have cast as a sham. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia and other neighboring countries to escape hunger and poverty. Trump mused last year about a "military option" to push for change in Venezuela, a comment widely condemned in the region. The United States, a major buyer of Venezuelan oil, has weighed ramping up economic sanctions. A U.S. official told reporters last week that no decisions were imminent but could be made over the next several months. At the summit, diplomats from countries critical of Maduro might formally condemn the election and discuss ways to help Venezuelan migrants, according to a source at Argentina's Foreign Ministry. (CNBC: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/04/09/smile-and-nod-latin-american-leaders-brace-for-tense-trump-visit.html; Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-americas-summit-trump/smile-and-nod-latin-american-leaders-brace-for-tense-trump-visit-idUSKBN1HG1CN)

 

Panama weighs further measures in fight with Venezuela

Panama’s foreign minister says her country may take further retaliatory measures against Venezuela if the neighboring nation doesn’t reverse diplomatic and trade bans announced last week. Isabel de Saint Malo said Monday that “let’s hope Venezuela revises some things, because otherwise Panama will have to take coherent countermeasures.” Venezuela banned key Panamanian businesses from operating on its territory after Panama’s government put Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on a list of Venezuelan officials deemed to be at “high risk” for laundering money. The ban included businesses of Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and COPA, one of the few airlines still operating within Venezuela. Panama then pulled its ambassador from Venezuela and asked Venezuela to recall its emissary. Panama is keeping its embassy in Caracas open with a skeleton staff. (The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/panama-weighs-further-measures-in-fight-with-venezuela/2018/04/09/86c883de-3c55-11e8-955b-7d2e19b79966_story.html; The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/04/09/world/americas/ap-lt-panama-venezuela.html)

 

St Lucia PM worried about ongoing situation in Venezuela

The St Lucia government on Monday said it remains 'extremely concerned' about the ongoing political and economic situation in Venezuela after Trinidad and Tobago reported that a number of Venezuelans were entering the oil-rich twin island republic illegally and seeking asylum. “Trinidad, Colombia, the rest of Latin America, have for the past couple of years been feeling the impact. Thousands of people, if not millions of people are migrating from Venezuela and as the situation continues to worsen, this becomes even a greater threat to the region and I am very concerned as to the impact here in St Lucia,” Prime Minister Allen Chastanet told reporters. The Acting Chief Immigration Officer in Trinidad and Tobago, Charmaine Gandhi-Andrews, last week told a select Joint Committee of Parliament that an estimated 2,000 Venezuelans have applied for asylum there in recent months. Chastanet told reporters that ever since his ruling United Workers Party (UWP) came into office over a year ago, security has remained the major priority for the island particularly as it relates to the ongoing situation in Venezuela. He said that criminals appear to be doing what they want, and people were using Venezuela as a transshipment point for drugs from Colombia into Venezuela and the Caribbean. Chastanet, who has long been a critic of the situation in Caracas, said that human rights were also being affected and that some were living in denial and pretending it is propaganda to suggest that there is a problem in Venezuela. (Jamaica Observer: http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/latestnews/St_Lucia_PM_worried_about_ongoing_situation_in_Venezuela)

 

Sen. Dick Durbin meets American hostage, Dictator Maduro in Venezuela

U.S. Senate Minority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) has announced he is “heartbroken” after visiting the socialist state of Venezuela, currently embroiled in the worst political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in its history. In a statement on Monday, Durbin’s office confirmed that he “met with President Nicolás Maduro, members of the opposition, the President of the National Assembly, the Ministers of Health and Nutrition, business leaders, civil society groups, doctors, and humanitarian organizations.” Durbin said in a statement after his visit: “I traveled to Caracas to better understand the conditions faced by Venezuelans and to urge President Maduro to adhere to basic democratic norms, particularly regarding the dubious snap election now scheduled for May … I pointed out that there is bipartisan agreement in Washington on deeply troubling economic, political, and humanitarian problems in Venezuela,” Durbin said. “I was heartbroken by what I saw and heard, particularly regarding the collapse of the country’s ability to feed and medically care for its people and children.” One other aim of Durbin’s visit was to persuade Maduro to release American prisoner Joshua Holt, who was last year sentenced to two years in prison on false weapon charges. After visiting Holt at his jail in Caracas, Durbin said that he was “distraught and saddened” by the ordeal but remained in good conditions, despite reports of his declining health. Maduro reportedly told Durbin he would “consider” pardoning Holt but made no promises on the matter. “They have been held and are being held for some political purpose either to be part of some trade in the future over some issue,” Durbin said. (Breitbart: http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2018/04/09/dick-durbin-meets-american-hostage-dictator-maduro-venezuela/)

