Category Archives: Argentina
Hillary Clinton with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, former president of Argentina.
Florida lobbyist Freddy Balsera partnered with Carlos Molinari, who’s been indicted in the financial scandal in Argentina, on the scheme
By Ken Silverstein • 10/24/16 8:00am
I’m a reporter who intensely dislikes both major party presidential candidates, but my personal experience during this campaign, bolstered by witnessing the incredibly slanted coverage we’ve seen the past month, is that the media is far more interested in running negative stories about Donald Trump than about Hillary Clinton. Trump indisputably received a lot of positive coverage when he was running in the GOP primaries, but once this became a two-person race the gloves came off, which has had a huge impact on coverage and helped Hillary immensely.
One of the most heavily promoted storylines of this year’s campaign is that Trump is a tool of Moscow and Vladimir Putin and no one is pushing it harder than Hillary Clinton’s campaign, as seen in last week’s debate. The idea that Trump is Putin’s Manchurian Candidate is too ludicrous to take seriously, as Paul Starobin, Businessweek’s former Moscow bureau chief, has written.
This storyline gained currency a few months back when Trump’s top campaign advisor, Paul Manafort, was forced to resign following a barrage of negative coverage about his work as a lobbyist in Ukraine. A flurry of stories came out — I wrote a couple of them— that raised legitimate issues about Manafort’s role in Ukraine, but few noted that his efforts mainly took place at a time that Ukraine had friendly relations with the United States, during the Bush and Obama years.
Here’s a story, thus far unreported, about a leading Clinton surrogate and fundraiser named Freddy Balsera who founded a company called Global Development Consultants Inc. with Carlos Molinari, a businessman who’s been indicted in a massive financial scandal in Argentina. Global Development Consultants is mentioned on multiple occasions in Molinari’s indictment, and Argentine prosecutors believe it played a role in laundering money directly into the United States — which would seem to be a good hook for U.S. reporters. The related scandal — which has been heavily covered by major U.S. media outlets — has resulted in the indictment of former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner and a host of financial middlemen and money launderers.
Do I think this made Hillary Clinton a tool of Kirchner’s left-leaning government? No I don’t, just as I don’t believe Manafort’s work in Ukraine somehow makes Trump Putin’s puppet. But I do believe the media would have been all over this story if it had been a Trump surrogate and not a Clinton surrogate who was involved, and that it raises important questions about one of her leading allies in Florida.
(I asked Balsera and the Clinton campaign for comment. Thus far they have not replied.)
Balsera is a lobbyist and PR consultant who runs Miami-based Balsera Communications, and he has a “unique proficiency” in peddling political narratives to the public, according to his bio page on the firm’s website. His partners at the PR firm include David Duckenfield, who took a leave from Balsera Communications to work in a senior job at the State Department under John Kerry between 2014 and 2016.
Balsera is also a Democratic operative with a big, influential political network in Florida, a key swing state, and he claims to have a huge following with Hispanic voters. He was an Obama media surrogate and claims to have crafted a good chunk of Spanish-language political ads for his campaign which “helped deliver an estimated sixty-six percent of the national Hispanic vote.”
Balsera was an Obama bundler and a member of his national finance committee, which appears to have reaped him some notable dividends. His family and Molinari’s bowled at the White House in 2010 (and Molinari’s daughter is an Obama donor). The president appointed him to the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, which sells U.S. foreign policy abroad, and earlier this year Balsera Communications opened a new office in Buenos Aires just as Obama was in the country tangoing his way through a state visit. A picture on Balsera’s Twitter feed shows him and Duckenfield jetting down to Buenos Aires to be there for Obama’s official trip. All a coincidence, no doubt.
Balsera helped secure a U.S. visa for an Ecuadorean woman, Estefanía Isaías, who had been barred from entering the United States because she’d been busted for illegally obtaining visas for her maids. The State Department under Hillary Clinton lifted the ban on Isaias in 2012 — the same year her rich, politically wired family gave more than $100,000 to the Obama Victory Fund and other Democratic causes, the New York Times has reported. “It was one of several favorable decisions the Obama administration made in recent years involving the Isaías family,” which lives in Miami and is accused by the government of Ecuador of having looted a bank,” the Times wrote.
Balsera sponsored Isaías’s visa application, which said she would be employed by his firm. But the Times never found any evidence that Isaias ever actually went to work for Balsera Communications. A senior executive at the firm had never heard of her and she was not listed as an employee on its website, Facebook page or Twitter timeline. In other words, it looks like Secretary Clinton did a big favor for Obama money man Balsera and for a family of Democratic donors.
Nowadays Balsera raises money for Hillary’s campaign —incidentally, his partner Duckenfield, another Obama bundler, does so, too— and is national co-chair of the DNC’s Hispanic Leadership Council. He’s also a director of Correct The Record, a Super PAC that closely coordinates with Hillary’s campaign and that put together a “rapid response team” that attacks Hillary’s critics. The group spent at least $1 million to target social media users and heavily pushed the “Bernie Bros” meme, which suggested that Sanders’ supporters were mostly deplorable misogynists.
