Aug 4, 2010 | 12:08 GMT

21 mins read

Special Report: Venezuela's Unsustainable Economic Paradigm

Large reproductions of the Venezuelan bolivar on display in Caracas
PEDRO REY/AFP/Getty Images

Despite being a major energy exporter, Venezuela is currently mired in economic recession and suffering from record-high levels of inflation, a dismal condition known as "stagflation." As the country's economy deteriorates on a number of fronts, the government continues to struggle with an electricity crisis and worsening food shortages that are threatening to undermine support for the ruling party in the lead-up to September legislative elections. The Venezuelan government has tried to impose a range of currency controls, from currency devaluations to parallel market crackdowns, in an effort to resuscitate the economy. But the country's distortionary and unsustainable currency regime not only is forcing more of the economy underground (leading to higher inflation and shortages of basic goods), but it is also catalyzing an elaborate money-laundering scheme that now appears to be spiraling out of control, thereby weakening the regime's grip on power.

From the energy and food sectors to banks and steel mills, Venezuela has been on an aggressive nationalization drive over the past four years in order to draw more money into state coffers while increasing the number of Venezuelan citizens who are politically (and economically) beholden to the state for their livelihoods. While this policy has brought a number of short-term benefits to the government, it has come at the cost of gross inefficiency, mismanagement and corruption, leading to an overall decline in Venezuelan productivity. In an attempt to redress the extreme macroeconomic imbalances, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was forced to make a substantial adjustment to the country's fixed peg to the U.S. dollar. On June 8, the Venezuelan government devalued the bolivar against the dollar by 17 percent and 50 percent, simultaneously creating a dual exchange-rate regime.

The Currency Regime

An exchange rate of 2.15 bolivars per dollar was established for "essential goods," such as food and medicine, while all other items used a weaker rate of 4.3 bolivars per dollar. The parallel market that used to exist in tandem (and where, unregulated, the dollar recently cost upward of 8 bolivars) is now strictly regulated by the Venezuelan government in a trading band of 4.2 to 5.4 bolivars per dollar, making the parallel market the third official exchange rate. For all intents and purposes, that parallel market was the closest thing to a genuine exchange rate that the country had because the other two rates were subsidized and access to them was restricted by the government. Clearly there are problems with the current arrangement. Although dual or multi-tiered exchange rate regimes do provide the government with the ability to impose tighter capital controls, address economic imbalances and make imported goods more affordable, they are inefficient and difficult to manage. In most economic systems, the cost of capital is the single most important factor for determining growth and development, and when the cost of capital has three different values, entire sectors shift (and even disappear). For example, the ability to import food for a third of the real market price via the "essential" exchange rate largely destroys incentives to produce food locally. Unsurprisingly, countries with such regimes most often experience lower growth and much higher inflation than countries with a single, unified exchange rate. To mute the very high reported inflation (about 32 percent annually, according to Venezuela's central bank), the government has militantly enforced price repression, which is beginning to cause shortages of even the most basic goods (since it makes more financial sense for businesses to stop producing altogether than be able to sell only at artificially low prices).


(click here to enlarge image) Second, since the parallel rate was upward of 8 bolivars per dollar before the government began regulating the market, even the weakest possible official rate — the 5.4 at the weakest end of the official trading band — would still be overvalued. With dollars becoming harder to obtain in the regulated markets, more of the economy is being driven underground, and it is probably only a matter of time before another black market emerges (assuming that such a market has not already emerged). The existence of another parallel currency market would bring the total number of foreign exchange rates in Venezuela to four — the subsidized rate, the petrodollar rate, the now-regulated parallel rate and a new black-market rate — the consequences of which would be dizzying. Moreover, because multi-tiered exchange-rate regimes skew the value of money, they also reward particularly creative individuals and companies who can figure out ways to shuffle goods back and forth through the exchange regime (for example, by placing an import order for a good at one rate, importing it at another and selling it at a third). The various and intricate incentives that arise from distortionary currency regimes invariably lead to spiraling corruption and fraud. Venezuela's currency regime is no exception, especially since practically all public-sector entities have the ability to import via the most subsidized rate by virtue of their being public enterprises.