 

Questions arise about Pete Sessions’ secret trip to Venezuela

Rep. Pete Sessions is facing questions about a previously undisclosed trip the Texas Republican took to Venezuela last week that his office is calling a peace mission. The Associated Press first reported Sessions made a two-day trip and met with Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro. Sessions’ spokeswoman Caroline Boothe said it was part of Sessions’ efforts to resolve the conflict in the embattled South American nation. Boothe also said as chairman of the House Rules Committee, Sessions frequently works to ensure other countries are respecting democratic norms. On Friday, Sessions told the Dallas Morning News in an interview he met with both Maduro and members of opposing political parties to promote “dialogue between parties that are trying to make progress.” Sessions also said he paid for the trip out of his own pocket and not with taxpayer dollars. While Sessions’ district is home to oil companies, his team denied his visit was related to the industry. (RollCall: https://www.rollcall.com/news/politics/questions-arise-about-pete-sessions-secret-trip-to-venezuela)

 

OP-ED: Two signs Venezuela's Maduro can't hang on forever

Given the depth and longevity of Venezuela’s political and economic crisis, President Nicolas Maduro, the salsa-loving successor to strongman Hugo Chavez, has clung to power with remarkable tenacity. He may hang on a while longer, but new evidence emerged this week that makes clear why he can’t survive indefinitely. New data from OPEC and the International Energy Agency show the decline in Venezuela’s all-important oil production is gathering speed. This problem will have an increasingly dramatic effect on the government’s cash-flow, especially since a considerable amount of the country’s oil is needed at home. Otherwise, it goes toward paying off loans from other countries, or is sold at a deep discount to its ally Cuba. After purging Rafael Ramirez, former head of state-run oil firm PDVSA, and others a few months ago, Maduro ordered the arrest last week of former Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, a former spy chief under Chavez and potential political rival for Maduro. Several military officers have also been arrested. Is Maduro in imminent danger from the ruling elite or the military? From the outside, it’s impossible to know. But purges can sometime create enemies, even where none existed before. In short, the cash cow is wasting away, and the risk of dissent within the elite is on the rise. (AXIOS: https://www.axios.com/two-troubling-signs-for-venezuelas-maduro-1521818128-5c67814a-ce48-4011-89c1-8f18e9c6572e.html)

 

UNHCR calls for increased aid to fleeing Venezuelans

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, working with the Brazilian Government and partners is ramping up the humanitarian response for the growing number of Venezuelans arriving in the north of the country with increasing needs. According to the Government’s latest estimates, more than 800 Venezuelans are entering Brazil each day. As the complex political and socio-economic situation in their country continues to worsen, arriving Venezuelans are in more desperate need of food, shelter and health care. Many also need international protection. UNHCR and the Brazilian Authorities are increasingly concerned by the growing risks faced by those Venezuelans who are living on the streets, including sexual exploitation and violence. To meet shelter needs and mitigate these risks two new shelters in Boa Vista have been opened in the last two weeks. The new shelters can house 500 people each and are nearly at capacity. Priority is given to families with children, pregnant women, elderly people and others with specific needs. UNHCR has recently requested from donors an initial US$ 46 million to implement its regional response plan for Venezuelans in the main host countries, Brazil included. So far, this plan is only 4% funded. We’re calling on the international community for greater support to Brazil which has been generous in its response and needs further support to enhance reception capacities, prevent discrimination against Venezuelans, and ensure peaceful coexistence. (UNCHR: http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/briefing/2018/4/5ac72f194/response-stepped-brazil-venezuelan-arrivals-grow.html)

 

The following brief is a synthesis of the news as reported by a variety of media sources. As such, the views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Duarte Vivas & Asociados and The Selinger Group.