Correct the Record was created by David Brock, the professional propagandist who also set up Media Matters — another Clinton attack vehicle that protects its Supreme Leader in the same way that North Korea’s Central News Agency defends Kim Jong-un.
Like many in the Clinton camp, Brock’s political positions and empathy are decidedly situational.
His vehicles have worked furiously to promote stories about Donald Trump’s awful remarks about women. This is a bit rich because back during Bill Clinton’s years as president — when Brock got his start in propaganda as a Republican hatchet man — he famously labeled Anita Hill, the woman who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.”
Anyway, Balsera is a big deal in Washington and Miami and it turns out that he’s well connected in Argentina as well through Molinari and Global Development Consultants (and now with his PR firm’s brand news Buenos Aires office). But for reasons that will become clear shortly, the normally voluble Balsera apparently doesn’t like to talk about Global and all traces of that firm’s presence on the Internet have been scrubbed, seemingly after Molinari’s embarrassing legal problems erupted in Argentina.
I obtained — from the National Legal and Policy Center, which provided key research for this story — a screenshot from the firm’s old website. It shows that Global, registered in Florida, was created by Balsera and Molinari. A third major player at the firm was Diego Molinari, Carlos’ son, who was identified on the now scrubbed Global website as CEO and executive vice president.
Here’s a nutshell summary of the case:
The figure at the center of the scandal is Lázaro Báez, a former bank teller turned oligarch who built a vast business empire through contracts awarded by his close friend Cristina Kirchner and her husband, Néstor Kirchner, who preceded her as president of Argentina. When Néstor died, Báez was so bereft that he erected a three-story mausoleum to house his former patron’s remains.
Prosecutors allege that Báez received huge kickbacks on his government contracts and moved them abroad into offshore accounts with the help of a labyrinth of middlemen. The network was reportedly set up in large part by Mossack Fonseca, the firm at the heart of the now famous Panama Papers scandal, and includes dozens of shell companies set up in the United States, mostly in Las Vegas.
According to the prosecution, tens of millions of dollars in kickback money was moved abroad with the help of SGI Argentina, a financial consultancy firm. SGI was hired to move Baez’s money by a man named Leonardo Fariña, who worked for Molinari for years and, the prosecution claims, retained SGI on his advice.
The whole scandal erupted after video footage from early 2011 emerged showing Martín Báez, the oligarch’s son, and a number of SGI employees counting cash at the company’s office and stuffing it into suitcases to be shipped overseas. Fariña, who later turned state’s witness, claimed that SGI sent so much money abroad, mostly to Switzerland, that the cash wasn’t counted but weighed.
On February 24, 2011, which is close to the time that the video was made, SGI sent a letter to the U.S. consulate in Buenos Aires requesting a visa for Fariña. The letter said he would travel to Florida the following month on a chartered plane with Molinari, who was identified as the president of Global Development Consultants.
Leonardo Fariña. Twitter
The letter refers to Fariña as SGI’s representative and said that Global Development Consultants had invited him “to see all the projects in which we may be interested in investing.” Molinari’s November 2013 indictment says that Farina bought 10 percent of the shares of Global Development Consultants for $1 million, which would have made him a partner in the firm.
According to prosecutors, Fariña’s trip with Molinari coincides with a period when SGI was moving all that dirty money abroad and was looking to make investments in Florida. Prosecutors say that during the first six months of 2011 Molinari and a number of friends took a total of 33 chartered flights looking to funnel SGI’s money offshore, including to Florida.
Curiously, in May 2011 Global Development Consultants and another firm formed an LLC called Stambul Ventures to manage the luxury Langford Hotel in downtown Miami. Molinari’s divorce records, which included a list of his assets, and Florida corporate records show that he had an interest in the property as well.
The Langford’s developers raised millions — 35 percent of the total costs — through the State Department’s EB-5 visa program to underwrite the renovation of the property, which was previously a historic bank. They applied for the funding in 2012 and began receiving the money in 2015.
In order to apply for the EB-5 visa, a foreigner must invest $500,000 in a project that produces at least 10 jobs in a rural or high unemployment area – or $1 million elsewhere. “Critics of the visa program say it amounts to little more than buying a visa and it benefits the wealthy more than the high-unemployment communities it’s supposed to help,” NBC News said.
The EB-5 program has been riddled by allegations of fraud and favoritism toward politically connected investors. In 2015, a Department of Homeland Security watchdog report said a top official had repeatedly intervened “on behalf of well-connected participants,” including Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and Tony Rodham, a brother of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Politico has reported.
As of this writing, Báez remains in prison as the case unfolds, former president Kirchner has been called to testify and Molinari remains indicted and has reportedly been barred from leaving the country. And it appears that Balsera’s company Global Development Consultants served as a method for Argentine crooks to move dirty money through the United States.
It’s a ripe, juicy story involving a foreign scandal that helped bring down an overseas president, and it involves allegations of financial criminality in the United States and features an appearance by a major political campaign figure. I look forward, with bated breath, to reporters jumping to pursue this story, as there are still a lot of questions that need to be answered.