The Gaming Process

Conspicuously enough, warehouses have recently been discovered in Venezuela containing mountains of rotting food, expired medications and unusable electricity-generating equipment — at a time when Venezuela is ostensibly suffering from severe food and power shortages. However, there's a very logical reason why the warehouses are filled with "essential" goods. The most apparent is that the mismanagement of state entities responsible for the purchasing and distribution of these goods renders them unable to keep up with the logistical demands of their trade. The state-run entity Bolipuertos (of which the Cuban government holds a significant stake) that runs Venezuela's ports, for example, is years behind on its repair schedule. As a result, goods arriving at Venezuelan ports will often sit for weeks and months without the necessary electricity and refrigeration to preserve them. But the less obvious — and more nefarious — reason is that many of the ports are also mafia-run, and Venezuela's state-owned companies and their subsidiaries are exploiting their privileged access to the subsidized exchange rate in order to enrich themselves. Simply put, there may be deliberation behind many of these shortages. Before the government began regulating the parallel market, which more accurately reflected the forces of supply and demand (and thus the bolivar's genuine value), private Venezuelan companies would finance anywhere from 30 to 40 percent of their imports through a dollar/bolivar rate of about 8. However, all state-owned enterprises can exchange just 2.6 bolivars for one U.S. dollar, provided that the dollar goes toward importing a good on the government-determined list of essential goods. So, the game is this: maximize the bolivar amount exchanged at the subsidized rate, minimize the dollar amount that has to be spent on importing the goods and pocket the difference. Overstating the price, or intended amount, of goods to be imported — be they actually essential or simply deemed essential for the sake of participating in this racket — would provide the importer with extra U.S. dollars, as would directing the import business to friends in return for cash or favors. For the importers to earn the "inefficiency premium" they charge on this process, they would want to be careful not to kill their golden goose by actually meeting the market demand for goods. So long as there exists a "shortage" of that particular good, the importers can make a strong argument for why they need to import even more of the goods — hence the "inexplicable" warehouses of essential goods containing unusable power-generating equipment and rotting food.

The Food Example

While any item on the government's essential goods list is a potential candidate for the scam, food is perhaps the best "vehicle" simply because it is perishable, people have to eat and there will always be demand. The drawback to food as the vehicle, from the government's point of view, is that bare shelves in food markets can quickly present an insurmountable challenge for even the most resilient of regimes. Venezuela imports about 70 percent of its food, most of which now comes from the United States, Brazil and Argentina (Caracas has sustained a de facto trade embargo on Colombian food imports over the past year). Since 2003, the government has placed heavy price controls on foodstuffs and has steadily harassed private food companies with charges of speculation and fraud to justify the state's unwavering nationalization drive. In Venezuela, the state-owned energy firm Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) — the country's main revenue stream — is also responsible for much of the country's food distribution network, a primarily cash-based business that makes tracking transactions all the more difficult. PDVSA subsidiaries work to restrict food supply in the country, thereby increasing demand and increasing their own profit when they turn around and sell food on the black market. Those that have squirreled away vast amounts of food can, for a hefty profit, supply the overwhelming demand for food on the black market. The fact that PDVSA is responsible for much of the country's food distribution makes it much easier for those subsidiaries to corner the food market — they can both create the shortage (by hoarding food) and be there to satisfy the pent-up demand (with the food they've hoarded). The two main PDVSA subsidiaries that operate in this particular money-laundering scheme are PDVAL and Bariven. PDVAL was created in January 2008 with a stated goal to correct the speculation of food prices through its own distribution network. Bariven, the acquisition arm of PDVSA, is tasked with obtaining materials for oil exploration and production, but it is also involved in managing inventories for PDVSA, a responsibility that extends into the food sector. From its headquarters in Houston, Bariven will place an order for food imports from American exporters in Texas and Louisiana. PDVSA Bank, a murky new entity whose creation was announced in the summer of 2009, was set up to facilitate banking agreements between PDVSA and Russian state energy giant Gazprom, and is believed to provide loans for such food-import transactions. (Bariven is also known to secure loans from major U.S. banks and is one of a select few state entities that has preferential access with the Commission of Foreign Exchange Administration in Venezuela to trade bolivars for dollars to facilitate these exchanges.) Bariven will then sell the food to PDVAL at a hefty discount, yet will report an even transaction on the books. The food will then sit on the docks until it is close to its expiration date, thus restricting supply in the state-owned markets and building up demand. When the food is already rotting (or close to it), it is sold on the black market for a profit (it's no good to sell the food to the normal government distribution network, where the price of food is tightly controlled). Since PDVAL is the entity that collects all the revenue from state food distributors, the bolivar-denominated proceeds from its food sales can then be discreetly recycled back into PDVSA Bank, where the bolivars can be used again to place ever-increasing orders that will require more dollars and more imports. The orders have increased to the point that the distributors are throwing out thousands of tons of rotting food. This is the root of a scandal that broke in Venezuela in May, when state intelligence agents began investigating the theft of powdered milk and found between 30,000 and 75,000 tons (estimates vary between state and opposition claims) of food rotting in warehouses in Puerto Cabello, La Guaira, Maracaibo and other major ports.