Friday, April 6, 2018

April 06, 2018


International Trade

Venezuela halts commercial ties with Panama, Panama pulls out its ambassador

Venezuela said on Thursday it was halting commercial relations with Panamanian officials and companies, including regional airline Copa, for alleged involvement in money laundering, prompting both countries to recall their ambassadors. The resolution names Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela and nearly two dozen Cabinet ministers and top-ranking officials and says that Panama’s financial system had been used by Venezuelan nationals involved in acts of corruption. The individuals named in the resolution “present an imminent risk to the (Venezuelan) financial system, the stability of commerce in the country, and the sovereignty and economic independence of the Venezuelan people,” Venezuela said. The statement came a week after Panama declared Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and some 50 Venezuelan nationals as “high risk” for laundering money and financing terrorism. Panama announced it was recalling its ambassador to Venezuela and asked that Caracas follow suit, which it did several hours later. Panama’s Varela, in brief comments to reporters on Thursday, described the Venezuelan announcement as nonsensical. “We have not heard anything about breaking relations but rather about a set of supposed sanctions - it’s gibberish,” Varela said. Venezuela has been hit with sanctions by Canada, the United States and other countries over issues ranging from human rights violations to corruption and drug trafficking. (Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-panama/venezuela-halts-commercial-ties-with-panama-suspends-copa-flights-idUSKCN1HC2UA; ABC News: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/venezuela-suspends-panamanian-businesses-airline-54269119; Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-panama/venezuela-cuts-commercial-ties-with-panama-officials-firms-idUSKCN1HC2UA)

 

Port authority VP stashed funds away in Andorra

According to the Spanish daily “El País”, Elisaul Yépes, Vice President of the Venezuela’s national Port Authority (BOLIPUERTOS), stashed away US$ 600,000 in July 2011 in Banca Privada d ‘Andorra (BPA). The funds were transferred by a company controlled by Carlos Luis Aguilera, who was the spy chief for the late President Chavez. The funds had been placed in BPA, a Panamanian instrumental society. In the forms used to open the account, Yépes recorded his intention of depositing US$ 2.5 million, and transferring US$ 500,000 per month. Last October Yépes was named Vice President of BOLIPUERTOS. More in Spanish: (El Universal, http://www.eluniversal.com/politica/5105/segun-pais-vicepresidente-bolipuertos-habria-ocultado-dinero-andorra)

 

Logistics & Transport

Venezuela suspends COPA flights, passengers to be reimbursed

Venezuela said on Thursday it was halting commercial relations with Panamanian officials and companies, including regional airline COPA, for alleged involvement in money laundering, prompting both countries to recall their ambassadors. Venezuela’s civil aviation authority said in a statement that inbound and outbound COPA flights were suspended for 90 days, effective Friday, “as a measure to protect the Venezuelan financial system.” COPA, a crucial provider of international flights following a sharp reduction in airline services to crisis-stricken Venezuela, did not respond to a request for comment. COPA announced it would fully reimburse passengers for unused airfare. (Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-panama/venezuela-halts-commercial-ties-with-panama-suspends-copa-flights-idUSKCN1HC2UA; and more in Spanish: El Universal; http://www.eluniversal.com/economia/5217/copa-reembolsara-valor-boletos-usados-interrupcion-vuelos)

 

Oil & Energy

How a small trading house won multi-million deals in Venezuela

No country in the Americas is deemed more corrupt than Venezuela. There are so many tales of bribes and influence peddling, it’s hard to keep track. But now, in a deeply detailed account spelled out in U.S. courts, it is the government itself -- or, to be exact, the trust of the state-controlled oil giant -- that alleges it was the victim of a decade-long bid rigging scheme costing it billions of dollars. The ploy, allegedly executed by a small and mostly unknown Miami oil trading firm, has all the trappings of a TV detective-thriller: A cloned computer server; a computer geek known as “the nerd;” an estranged wife. It also features an oil trader with an intriguing pitch: “I can guarantee you are going to win.” The alleged winners included such household names as subsidiaries of GLENCORE Plc, TRAFIGURA BEHEER BV and VITOL Group, among the more than 40 individuals and firms named as defendants. At the heart of the alleged scheme were auctions, known in the industry as tenders, held by PDVSA to import or export millions of barrels of oil products. The PDVSA tenders are coveted among traders because of the large volumes of fuels, such as gasoline and naphtha, the company has been buying and selling over the years. Only a handful of market participants are invited to take part in the electronic bidding. The suit alleges that oil trader HELSINGE Inc. bribed a former PDVSA tech employee -- “the nerd” -- to hook up its computers to PDVSA’s servers. That gave HELSINGE “direct access” to secret information on oil auctions on a real-time basis. HELSINGE then used the information, such as details on competing bids, to win the lucrative auctions, the suit alleges, often by suspiciously small margins. HELSINGE was formed by two former PDVSA traders, Francisco Morillo and Leonardo Baquero. HELSINGE made its "guaranteed win" pitch repeatedly over the years, according to traders at different companies who were approached and declined to participate. The alleged scheme was broken open, the PDVSA trust says, when it obtained the hard drive from the estranged wife of Morillo. Vanessa Friedman had come into possession of the hard drive after winning a temporary restraining order against her husband in 2010 that prevented him from having access to his computer. The laptop contained emails and instant messages showing incriminating exchanges between HELSINGE and traders, the suit alleges. A market participant who asked to remain anonymous said he eventually gave up bidding -- the same companies would win, over and over. Internally, PDVSA traders were told to be aware of HELSINGE bids, but action was never taken to shut down the practice, according to one of those traders. (Bloomberg: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-04/rigged-by-the-nerd-oil-auctions-said-to-spew-years-of-profits)