Published November 22, 2012
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentina is running out of wiggle room in a billion-dollar showdown over foreign debts left unpaid since the country’s world-record default a decade ago, and the stakes couldn’t be higher for President Cristina Fernandez.
She risks triggering another historic debt default if she doesn’t agree to pay the so-called “vulture funds” she blames for much of Argentina’s troubles.
Fed up with Argentina’s refusal to honor its debts despite losing in appellate court, U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa in New York said he is determined to make Argentina pay at least something to the plaintiffs.
His idea is to tap into the money Argentina already pays to other bondholders, by making banks that process the payments divert some of the money to the plaintiffs. U.S. financial institutions would become his enforcers, either helping to satisfy the judgment or “aiding and abetting” a crime.
The unprecedented idea was broadly upheld on appeal last month and Griesa tried to push the case closer to resolution late Wednesday by lifting a legal stay, and issuing an order directing Argentina to make a first round of payments into an escrow account on Dec. 15, when the country is scheduled to make payments to the other bondholders.
The idea has sent jitters through the legal departments of the most powerful financial institutions in the United States.
The U.S. Federal Reserve and the Clearing House, a trade group representing the world’s largest commercial banks, warned that Griesa’s remedy could have severe consequences for the backbone of the U.S. financial system, which automatically moves an average of $2.6 trillion a day in half a million transfers between more than 7,000 banks.
The Federal Reserve’s legal brief, filed Sunday, said the entire system depends on transfers being “immediate, final and irrevocable” when processed. Requiring intermediaries to identify, stop and divert payments according to court orders “would impede the use of rapid electronic funds transfers in commerce by causing delays and driving up costs.”
The plaintiffs dismissed the concerns, saying that the only bank at risk would be Argentina’s “paying agent,” the Bank of New York Mellon, which should be held responsible by the court if it doesn’t guarantee compliance.
Still, the Federal Reserve’s filing pleased Fernandez so much that she cited it in a speech Monday night.
“When an Argentine says something, the President of the Argentines or the economy minister, well, everyone comes out to criticize them, but now it’s (Federal Reserve Chairman Ben) Bernanke talking, honey, and everyone shuts their little mouth,” she said.
As with so many other things involving Argentina, these debts date back to the bloody dictatorship that ruled from 1976-1983. The military junta tripled the country’s foreign debts. By 2001, the burden had become unsustainable and the economy collapsed. Argentina’s $95 billion default still stands as a world record.
Sovereign debt is supposed to be paid no matter who runs a country, but Fernandez has always considered this defaulted debt to be illegitimate, forced onto the Argentines by dictators acting in concert with international financial speculators. She and her late husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner, who took office in 2003, have never made any payments on the defaulted bonds.
Instead, they offered new bonds paying less than 30 cents for each dollar owed in default, and by 2010, 93 percent of the original bondholders agreed to the swaps. The debt relief granted by these “exchange bondholders” enabled Argentina to climb out of a deep economic crisis, and many analysts have described it as a model for Greece and other debt-burdened countries to consider.
Hold-outs led by NML Capital Ltd., an investment fund owned by U.S. billionaire Paul Singer, refused the swaps, insisting on payment in full plus interest, even though some bought the defaulted debt for pennies on the dollar after Argentina’s economy collapsed. Singer’s lawyers have traveled the world since then seeking to embargo Argentine assets, even getting its navy ship Libertad seized in Ghana as collateral. But they have never collected.
The judge’s solution to all this is to force Argentina to pay the holdouts an equal amount each time it makes a payment to the exchange bondholders.
This prompted an outcry from a group of exchange bondholders who collectively own $20 billion in the restructured Argentine debt. They said they “already suffered tens of billions of dollars in losses,” and that it’s not fair to harm their already diminished returns so that a few holdouts can earn up to 200 percent on their original investments.
If allowed to stand, this kind of remedy will make it impossible for other countries to get critical debt relief, they argued.
The holdouts’ response: “Those parties made a business judgment to accept assurances of prompt payment rather than being forced to litigate against the Republic around the world, as the plaintiffs have been forced to do at tremendous expense.”
Argentina, meanwhile, has told the judge that its responsibility ends once it delivers the cash to the Bank of New York Mellon, which in turn pays the exchange bondholders. This bank, in turn, said it would suffer lawsuits from all sides if it did anything other than process the payments as intended.
There was no immediate indication from Argentina’s government late Wednesday about how it would respond to Griesa’s ruling.
The judge said he was taking the action precisely because of “inflammatory declarations” made by Argentine officials, who have vowed not to pay a cent to NML Capital Ltd.
“It is the view of the District Court that these threats of defiance cannot go by unheeded, and that action is called for,” Griesa wrote.
Argentina is running out of options. Anything short of full payments could trigger holders of all sorts of Argentine bonds to demand immediate payment in full.
“In reality, what I think they’re looking for is to provoke a technical default,” the president said Monday night. “What’s a technical default? It’s when you pay, but not in the right time, or manner, or place. For example, you don’t pay in New York so that they don’t seize the money.”
