As we wrote last August, some governments are watching political developments in Venezuela more closely -- and with more anxiety -- than others. For the past decade, that country's Petrocaribe program has helped 18 Central American and Caribbean leaders avoid the kinds of tough economic choices that sometimes drive angry citizens into the streets -- and helped Hugo Chávez extend his regional influence. Each of these countries has benefited from concessional financing schemes for their imports of Venezuelan crude oil, as well as Venezuelan support for infrastructure projects and social programs. Beneficiaries, especially Cuba, will be watching closely as Venezuelans go to the polls on April 14 to elect Chávez's successor.
They can expect good news and bad news.
The good news for them is that acting-President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez's hand-picked successor, is highly likely to win. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski is back for another run after losing to Chávez in October, but following a campaign that is likely to prove nasty, brutish, and short, Maduro will benefit from still-strong popular support for Chavismo, public sympathy for those close to Chávez, and fear that the opposition would reverse the late president's most popular policies. Maduro and his allies will also have the resources and political leverage to boost spending and mobilize supporters.
The bad news is that policy is unlikely to improve under a Maduro administration, and political conditions within the country could deteriorate over time as internal dissent becomes more difficult to manage and worsening economic conditions stoke social unrest. Maduro is likely to maintain Petrocaribe, but in the medium term, domestic fiscal constraints may well force him to reduce foreign aid, since among the spending commitments of state-run oil firm and government piggy bank PDVSA, help for foreign governments is the easiest area to cut. Maduro will have to care more about support at home than friends abroad.
Venezuela is currently giving away about one-third of its oil production at below-market prices, including as part of the Petrocaribe program. At today's prices, the volumes that go to Petrocaribe partners amount to more than $6 billion in lost revenue -- about 2 percent of Venezuela's total GDP.
The new president will probably prioritize aid to Cuba, since the Castro brothers are strategic allies and high-profile friends who likely played a role in vetting him for the presidency. Maintaining strong relations with the Castro regime is also a means for Maduro to protect his revolutionary credentials as he works to establish himself as Chávez's legitimate political heir.
But for other Petrocaribe countries, aid reduction will likely be substantial. The Dominican Republic and Nicaragua would likely face the toughest economic challenges, forcing policymakers to make sharp policy adjustments. Reduction or elimination of Petrocaribe financing would put the DR's Danilo Medina in an especially tight spot. Given the size of its economy and its access to international financial markets, the Dominican Republic is better placed than Cuba or Nicaragua to weather the storm, but Medina is already looking for new sources of state revenue.
Cuts to Petrocaribe would also be bad news for Daniel Ortega's government in Nicaragua. Some estimates have Venezuelan support -- in the form of direct loans to Ortega, energy projects, and oil -- at about $500-600 million a year. That's 7-8 percent of Nicaragua's GDP. Petrocaribe has allowed Ortega to subsidize electricity rates and public transportation, boost public sector wages, spend on infrastructure improvements, and enhance food security. A significant cut to Petrocaribe might even persuade Ortega to make new friends in Washington.
These are a few of the reasons why there will be so much international interest in Venezuela's election -- and in what comes next.
Risa Grais-Targow and Heather Berkman are analysts in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.
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