 

OPEC output falls to lowest in a year amid Venezuela woes

OPEC crude production dropped to the lowest in a year amid the woes in Venezuela’s oil industry. Output from the 14 members of Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries fell by 170,000 barrels to 32.04 million barrels a day in March, according to a Bloomberg News survey of analysts, oil companies and ship-tracking data. That’s the lowest since last April’s 31.9 million barrels a day. Back then, Equatorial Guinea -- which pumped 130,000 barrels a day last month -- wasn’t part of OPEC. (Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-03/opec-output-falls-to-lowest-in-a-year-as-venezuela-s-woes-deepen)

 

Commodities

80% labor absenteeism reported in basic industries due to lack of transportation

Rubén González, a leader of the FERROMINERA del Orinoco union, reports that “80% of the 50,000-man payroll in the Guayana Corporation cannot reach work due to lack of transportation”. He adds: “In Bolivar state there are enormous distances between the homes and workplaces of workers, so transportation services are indispensable. Due to carelessness by authorities there are not enough units available for the different work shifts.” He reports that iron production at FERROMINERA mines at San Isidro, Los Barrancos and Cerro Bolívar has been paralyzed for almost one month because operators cannot get out of Ciudad Piar, since “there is not a single bus operating.” Labor sources at SIDOR, BAUXILUM, ALCASA, VENALUM  and briquette plants repeated the same report, saying that the situation is hitting production that is already low due to scarce spare parts and lack of maintenance. More in Spanish: (El Nacional, http://www.el-nacional.com/noticias/empresas/ausentismo-laboral-industrias-basicas-por-falta-transporte_229474)

 

'It feels like we're all dying slowly': Venezuela's doctors losing hope

With major shortages of medicines, many doctors are joining the exodus of people trying to find a better life abroad.  After six years of studying and working part-time jobs, Cristian Diaga, 24, will soon graduate from medical school in Caracas, Venezuela. But instead of continuing his training in a top hospital in the country, as he had hoped, he is taking a job in a fast-food restaurant in Argentina – a situation he says is preferable. But it’s not as though many of Diaga’s relatives still live in the country – the majority have fled to Argentina by road through Brazil. And soon he will join them. More than half of Venezuelans between 15 and 29 want to move abroad permanently, according to a poll carried out by the US firm Gallup and shared exclusively with the Guardian. Shortages of medicines are well-documented in Venezuela, with patients often having to buy prescriptions and basic medical supplies using contacts abroad and risk having them sent over or purchasing at highly-inflated prices on the black market. But many are going without. As is often the case when official channels dry up, black market trade booms. Ordinary people left with no other choice are turning to unofficial channels, with many taking advantage of the demand for drugs to supplement their meager wages. Serina Moritz, 47, a senior doctor in a large public hospital in Caracas, says that in her 20 years working in the profession the system has never been under so much pressure. “Not only do we not have medicines, even basics, but there is no blood as we cannot run tests on it. For most of us we don’t know what to do. I know colleagues who are leaving depressed,” she says. According to the Venezuelan Health Observatory, a research center at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, estimates that less than 10% of operating theatres, emergency rooms and intensive care units are fully operational. It says 76% of hospitals suffer from scarcity of medicines, 81% lack surgical materials and 70% complain of intermittent water supply. “I will stay but it is impossible for us to survive under this system … why would anyone want to?” (The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/05/it-feels-like-were-all-dying-slowly-venezuelas-doctors-losing-hope)