The exchange bondholders warned that if this happens, “the injunction will have turned a relatively minor default into a cataclysmic default that will further unsettle the already fragile global economy.”
Fernandez sought to calm matters, noting that Argentina has $45.3 billion in reserves and a much lighter debt burden than it did years ago.
But if Argentina pays the plaintiffs the $1.43 billion they are demanding, Moody’s Investors Service said it could set a legal precedent for other holdouts who together claim nearly $12 billion in unpaid debts.
A default, meanwhile, could put more pressure on an economy already suffering from capital flight and dangerously high inflation. Argentine debt is already rated by Moody’s as junk, so the government has few other places to turn for financing.
The holdouts blamed all this “emergency litigation and anxiety” on Argentina’s “unrelenting bad faith,” and predicted that if it is finally given no other alternative, it will submit to the courts’ will.
“There is no reason to believe — and common sense rejects — the notion that Argentina would harm its reputation and credit, and unnecessarily allow tens of billions of dollars of debt to accelerate, simply to avoid paying the plaintiffs $1.43 billion,” they said.
By Marin Katusa, Chief Energy Investment Strategist
Hugo Chàvez is undoubtedly one of the most polarizing politicians in the world today. The man who has led Venezuela for 14 years is vehemently anti-American, a proud voice for Venezuela’s poor, a patriot and a poet, and a firm believer that national resources belong to the nation and no one or nothing else.
That final Chàvez mainstay – that resources are best and most appropriately managed by the people for the people – has positioned Venezuela at the head of a group of Central and South American nations that are trying resource nationalization on for size as they struggle to make the most out of their oil and gas bounties. Venezuela is a global oil heavyweight – its 211-billion-barrel reserve is one of the top three national oil reserves worldwide – so Chàvez’s moves to nationalize his country’s massive oil machine gave neighboring countries the confidence to follow suit.
Sometimes national control over oil and gas resources can work well. Saudi Arabia, Brazil, and Kuwait are all prime examples of well-functioning, state-controlled oil sectors. However, resource nationalization is a tricky business, and more often than not the process goes awry.
Venezuela is no exception. Chàvez’s efforts to kick foreign firms out of Venezuela and use oil and gas revenues to fund social programs worked pretty well initially, but despite rising oil prices that early success has slipped away. In recent years Chàvez has demanded too much from the oil and gas sector, expecting ever-increasing revenues despite his reluctance to fund infrastructure and exploration programs. The result has been declining production, an exodus of technical expertise, and a pariah reputation in the international oil and gas industry.
Now, with a presidential election looming and Chàvez struggling with a cancer that it’s rumored will take his life within months, the path forward for the country that has been a firebrand for South American resource nationalization is far from clear.
Venezuela’s Love-Hate Relationship with Resource Nationalization
Venezuela nationalized its oil industry in 1976, at a time when many countries in the southern hemisphere were asserting sovereignty over their natural resources. The transformation of Petróleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) into a state-owned company was hailed as a national victory. However, it did not take long for trouble to begin.
In the 1990s global oil prices plunged and Venezuela, having based its budget on a certain level of oil income, found itself in deep economic trouble. PDVSA had 900 to 1,300 billion barrels of oil on its reserve books, but the company didn’t have the money or the technological know-how to tap into these reserves, most of which sat trapped in the geologically challenging Orinoco Belt. Seeing few other options, the country opened its oil sector to foreign investors: PDVSA started seeking out international partners willing to provide expertise and funding in exchange for a share of the profits. Big Oil arrived and started spending billions of dollars to unlock the heavy oil of the Orinoco.
Then Mr. Chàvez won the 1998 presidential election on a populist ticket that promised to use the country’s vast oil wealth to benefit the poor. Venezuela’s experiment with foreign involvement in its oil sector slowly came to a halt. Despite initially adopting “orthodox” economic policies, Chàvez soon started making good on his promise to his people – he gradually closed the door on international investment, raised rents, and changed fiscal agreements to retain ever more oil revenue for Venezuela. Imagine this: at one point the government take on oil contracts was more than 100% – foreign producers would have had to pay Chàvez for the privilege of producing oil in his country.
Chàvez brought a new form of politics to Venezuela. He identified with his supporters because he was one of them, having grown up poor, and he used language they understood, caring not that the elites saw such language as one of many signs that he was a buffoon with limited education and experience. His style stuck and the people grew to love him.
As he gained in popularity and confidence, Chàvez grew bolder in his moves to control Venezuelan oil in its entirety. In 2002 a group of PDVSA executives kick-started a general strike aimed at ousting Chàvez that lasted for a month and cut oil production to about 30% of normal levels; in response Chàvez fired nearly half of the company’s employees – 18,000 people in all – erasing large swaths of technical know-how in one fell swoop but sending a clear message that he would not tolerate dissent against his control over Venezuela’s oil.