Has the Scheme Run its Course?

The above example describes how the money-laundering scheme is playing out in the food distribution sector, but the same concept can be applied to the electricity, medicine and energy sectors. The priority of many officials working in the state-owned electricity company EDELCA is to enrich themselves through a similar money- laundering scheme in which they can exploit and arbitrage the exchange-rate regime, place exorbitant orders for parts, airbrush their books and then pocket the difference. Unlike the engineers working on the power plants, state electricity officials ordering parts lack technical knowledge and have no interest in consulting the engineers when placing the orders. The result is a mishmash of parts and equipment collecting dust in warehouses while power rationing continues across the country. Even more alarming is the fact that Brazilian engineers for Eurobras, a Brazilian-German-Venezuelan consortium, abandoned their work on Venezuela's Guri dam in May after having failed to receive their paychecks from EDELCA. The work they were doing — the implementation of larger and more efficient hydroelectric turbines — was highly specialized and crucial to Venezuela maintaining its electricity output. Yet EDELCA, having already reaped its profits from placing the contract orders for the parts, apparently had little motivation to come up with the funds to allow these workers to finish the job. This is why, despite better-than-expected rainfall over the past couple months, Venezuela remains mired in an electricity crisis since the dilapidated electricity infrastructure is incapable of keeping up with demand. The money-laundering scheme is prevalent in many strategic sectors, but the food sector brings especially unique benefits to the money launderers while raising the stakes for the Venezuelan leadership. Since food is perishable, it readily lends itself to hoarding and "screw ups" when it goes rotten, requiring more orders, more dollars and more imports. By contrast, while one can still make money by importing a dozen hydroelectric turbines or an expensive new oil rig, there are only so many excuses for having ordered the wrong piece of equipment, and the black market for such equipment is not nearly as good as the black market for food (which, again, is essential for survival). While this elaborate racket has kept a good portion of state officialdom financially content, the warehouses full of rotten food, expired medicine and unused electricity equipment, along with the gross neglect and disrepair of the Guri dam — a vital piece of the country's electricity infrastructure — indicate that the state is losing control over the "essential" sectors. In short, this racket has become so prevalent that it is now threatening the core stability of the state. This is why, despite the obvious political risk of exacerbating food shortages and basic supplies by increasing the costs for importers, the Venezuelan regime has put most of its effort in the past month into cracking down on the "speculators" in the parallel market. The cost of not doing something about these speculators has proved to be higher than the cost of alienating political supporters in the lead-up to legislative elections in September. When the food scandal recently broke, the government was quick to name its scapegoat: former PDVAL President Luis Pulido, who, along with several other officials, has been arrested and put on trial for corruption. The Chavez regime is using PDVAL as an example to others who have taken the money-laundering scheme to dangerous levels. Many of those who are most deeply entrenched in the racket and have been less conscious of the long-term risk to the state are the more radical officials within the Chavez government, who are now being sought out by Cuban intelligence services working in league with the upper echelons of the Venezuelan regime. But these efforts could be too little too late. Cracking down on speculators who are operating outside the state's jurisdiction may alleviate part of the problem and provide the state with a cover to expand its control over key sectors, but what of the vast numbers of speculators working within the state, particularly those higher up the chain who could pose a real threat to the regime's hold on power? Indeed, the government's most recent attempts to rein in this food scandal are already showing signs of floundering. A June 26 ban on unregulated food sales passed in the wake of news about the scandal was revoked shortly thereafter by the president himself, who called on authorities to target the "food mafias" behind the gaming scheme as opposed to the sellers on the streets. The problem with such a directive is that those involved in the food mafias are likely to involve members high up in the regime, which makes the likelihood of enforcement questionable. The government is also introducing new legislation that aims to sideline speculators from the gaming process by changing the currency-for-food transactions altogether. The draft legislation, entitled the Organic Law for the Promotion and Development of the Community Economic System, calls for food in local communes to be "bought" and "sold" primarily through bartering. For exchanges of non-equal value, the legislation calls on communes to create their own currencies (independent of the bolivar) to buy and sell food on the local level. The local communes' strategy is encompassed in a package of legislation dubbed "People Power," which aims to undermine state and city governments while augmenting the power of community councils (220 local communes have been listed by the government thus far.) The majority of members of these communes would come from the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV,) thereby providing the regime with direct access to small, local governing bodies that will stay loyal to PSUV interests. Though the idea of sidelining money launderers from the cash-based food industry makes strategic sense from the point of view of a government trying to reverse the crippling side-effects of this gaming scheme, a number of pitfalls can already be seen in this legislation. Introducing dozens of alternative currencies for a specific sector will further complicate the already-complicated two-tiered currency exchange regime that differentiates between essential and non-essential foods, while undermining an already-weak bolivar by cutting the local currency out of the food trade. A proliferation of local currencies also means additional layers of bureaucracy will be necessary to manage and implement the new law, and more bureaucracy in Venezuela means more potential for corruption. The local food currency would also eventually have to be transacted into bolivars, and deep-seated corruption in the higher levels of the institutions responsible for such large-scale transactions could end up greatly undermining the primary objective of the plan to root out speculation. In short, the government is still treating the symptoms, and not the cause, of this money laundering scheme and the proposals made thus far to rein in speculators look to have a number of shortcomings.