 

Economy & Finance

Bolivar is weaker than previously thought as value plummets

Venezuela’s currency is worth even less than previously believed, with new trackers of the black-market rate showing deep discounts compared with the long-standing benchmark gauge. Rates from DOLARTODAY.COM shows a rate of 251,000 bolivars per US dollar but DOLARPRO says it is 30% weaker and puts the currency at a rate of 362,000 to the dollar and e-wallet AIRTM believes it is at 313,000 to the dollar. Regardless of the different values the bolivar has been given, the currency is still worth less than it was five years ago. During that time DOLARTODAY has rated it to be 99.99% lower. As Venezuela has limited access to official exchange markets, citizens are more reliant on these websites which track the rate of the bolivar. In 2015, the Maduro government unsuccessfully tried to sue DOLARTODAY for publishing artificially weaker rates to cause turbulence with Venezuela. (Express: https://www.express.co.uk/finance/city/941930/venezuela-currency-bolivar-value; Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-04/venezuela-s-currency-is-doing-even-worse-than-previously-thought)

 

Crypto rating sites are already calling Venezuela’s Petro a scam

Two weeks after Venezuela’s cryptocurrency scheduled sale date, many aspects of the Petro remain a mystery and initial coin offering rating sites are already calling it a fraud. Rating website ICOindex.com gave the token a "scam status," saying the project was missing critical information, from the description of the mechanism to its technology and supposed oil-backing. “We can discourage people from wasting money on this project,” the site reads. Another rating site, ICObench, rated the Petro 1.6 points out of 5. Other ICO raters, including CRYPTORATED and ICOreview, haven’t even bothered to review the project, Criptonoticias reported. (Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-03/crypto-rating-sites-are-already-calling-venezuela-s-petro-a-scam)

 

Maduro regime must pay US$ 750 million more in debt this month

April is another heavy month for Venezuelan debt payments. It must shell out US$ 756.3 million in 4 PDVSA and 4 government bonds that come due within the next few days. Everything seems to indicate the payments will not be met. Congressman José Guerra says that if the payments are not made, total payments in arrears will rise to US$ 3.1 billion in default. More in Spanish:  (El Nacional, http://www.el-nacional.com/noticias/economia/gobierno-debe-pagar-este-mes-mas-750-millones-deuda-externa_229476; Noticiero Venevisión, http://www.noticierovenevision.net/noticias/economia/jose-guerra-advirtio-que-venezuela-entraria-en-default-en-caso-de-no-pagar-deuda)

 

Politics and International Affairs

Member of Presidential candidate campaign wounded in Venezuela, Falcón vows to continue

Venezuelan opposition candidate Henri Falcon denounced on Monday an attack on him during an event in the country’s capital in which a member of his campaign team was severely injured in addition to multiple thefts and assaults taking place. Lawmaker Teodoro Campo received a head injury shortly before the end of the campaign event in Caracas, from a blow apparently inflicted by a steel object, and was admitted to a military hospital where he is under observation, Falcon said. At a press conference shortly after the incident, Falcon said that the attack was carried out by a group of 30 people carrying knives. He also suffered a wound to the head when he tried to defend the journalists present from whom the attackers attempted to steal cameras and other equipment. President Nicolas Maduro said on Tuesday that 17 people had been detained for an attack on a rival presidential candidate’s campaign, but the leftist leader rejected accusations that pro-government thugs were to blame for the unrest ahead of the May vote. Falcón vowed to remain in the streets, and criticized opposition groups that are boycotting the upcoming election saying: “Some of them say they have plans for the nation, I haven’t heard them, the Lima Group is not going to solve our problem for us, neither will a military coup”. (Latin American Herald Tribune, http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2453878&CategoryId=10717; Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-politics/venezuela-detains-17-over-attack-on-opposition-candidates-campaign-idUSKCN1HB03W; and more in Spanish: El Universal; http://www.eluniversal.com/politica/5188/falcon-pesar-ataque-seguire-calles-pais)

 

Peru to Maduro: You're still not welcome at Summit of Americas; Maduro says meeting is not his priority