By 2007 Chàvez had gained enough confidence to essentially complete his oil renationalization campaign – he expropriated oil assets in the Orinoco by issuing a decree that PDVSA hold at least 60% ownership in all international partnerships. What little was left of Big Oil pretty much packed up and left Venezuela. National oil production immediately fell by 25%.
You could say that was the beginning of the end, or the end of what had been a great beginning. That great beginning was undoubtedly aided by rising global oil prices: when Chàvez came to power, oil prices were sitting near $12 per barrel. By 2006 prices were averaging almost $60 a barrel, Venezuela’s coffers were overflowing, and the Venezuelan president felt unstoppable.
Those rising prices created such a sense of success around Chàvez’s experiment with renationalizing Venezuela’s oil and gas sector that Chàvez was able to convince his compatriot leaders in South America to follow in his footsteps. And it worked – Bolivia and Ecuador renationalized their oil sectors, and the concept of resource nationalization took hold in Argentina. As his geopolitical influence grew, Chàvez also devoted attention to the oil-needy nations in his neighborhood, implementing an oil-transfer program to energy-needy Central American and Caribbean countries. With his oil sector seemingly able to provide for so many, resource nationalization took on new life across South America, and Chavez was the movement’s proudest spokesman.
But here the word “seemingly” is key. As oil prices rose, PDVSA profits also rose, and it seemed that nationalization had been a boon to Venezuelan oil. But the increased profitability stemmed only from rising prices; the company itself was being strangled by a lack of investment – Chàvez spent all of PDVSA’s profits on his domestic fuel subsidies and social programs – and its dearth of technical expertise.
In short, a sector can only provide profits if it is also supplied with investment; and that is where Chàvez went wrong. Like so many other socialist leaders who nationalized resource sectors with great fanfare only to see the sectors wither away because of insufficient TLC, Chàvez failed to put money back into PDVSA.
Now the country’s once-proud oil and gas sector is in disarray. Infrastructure is old and insufficient, and production volumes are declining instead of climbing. In 2005 the company launched a new six-year plan calling for investment of US$239 billion to boost oil production to 5.8 million bpd by 2012. Instead, output has fallen from 2.9 million barrels per day (bpd) to 2.5 million bpd. Things are even worse when you look at Chàvez’s tenure as a whole: from 1998 to today, production has fallen from 3.5 million bpd to 2.5 million bpd, a decline of almost 30%:
Not only has production declined, but PDVSA’s financials have also deteriorated dramatically, its debt increasing from US$2.7 billion in 2005 to some US$33 billion now. Yet PDVSA continues to borrow money at an incredible rate, in large part to fund those domestic oil subsidies that are so very popular among Chàvez supporters. These subsidies cost the company US$15 billion a year.
The view forward is unclear. PDVSA lacks the technical expertise to take advantage of the heavy oil in the Orinoco. With foreign investment – and therefore involvement – in the oil sector banned and PDVSA drowning in debt, the prospects for turning Venezuela’s fading oil sector around are pretty dim.
Unless, of course, the sector is opened up to outside investment… which could well happen if Chàvez ceases to be part of the picture.
Over the last 12 months Chàvez has made regular trips to Havana for cancer treatments. The only official information about these treatments is that two malignant tumours were removed from his pelvic region. The secrecy surrounding Chàvez’s cancer and the fact that Chàvez, who rarely goes a few days without speaking directly to his people, enters radio silence during his trips to Cuba have fueled rumors of his declining health. Several times already these have ballooned into claims that the Venezuelan president had died.
The latest twist in the Chàvez cancer drama came from venerated journalist Dan Rather, the former CBS anchor who now hosts and directs Dan Rather Reports, a weekly news television show on HDNet. In a report he labeled as “exclusive,” Rather revealed on May 30 that he had been told that Chàvez is suffering from metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer that has “entered the end stage.” Rather said the information came from a highly respected source who is close to Chàvez and in a position to know his medical condition and history. This source says the prognosis is dire and that Chàvez is not expected to live “more than a couple of months at most.”
This is not the first time rumors of Chàvez’s pending death have surfaced. However, with his treatment having dragged on for a year already, with his uncharacteristic disappearances to Cuba growing longer and more frequent, and with Rather’s reputation for accuracy lending credence to this new information, it is time to ponder Venezuela – and South America – without Hugo Chàvez.
Chàvez would be incredibly difficult to replace. His rags-to-riches story line, bold governing style, and idiosyncratic mannerisms have earned adoration from the Venezuelan population, especially the poor and working class masses who constitute his prime electoral base. He also enjoys broad support from Venezuela’s military members.
This is a president who announces executive orders between readings of poetry, regularly draws families around their televisions to listen to his lengthy and often fiery speeches, and sings Venezuelan folk songs on a weekly show called Hello President. There are few people in the world who could match his charisma and earn such allegiance from a national population. That is why, even though others from Chàvez’s inner circle bear similar political views, most observers think any Chàvez successor would have a very difficult time maintaining the Chavista movement.
So when Chàvez dies, what might become of Venezuela? In the immediate aftermath, Vice President Elías Jaua would take power, according to the Constitution. In fact, Chàvez recently formed a nine-member State Council headed by Jaua to assist him with executive duties, a move many interpreted as a preparation for his impending demise.