The Legal Battle

A crackdown within the regime's inner circle to rein in this racket could turn politically explosive, especially when senior members of the Chavez government already appear to have piles of evidence stacked against them in U.S. courts. In mid-May, Chavez publicly warned in a speech broadcast on state television station Venezolana de Television that a U.S. district judge in Miami may soon be ordering the arrest of Chavez, Vice President Elias Jaua, Minister of Planning and Finance Jorge Giordani and other members of the president's inner circle, "instead of the real culprits." Chavez's unusual warning is yet another manifestation of how the state's money-laundering scheme has grown too large and too loud for the regime to manage. Venezuelan businessman and banker Ricardo Fernandez Barrueco, for example, was a close associate of Venezuelan political elites like Public Works and Housing Minister Diosdado Cabello and the president's older brother, Adan Chavez. Barrueco is believed to have used his main business front, the Proarepa Group, to open a number of offshore accounts in the Caribbean, Lebanon, Europe and elsewhere to store funds looted from the state oil firm and its subsidiaries. Barrueco's operation eventually got too exposed and he became a liability for the regime, leading to his reported arrest in November 2009. But silencing Barrueco alone will not assuage the regime's concerns over the evidence sitting in courts in Miami and New York that could implicate senior members of the Chavez regime.

Other Beneficiaries

Considering the prevalence of the black market, it would appear logical that the country's unsustainable currency arrangement is benefiting a number of other illicit actors. For those state entities experiencing cash-flow problems, local drug dealers (who have expertise swapping currency at multiple rates in multiple places) are believed to be providing local currency to at least some of these firms and thus filtering their drug money through the exchange-rate regime. The drug revenues are also strongly believed to form the basis of Venezuela's financial support for U.S.-designated terrorist groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) — allegations which are now regaining steam following Colombia's recent decision to release new evidence of Venezuelan support for FARC and ELN rebels. Driving the U.S. interest in this issue is the connection between Venezuela's money- laundering scheme and Iran. In recent years, in an effort to escape the heavy weight of economic sanctions, Iran has turned to Venezuela to facilitate Iran's access to Western financial markets. Banco Internacional de Desarrollo (EBDI) is a financial institution based in Caracas that operates under the jurisdiction of the Export Development Bank of Iran, designated as a sanctions violator by the European Union as recently as July 27 and by the U.S. Treasury Department in October 2008 for providing financial access to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a major force in the Iranian economy and the prime target of the U.S. sanctions campaign. Though the extent to which Iranian money is funneled through Venezuelan channels is unclear, evidence has been building in the United States that reveals murky transactions among IRGC-owned companies, a Caracas-based EBDI subsidiary, PDVSA entities in Europe and the Caribbean and even banks in Lebanon. And with the U.S. sanctions effort accelerating in Washington, any state willing to enforce the sanctions and crack down on IRGC-affiliated entities can shut down these financial loopholes at any point. STRATFOR cannot quantify the Iranian-Venezuelan money-laundering connection, but any such connection to the IRGC would be a red flag for U.S. Treasury officials looking to fortify sanctions against Iran. Combined with the developing money-laundering and drug-trafficking cases in Miami that threaten to implicate senior members of the Venezuelan regime, the Iranian link is yet another tool that Washington could use to pressure the Venezuelan government should the need arise. Putting the significant enforceability issues of such court cases aside, the