Peru’s new foreign minister said on Tuesday that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was still not welcome to attend a regional summit in Lima next week, upholding a decision by Peru’s disgraced former president. U.S. President Donald Trump and heads of state from across the Western Hemisphere plan to travel to Peru for the Summit of the Americas, which will celebrate the theme “democratic governance fighting corruption” from April 13-14. In his first speech as Peru’s foreign minister, Nestor Popolizio said Peru’s decision not to invite Maduro to the event reflects the view of a dozen countries that have been pressuring Venezuela to hold free and fair elections. Maduro’s refusal to heed calls for democratic reforms “negates even the slightest notion of democracy and represents an insurmountable impediment to taking part in the Summit of the Americas,” Popolizio said before a crowd of diplomats and journalists in the foreign ministry.  This is a firm decision that is not up for revision,” Popolizio said. Maduro, who had vowed to attend come what may, is now saying that going is not among his “priorities” and called the meeting s “waste of time” and a “failure”. He adds that he knows what the “Peruvian people are going to do, because they are calling to go out into the streets, and I know what for”. (Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-peru-venezuela-politics/peru-to-maduro-youre-still-not-welcome-at-summit-of-americas-idUSKCN1HA2HS; and more in Spanish: El Universal; http://www.eluniversal.com/politica/5198/maduro-prioridad-asistir-cumbre-americas)

 

France and Argentina demand fair, transparent elections in Venezuela; Maduro slams Macron

France and Argentina have expressed concern for the Venezuelan crisis and called for fairness in the upcoming snap presidential elections. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, said his nation demands “fair and transparent” elections that guarantee equality and he Independence of election authorities. He warned that if there is no progress France and its European neighbors would take Additional steps.  French President Emmanuel Macron echoed this call after meeting with former National Assembly President Julio Borges, former Metropolitan Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, and Carlos Vecchio, an exiled leader of “Voluntad Popular”.  President Nicolás Maduro responded that Macron is working on behalf of the world financial oligarchy and is simply a spokesman for US President Donald Trump in attempts to discredit Venezuela. More in Spanish: (Noticiero Venevisión, http://www.noticierovenevision.net/noticias/internacional/francia-y-argentina-exigieron-a-venezuela-elecciones-justas-y-transparentes; http://www.noticierovenevision.net/noticias/politica/presidente-maduro-acuso-a-francia-aliarse-con-eeuu-para-desprestigiar-a-venezuela; El Nacional, http://www.el-nacional.com/noticias/mundo/macron-presidenciales-venezuela-permiten-una-eleccion-justa-libre_229418)

 

González: “Zapatero and I did not talk for half an hour on Venezuela

Spain’s former president and socialist leader Felipe González admitted yesterday his discrepancies with the mediating work that the also former president of the socialist Government José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is carrying out in Venezuela. “Dialogue just for the sake of dialogue makes no sense, it only makes sense to solve problems”, González declared during a joint press conference with the former president of the National Assembly of Venezuela, Julio Borges; Caracas’s mayor in the exile, Antonio Ledezma; and two leaders of Voluntad Popular, Carlos Vecchio and Lester Toledo. “I completely disagree with this type of dialogue that the only thing that does it to give time to the Government of Venezuela”, he continued during the event, celebrated at Casa de América in Madrid. In these moments, according to González, “the only thing that must be negotiated is the date of elections and guarantees for these to be clean”, which entails that the presidential election of 20 May “cannot be recognized”. “I believe Nicolás Maduro when he says that he will never again call elections to lose them, and I assure you that he will honor that, that he will never hold elections with guarantees that he can lose”, he explained in an ironic tone. Nevertheless, he pointed out, “I believe him in a way different to that in which my colleague Zapatero believes him”. According to González, so far, it has not been possible “to speak for even half an hour” with Zapatero about Venezuela. “He knows my opinion perfectly, because it is in writing, but we have not met, although I have offered him to do so”, he affirmed. In the same press conference, Antonio Ledezma asked Spain and the EU to “reject the fraudulent process organized by Maduro’s regime with the election of 20 May” and to tighten up and extend the current international sanctions. The group met subsequently with the president of the Spanish Government, Mariano Rajoy, who says Spain will have a relevant role in resolving the Venezuelan crisis. Apart from Rajoy and González, the Venezuelan delegation -which met President Emmanuel Macron the day before in Paris met the Foreign Minister, Alfonso Dastis, yesterday and the president of Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera. (The Diplomat: http://thediplomatinspain.com/en/gonzalez-zapatero-and-i-did-not-talk-for-half-an-hour-on-venezuela/)