In the longer term, Venezuelan political observers see five potential successors within Chàvez’s Socialist Party. All hold similar views, but none enjoy anything close to Chàvez’s recognition and support. The Party would have to hope that Chàvez’s reputation can carry one of these candidates to the presidency, but such a succession is far from assured.
If Chàvez dies before the October presidential election, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles would suddenly see his odds of winning jump dramatically. Polls show Capriles currently lagging behind Chàvez by roughly 5%, but the same polls found that Capriles would win the race by double-digit margins if he were to face a Chàvez successor instead of facing Hugo himself… unless, of course, the Socialists rig the election. Given that Chàvez has proven that a high regard for democracy is not a required characteristic for someone holding the Venezuelan presidency, this is not unlikely.
Capriles is a veteran politician, having previously served as governor of the state of Miranda despite being just 39 years old. He is a center-left politician who has cleverly focused on issues close to the day-to-day lives of Venezuelans: crime, corruption, declining services, inflation, and jobs. Capriles’ petroleum policies are less clear, but his rare comments on the matter indicate he would keep PDVSA as a national entity while allowing the company to engage in investment partnerships with foreign firms, much like the Brazilian national oil firm Petrobras.
If Chàvez is healthy enough to run, he will almost certainly win the election in October. If he is not, we see two possible paths. The first is that Capriles finds himself president of Venezuela, and South America loses its resource nationalization ringleader. However, a desire to change how Venezuela’s oil sector operates is very different from the actual ability to do so. The biggest obstacle to change: those domestic oil subsidies. If Capriles wants to revitalize PDVSA – indeed, if he simply wants to give PDVSA a chance at economic survival – he would have to significantly reduce the domestic oil subsidies, and likely also reduce social spending to free up some oil revenues for reinvestment into the country’s oil fields. And that would cause riots. We have seen it before, most recently in Nigeria: populations that are accustomed to having access to cheap oil are highly unwilling to let go of that benefit and will riot, often violently and for extended periods, at the mere suggestion that gas prices need to increase.
Oil-related riots in one of the world’s top-ten oil-producing nations would undoubtedly push global oil prices higher.
The other potential path for a post-Chàvez Venezuela is that his successor within the Socialist Party wins the presidency, legitimately or with the aid of electoral fraud. This Chàvez clone would then be stuck trying to fill Hugo’s shoes, a near-impossible task in which he would only have a chance at success by promising even more in the way of social spending. These expensive programs would put even greater strain on Venezuela’s budget, which is funded in large part by revenues from PDVSA. There would continue to be no money available to finance PDVSA’s spending needs, and production would continue to decline.
Guess what? This scenario – of continued production decline in a major world supplier – would also push global oil prices higher. The bottom line is that Chàvez has created a lose-lose scenario for Venezuelan oil. The country has become reliant on a one-way flow of money and cheap oil from PDVSA to society, but after a decade of neglect PDVSA is withering away and the flows are drying up. Even if Chàvez dies and a left-leaning leader like Capriles comes to power, Venezuela will have to convulse through many ugly years before a functional relationship can be reestablished between its oil riches and its social demands. In the meantime, Venezuelans and the world will have to do with only limited access to Venezuelan oil.
So, for those of us positioned to gain from a long-term rising oil price, it’s heads we win, tails we win.
Oil Prices to Ease Further This Year (Reuters)
The CEO of Royal Dutch Shell expects oil prices to continue easing through the rest of the year, as demand reacts to a slowing global economy and international tensions ease. Peter Voser’s statement came just as Brent crude dropped to a 16-month low – below US$96 per barrel – on the heels of further weak economic news from the US and China. In addition, concerns over the state of the European economy have taken the spotlight away from the lingering tensions between Iran and Western powers, which just three months ago helped to push Brent above US$128 a barrel.
Global demand for natural gas will rise by 2.7% annually for the next five years, a faster growth rate than previously expected. China and the United States are driving the additional demand by switching from coal to gas to generate electricity. In China alone consumption is expected to double to 273 billion cubic meters in 2017 from 130 billion cubic meters today, representing an average growth rate of 13% per year.
King Coal Still Reigns Despite Drop in Prices (Vancouver Sun)
Canadian coal companies are not slowing down exploration nor development programs despite a drop in prices in China, their main export market. Companies are generally viewing depressed prices as a transient problem and see demand from Asia remaining strong in the medium term, especially for British Columbia’s high-quality metallurgical coal.
South Sudan’s $4-Billion Question Answered: Oil Revenue Stolen by Corrupt Officials (The Globe and Mail)
It has been a mystery for years: how does South Sudan remain so poor and hungry when it receives billions of dollars in oil revenues every year? The answer is now clear: South Sudan’s president says corrupt officials have stolen $4 billion in oil revenues since 2005. He is asking those officials to return the stolen funds. Any returned funds would be especially useful at the moment, because a dispute with Sudan has shut in South Sudan’s oil production and thereby eliminated about 98% of the government’s official revenue.