district court attorneys preparing these cases against the Chavez government would not be able to launch them without the permission of the Obama administration, given the diplomatic fallout that could follow. So far, there are no indications that the administration is looking to pick this fight with Chavez, but the mere threat that Washington is now able to hang over the Chavez regime's head is enough to make the Venezuelan leader nervous, hence his public warning to his constituents that Washington is preparing a grand conspiracy against him. The nightmare scenario for Caracas is one in which the White House chooses to expose the charges against the regime and use the evidence to justify a temporary cutoff of the roughly 12.5 percent of U.S. crude oil imports (47 percent of Venezuelan crude exports) that the United States receives from Venezuela for just enough time to crack the regime. Though Venezuela is far down on the U.S. foreign-policy priority list, making such a scenario extremely unlikely for the moment, Venezuela's vulnerability to Washington's whims is increasing with each day that this money- laundering scheme shows signs of unraveling. In addition to the money-laundering scheme explained above, the Venezuelan economy is currently dealing with a rash of other problems:

  • The devaluation has only been partly effective and the short-term benefits have largely run their course. Devaluing helps recalibrate the bolivar by bringing it closer to its true (lower) value, but it does not address the underlying causes of continued bolivar weakness. Therefore the bolivar remains overvalued and the supply of foreign exchange (U.S. dollars) to the market is still restricted. Cracking down on the parallel market and regulating it will likely lead to the emergence of another black market. Consequently, the fixed exchange rate will again become overvalued, which will eventually require further devaluation (most likely after the September elections), which will generate more inflation.
  • These problems are forcing the government to take increasing control of and/or regulate large sectors of the economy, while state-owned companies that control the most strategic sectors are having cash-flow problems and are unable to manage these sectors.
  • The currency regime has given rise to widespread fraud and corruption; the scheme described above is just the most visible one. There is undoubtedly more corruption and fraud permeating the system, exacerbated by the multi-tiered exchange rate and the government's restricting access to it.
  • The economy is becoming increasing reliant on PDSVA oil revenues while the non-oil economy buckles. Venezuelan non-commodity exports are too expensive, and the government must increase its imports of goods to make up for domestic production shortfalls. This makes the economy increasingly reliant on the dollar revenues generated by the state-owned oil company, which has experienced declining production for almost a decade.

All these problems combined are raising the political stakes for the Venezuelan government. The government's response to the crisis has been to bolster its control of the economy — particularly its control over the most strategic sectors — in an effort to slow the economic decline. The government has shut down or nationalized hundreds of businesses in the wake of January's devaluation for various stated reasons, including price gouging, hoarding and speculation. More recently, the government made sweeping changes to the mandate of the Venezuelan Central Bank to vastly expand its influence over the real economy. And in an effort to both clean the books and root out the speculators, hundreds of brokerage firms have been shut down by the state. Without the technical skills and basic logistical ability to manage enlarged state enterprises, however, the state is exacerbating the very symptoms it is trying to treat. Venezuela still has dollars to draw from the central bank and the state development fund Fonden to delay its day of reckoning, but it can no longer conceal the unsustainability of this economic regime.

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