 

Guyana wants ICJ to order Venezuela to withdraw from Ankoko Island; stop scaring investors

Guyana has asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule that Venezuela must withdraw from Ankoko Island and stop harassing investors onshore and offshore the Essequibo Region, that United Nations (UN) court said in statement. In its case filed with The Hague-headquartered ICJ to settle the controversy over the 1899 Arbitral Tribunal boundary award, Guyana asked the court to adjudge and declare that Venezuela must withdraw from Ankoko Island that it has been occupying for the past 51 years. Venezuelan soldiers have been occupying the eastern half of Ankoko, a three-square-mile island at the junction of the Cuyuni and the Wenamu rivers, since 1966. As part of Guyana’s core request for the ICJ to find that the Tribunal Award is a “full, perfect, and final settlement” of the boundary that was ““identified, demarcated and permanently fixed” by a joint Anglo-Venezuelan Boundary Commission between November 1900 and June 1904, it also wants the Court to order Venezuela to cease scaring away investors from the Essequibo Region. After that exercise, the United Kingdom, on behalf of then British Guiana, and Venezuela had signed a Joint Declaration in 1905 agreeing to the demarcated boundary.If Guyana gets its way, that principal UN judicial organ will also have to adjudge and declare that Venezuela is internationally responsible for violations of Guyana’s sovereignty and sovereign rights, and for all injuries suffered by Guyana as a consequence. The ICJ is also being asked to rule that Guyana enjoys full sovereignty over the territory between the Essequibo River and the boundary established by the 1899 Award and the 1905 Agreement, and Venezuela enjoys full sovereignty over the territory west of that boundary. Guyana submits that the Geneva Agreement authorized the United Nations Secretary-General to decide which appropriate dispute resolution mechanism to adopt for the peaceful settlement of the dispute, in accordance with Article 33 of the United Nations Charter. (Demerara Waves: http://demerarawaves.com/2018/04/05/guyana-wants-world-court-to-rule-that-venezuela-must-withdraw-from-ankoko-island-stop-scaring-investors/)

 

Exiled jurists hear graft claims against Maduro

A group of exiled jurists has met in Colombia's capital to hear corruption allegations against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, launching a largely symbolic process that could tarnish the embattled socialist leader's reputation. The jurists known as the "Supreme Court in Exile" met at Colombia's congress Tuesday to review accusations linking Maduro to Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht, which has acknowledged paying bribes in many countries. The case was brought by ousted Venezuelan Chief Prosecutor General Luisa Ortega. The judges where appointed to Venezuela's Supreme Court last year by the country's opposition-controlled Congress, but weren't able to take office. Maduro accused them of treason, prompting them to flee Venezuela. The group of 32 judges has sought asylum in Colombia, Panama and Chile, where they have continued to issue decisions on Venezuela's affairs. (New Zealand Herald: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=12025566)

 

Durbin visits Venezuela for talks with government and opposition

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin is in Venezuela to meet with government and opposition leaders, his spokesman said. Durbin, of Illinois, is the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate. His spokesman, Ben Marter, said he wouldn’t comment on the agenda or the purpose of the trip. President Donald Trump’s administration is weighing whether to ratchet up sanctions against Venezuela, and officials have said that could include banning oil imports from and exports to the nation. Meetings are planned this month between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his counterparts from the European Union, Canada, the U.K. and many Latin American countries to coordinate efforts to tighten economic pressure on President Nicolas Maduro’s government. Durbin is in Venezuela to push for the release of a Utah man, Joshua Holt, who has been jailed in Caracas for nearly two years on what the U.S. considers trumped-up weapons charges. The senator also planned to deliver a stern message to Maduro that he must guarantee upcoming the presidential election will be free and transparent. (Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-04/durbin-is-in-venezuela-for-talks-with-government-and-opposition; CBS: http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2018/04/05/texas-republican-secret-peacemaking-trip-venezuela/)

 