Oil Rush in the Arctic Gambles with Nature and Diplomacy (The Guardian)
A small group of international scientists, politicians, and business leaders are gathered in the Ny-Alesund research station on the Norwegian island of Svalbard to discuss the path to a global low-carbon economy. Meanwhile, just outside the station an oil rush looms – one that threatens to spark territorial disputes and saber-rattling as a host of nations compete to claim rights to the Arctic seabed.
Germany Plans Massive Wind Power Grid (The Globe and Mail)
Germany’s utilities have tabled plans to build four high-voltage electricity lines to link wind turbines off the north coast with manufacturing centers in the south. The plan is a boost for Angela Merkel, who has been criticized for announcing an accelerated nuclear-power phase-out a year ago without producing an alternative plan. The lines are expected to cost around €20 billion
- Venezuela expands China oil-for-loan deal to $8 billion (chinadailymail.com)
- Report: Chavez’s Cancer Has Metastasized (hispanicallyspeakingnews.com)
Thursday, May 10, 2012 – by Staff Report
Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou on Tuesday urged US companies to invest in YPF, the nationalized oil company that Argentina recently expropriated from Spain’s Repsol … “We are very optimistic in terms of what is coming for the Argentine economy in general and the hydrocarbons sector specifically” Boudou said at a Conference on the Americas at the US State Department in Washington. Far from scaring off foreign investment because of the expropriation, the government of President Cristina Fernandez has set the framework for “excellent opportunities for those who want to invest in joint ventures and possibilities of joint work in the energy sector,” he said. The Cristina Fernandez administration is gambling that the discovery in May 2011 of a giant oilfield in Argentina’s Patagonia would be too tempting for foreign oil giants to ignore. YPF needs the know-how and the capital to fully exploit the oil fields in the south-western Nequen province, known as Vaca Muerta (Dead Cow), which according to official estimates holds 150 million barrels of oil. YPF is “open to capital and the possibility of working together with public or private companies in Argentina or abroad,” Boudou said. – Merco Press
Dominant Social Theme: Don’t cry for Argentina. It’s all under control …
Free-Market Analysis: Are Argentina’s top officials having second thoughts about their expropriation of Spain’s Argentine oil-producer? It would seem that way from the above news report via Merco Press.
If the move was as wildly destructive as people think it may have been, then this posture would tend to confirm the idea that one of the world’s more powerful and influential states is simply spinning out of control.
The results may be truly catastrophic, not just for Latin America but for the larger, struggling world.
This boom may well be ending – or certainly growing long-in-the-tooth after a decade or more.
Although the Argentine expropriation of Repsol made major shock waves, the Argentine government under President Cristina Fernandez has portrayed it as a judicious and necessary gambit.
Many other observers regardless of political affiliation have branded the move as a shallow populist one that will bring disaster to Argentina and environs.
As the predictions of damage mount, there is more speculation that Fernandez’s action may bring down not only her own government but other regional governments as well.
These predictions involve inevitably a peso devaluation that will set off a dollar-withdrawal frenzy in big regional banks. Real estate prices – radically inflated after a decade of monetary expansion – may well plunge. The results could affect large swaths of South America.
Countries that could be affected include Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and Peru among others – all countries that have pursued moderate market-based policies and have benefitted from the South American industrial and monetary boom.
Meanwhile, Repsol doesn’t seem apt to surrender. Here’s more from the article.
YPF is “open to capital and the possibility of working together with public or private companies in Argentina or abroad,” Boudou said.
Last week the Argentine president signed a bill expropriating 51% of YPF stock from Repsol, its majority shareholder, sealing a measure that has roiled the country’s trade ties with Europe.
Cristina Fernandez has argued that the move was justified because Argentina faces sharp rises in its bill for imported oil, and Repsol has failed to make agreed investments needed to expand domestic production.
In Madrid, a Repsol spokesman Tuesday said the company has warned its competitors that they will face legal action if they invest in YPF.
“The idea is to protect the assets that were confiscated in Argentina until the situation is resolved in a satisfactory way for the parties that are involved,” the spokesman said.
Conclusion: A cascading crisis in South America may still seem likely …
- Argentina: Vaca Muerta – Argentina’s oil and gas seizure poses new dilemma (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Incensed Spain threatens Argentina after YPF seizure (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Leftist economist masterminds Argentina’s YPF grab (mb50.wordpress.com)
- This Is Why President Cristina Kirchner Is Not Good For Argentina (businessinsider.com)
- Argentine Congress easily approves YPF takeover (fuelfix.com)
- BOOM: Argentine Parliament Votes To Nationalize YPF (YPF) (businessinsider.com)
- Leftist economist behind Argentina’s YPF takeover (sacbee.com)
- Argentina Backs Nationalization of YPF Oil Firm (theepochtimes.com)
- Incensed Spain threatens Argentina after YPF seizure (mb50.wordpress.com)
By Vladimir Hernandez BBC Mundo
It is a grim name, though it has nevertheless brought hope of a better future for many in Argentina: Vaca Muerta – translated from the Spanish – means “Dead Cow”.
