Can Venezuela’s Oil Pay the Day After Bill?

A once-rich country has now completely collapsed. Venezuela is facing some of the worst humanitarian and economic crises in the world. Hyperinflation is expected to reach at least 10 million percent this year while the GDP has cut in half since 2013. Food and medicine shortages, nationwide power outages, and lack of access to safe water and sanitation are some of the day-to-day challenges Venezuelans are facing. About 5.3 million migrants and refugees are expected to have fled the country this year. The Venezuelan people desperately need to regain their liberty to start the rebuilding of their nation, but given the magnitude of the challenges ahead, this will be one of the most dramatic and complex transitions ever seen in the Western Hemisphere.

When the Venezuelan interim administration and National Assembly led by Juan Guaidó take control of the country, they will require sustained and coordinated international support in order to lead Venezuela in the right direction. Venezuela will require international support to relieve the suffering of its people. Extensive and immediate political, economic, and institutional reforms, backed by significant international humanitarian aid and technical and financial assistance, will be essential for the stabilization and recovery of Venezuela.

Despite holding the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela’s oil output will not be enough to fully finance the country’s much-needed reconstruction efforts once democracy is restored. The United States, together with other donor countries, multilateral institutions, and the private sector, should continue to provide humanitarian support and prepare an urgent response when it is politically feasible. The immediate response, once Nicolás Maduro is no longer in power, is to address the dire conditions affecting the day-to-day health and well-being of Venezuelans. In addition, the development, investment, and implementation of multisectoral policy reforms will need to follow to foster sustainability.

Opening Venezuela’s Oil Faucet Will Take Years

Venezuela is one of the founding members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and a pioneer in the oil industry. PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, was one of the most profitable companies in the world. However, systematic mismanagement, massive corruption, and draconian policies have led to a sharp decline in production. When Hugo Chávez was elected president in 1998, the country produced on average 3.5 million barrels per day (b/d). Since then, production has steadily decreased to 1.1 million b/d in 2019, and recent reports show an even deeper decline due to recent sanctions on PDVSA—production is down to 650,000 b/d during the first half of March.

The fall in production has been compensated with an increase in imports and external debt. In 1999, the country owed $37 billion, and by 2016 was more than $150 billion in debt. Venezuela’s external debt equals more than five years’ worth of exports. Ultimately, debt restructuring and financial assistance will be needed, although they may not be enough to finance the country’s recovery either.

Expecting Venezuela’s post-Maduro initial response recovery to be tied to its energy industry is both inaccurate and harmful for the country’s prospects to succeed. Limited financial resources, mounting operational inefficiencies, the lack of drilling equipment and diluent, and power failures have all contributed to declines in oil production. Even in the case of a regime change, political uncertainty and new election will likely limit the ability for much recovery in the first year of the new government. Assuming a “soft-landing” scenario, in which the interim government and the National Assembly take control of the country’s institutions, some experts predict that even an aggressive oil ramp-up plan would require up to 10 years to recover the oil production output of 3.1 million b/d.

Supporting Venezuela’s Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance

The role of the United States and the international community to help Venezuela get back on its feet will be essential. Venezuela will encounter a broad range of numerous recovery and reform tasks in the wake of its current crisis. However, the international community cannot count on simply “turning on the oil faucet” as a quick fix for the Venezuelan economy, as it will take years to recover oil production levels. Therefore, external partners will need to help Venezuela, particularly within the initial response phase. The United States, the European Union, multilateral development banks, the private sector, and other partners will have to front the reconstruction capital first.

Experience from previous national reconstruction efforts can help frame the role of the United States and the international community in this process. The financial needs for Venezuela’s “day after” will likely be closer to Iraq’s reconstruction efforts. Recent reports show that rebuilding Iraq after three years of war with Islamic State will cost more than 88 billion dollars. According to Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Governor for Venezuela and Harvard professor Ricardo Hausmann, Venezuela will need approximately $20 billion to meet the most basic needs in the initial response, including financing imports, humanitarian aid, and technical assistance. For a long-term sustainability phase including debt restructuring and financial assistance, Venezuela will need at least $60 billion.

Helping Venezuela during a “day after” scenario will not only be essential to stabilize the country and the region, but it will also pay off in the long term. Down the road, Venezuela could become a healthy trade partner and renewed ally to the United States and other democratic countries.

Moises Rendon is an associate fellow and associate director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Moises Rendon
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program