Texas Republican made secret peacemaking trip to Venezuela

Texas Republican congressman Pete Sessions quietly visited Venezuela this week and met with President Nicolas Maduro at the invitation of the socialist government in a peacebuilding mission that has raised some eyebrows in Washington. It’s not clear what prompted the previously undisclosed visit by the Dallas congressman to the politically turbulent nation. Caroline Booth, a spokeswoman for the congressman, said it was related to work Sessions has done over the past year as an intermediary to resolve issues in Venezuela, but she declined to elaborate. She added that as chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee he routinely works to ensure countries adhere to international standards and the rule of law. The two-day trip came as Maduro’s government is making a full-court press to prevent the Trump administration from imposing crippling oil sanctions on the OPEC nation for what the United States considers Maduro’s flaunting of human rights and democratic norms. A U.S. official said the private trip was not taxpayer funded and that Sessions had received a letter of invitation from the Venezuelan government and met with Maduro. He said State Department officials played no role in organizing the trip, which ended Tuesday and added that they were not invited to sit in on Sessions’ meetings as they were by Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, who arrived in Caracas on Wednesday for his own meetings with Maduro and government officials. Sessions doesn’t have other obvious links to Venezuela, besides writing a letter in 2004 to the country’s banking regulators in support of financier Allen Stanford, a former Sessions donor who in 2012 was convicted in Texas and sentenced to 110 years in prison for running a $7 billion-plus Ponzi scheme. Sessions has been in Congress since 1997, representing a wealthy Dallas district that is home to CITGO, a wholly owned subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company. Last year, several of the company’s executives, including five who hold U.S. passports, were arrested by Venezuelan authorities in a corruption investigation that critics say is politically motivated. (The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/congress/texas-republican-made-secret-peacemaking-trip-to-venezuela/2018/04/05/4f26548c-3922-11e8-af3c-2123715f78df_story.html)

 

Maduro mourns conviction of Brazil’s Lula as Socialists lose grip on Latin America

Venezuelan socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro mourned a court order allowing for the imprisonment of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on a 12-year prison sentence for corruption. Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled early Thursday morning that Lula, 72, must begin his sentence after they rejected his habeas corpus petition by six to five following a marathon session watched by millions of people. “Not just Brazil, the whole world embraces you @LulapeloBrasil,” Maduro wrote on Twitter, accompanied by a photo of Lula hugging his supporters. While in office from 2003 to 2011, Lula developed a close alliance with the administration of former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, as well as other left-wing leaders across the region such as Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Cuba’s Raúl Castro. The upholding of Lula’s conviction will, therefore, come as another blow to the Maduro regime, which is finding itself increasingly isolated as neighboring countries and international bodies condemn its egregious human rights violations and its war on Venezuela’s democratic institutions. (Breitbart: http://www.breitbart.com/national-security/2018/04/05/maduro-mourns-lulas-imprisonsment-as-socialists-lose-grip-on-latin-america/)

 

Maduro regime arrests five cops for jail fire that killed 68

Five members of the Carabobo state police have been arrested and were charged with murder Wednesday after a jail fire in the Central Venezuela city of Valencia in which 68 inmates and prison visitors were killed. The deputy director of POLICARABOBO, Jose Luis Rodriguez and agent Jose Antonio Loaiza are charged with qualified murder seeking profit (“dolo” in Spanish), denying help to those in distress, smuggling firearms and ammunition inside the jail, located in police headquarters, as well as with “inherent corruption”, the Supreme Court explained in a series of tweets and web postings Wednesday morning, reporting after an arraignment hearing in the city of Valencia. Three other POLICARABOBO officers -- Jose Rafael Colina, Sergio Enrique Rodriguez and Anibal Antonio Padron Pacheco -- were charged solely with “inherent corruption”. (Latin American Herald Tribune, http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2453946&CategoryId=10717)

 

Maduro mocks fleeing Venezuelans as “toilet cleaners in Miami

Embattled Venezuelan head of state Nicolas Maduro disparaged Tuesday millions of Venezuelans fleeing starvation in the once oil-rich nation, calling them “toilet cleaners in Miami”. The Organization of American States (OAS) and Caracas-based consultancy firm Consultores 21 estimate that between 4 to 4.1 million Venezuelans have left the country since the beginning of the "Bolivarian revolution" in 1999. About 1.6 million of those who have left have done so since 2013, the year Maduro was first elected. The “toilets in Miami” became the theme of Maduro’s televised speech Tuesday: he kept repeating it at least three times, in a cavalier, off hand manner. (Latin American Herald Tribune, http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=2453879&CategoryId=10717)

 

The following brief is a synthesis of the news as reported by a variety of media sources. As such, the views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Duarte Vivas & Asociados and The Selinger Group.