Vaca Muerta’s barren landscape covers some 30,000 remote sq km of the Patagonian province of Neuquen, in the west of Argentina.
And it was here where energy giant Repsol-YPF struck gold last year. Black gold.
Buried in 250-million-year-old rocks, almost 3km beneath the surface here, are some of the world’s largest reserves of shale oil and gas.
According to the Spanish energy giant Repsol, there are prospective resources equal to more than 21 billion barrels of oil underneath the ground in Vaca Muerta.
Much of it could be shale oil, rather than gas, according to an independent Ryder Scott audit commissioned by Repsol, though this has yet to be proven.
But the presence of shale gas is proven, and it is clear that the reserves found here will make up a big proportion of the country’s estimated 22 trillion cubic-metre total.
That makes Argentina the world’s number three in terms of shale gas reserves – hot on the heels of the US, which has reserves of some 24 trillion cubic metres, and China, which has reserves of some 36 trillion cubic metres, according to the American Energy Information Administration.
Failure to invest
Getting the reserves out would obviously require massive investment.
Argentina’s government believes Repsol – which has been active here ever since it took over YPF when it was privatized during the 1990s – should have done this.
But instead, it says, Repsol has been dragging its feet, invested too little and thus failed to get the resources out of the ground as quickly as it should have done.
The government has even accused Repsol of pulling YPF’s profits out of the country to finance its businesses abroad.
President Cristina Fernandez said:
“If such a situation continued, we would have had big energy problems in the country because of the drop in production and the increasing reliance on fuel imports.”
So the government has stepped in to take control of what it sees as a vital, national asset.
Rodrigo Alvarez Argentine economist:
This is the real reason behind the renationalization of YPF”
Renationalizing YPF has in effect helped the government regain control of the Vaca Muerta energy reserves, since the rights to exploit more than a third of the area were held by Repsol-YPF.
The move, and the manner in which it was made, has obviously created a great deal of controversy.
Repsol and others believe the government was motivated by a desire to secure the country’s energy requirements for decades to come, and thus reduce its gas import bill which shot up to $10bn in 2011 and is expected to surge to $14bn this year.
“This could help cope with between 30% and 40% of the gas demand within Argentina, which has been covered with costly imports in the last two years,” says Eduardo Barreiro, an energy consultant and a director at the Society of Petroleum Engineers in Argentina.
Argentine economist Rodrigo Alvarez Litre agrees:
“This is the real reason behind the renationalization of YPF,” he wrote in a column in the Argentine newspaper, Perfil.
“With such shale gas reserves, Argentina could position itself as a nation with cheap and abundant energy, and profit from the high prices in the international market.”
Argentina’s government might describe its move as a step towards self-reliance, which it believes is clearly in the nation’s interest.
“Vaca Muerta could be a very important area in the future,” Mr Barreiro says.
“But it needs investment.”
Some $3bn would be required over the next three years to get the shale gas extraction started.
And then, he added: “You’ll need to be excavating constantly to keep the production levels high enough to justify the investment and to make a profit.”
According to Repsol, more could be achieved with more investment. The firm insists that some $25bn per year would be needed to exploit Vaca Muerta’s shale oil and gas potential. This, the company believes, could double the Argentine production in 10 years.
But this would require some 3,000 shale oil and gas wells in an area where there are only 28 at the moment.
Without Repsol, the government might well look to other foreign investors for help to make it happen.
But Daniel Kokogian, a geologist who works as an advisor for several foreign energy companies in Argentina, said some companies would be concerned about how they might be treated in the future, following the renationalization of YPF.
“What private investor would put money into a business where national interest will come first, then profits?” he asks.
Others are far more optimistic about Argentina’s chances to attract foreign investors.
The government says it has already had talks with energy giants such as Total of France and Petrobras of Brazil – and local energy analyst Victor Bronstein expects deals to be struck.
“Oil companies are constantly operating in turbulent environments, in problematic countries,” he says.
“If they think there’s a business opportunity, that there’s a possibility of resources, they’ll dive in.”
Besides, cash-rich states may well be keen to get involved, according to Mark Routt, a senior consultant with KBC Advanced Technologies in Houston, Texas.
“Argentina is going to have to look for government-government relationships, particularly with China,” he says.
But Mr Kokogian says he believes the main concern of most investors will be whether or not Vaca Muerta is going to deliver decent margins.
“The main issue here is to determine if these estimated resources can actually be called reserves,” he said.
“A resource becomes a reserve when it is proven that the investment can be recovered with an acceptable profit. In Vaca Muerta, I don’t think that has happened yet.
“If this area was truly the main reason behind the nationalization of YPF, then Argentina may have shot itself in the foot over an unproven source of energy,” he adds.
And if that turns out to be the case, the Argentine efforts to control “Dead Cow” could be a bit like flogging a dead horse.
- Repsol YPF ups Argentine shale potential (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Incensed Spain threatens Argentina after YPF seizure (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Is Cristina Fernandez destroying Argentina’s economy? (business.financialpost.com)