Ever since the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries failed to relieve a glutted world oil market last month, a formula for economic crisis has hung over this capital like a suspended sentence.
Each day, Venezuela's leadership has watched the world's tottering oil market with a helpless, almost paralyzed anxiety. And as they wait, the problem--which could shape the country's upcoming elections, its payment of a huge foreign debt and its future as an OPEC member--grows.
The price of oil began to give way last weekend as Britain, which is not an OPEC member, lowered its prices Friday to $30.50 and was immediately matched by the other North Sea producer, Norway. That move was undercut Saturday by Nigeria, which broke with the rest of OPEC to lower its prices by $5.50 to $30 amid fears of a price war. Representatives of the Arab Persian Gulf states are planning to meet today and also are expected to lower their prices. Mexico said it would announce a price cut on Friday.
With each $1 drop in the price of a barrel of oil this year, according to the formula here, Venezuela will lose $500 million--or 2 percent of its total government budget.
And with each decrease of 100,000 barrels from the 1.6 million barrels of oil Venezuela hopes to export per day, $1 billion will be lost from the revenue that funds this nation's social services, backs its industries and alone has raised it from poverty to the richest state in Latin America.
Despite a decade of lavish spending on development projects, Venezuela's economy remains deeply vulnerable to any shift in the price of oil. After four consecutive years of stalled economic growth, a price drop of even a dollar or two per barrel could deal a major shock to the country's industry and sharply curtail incomes and employment.
Government officials have offered no hints of how they will finance this year's budget, or how they will respond in the heat of an election campaign if an oil price war breaks out among OPEC nations.
Few here believe that Venezuela will survive this year without a painful reshaping of its state-dominated economy or an equally difficult refinancing of some of the more than $30 billion it owes foreign banks.
In the skyscrapers of Venezuela's oil industry, meanwhile, a new strategy of world oil marketing is taking shape that could distance the country from the commitments and politics of the oil cartel it helped found more than two decades ago.
Officials and diplomats here had repeatedly said Venezuela would not be the first OPEC nation to cut its oil prices, and would be among the last to abandon hopes of rebuilding the fractured organization. Publicly, officials still express hope that a new OPEC agreement will prevent a drop in oil prices.
But after years of failed lobbying for regular OPEC production quotas and long-term price schedules, Venezuelan officials are talking of a new emphasis on relations with non-OPEC producers and consuming nations--in particular Mexico, a new producer, and the United States, a major client for Latin American oil.
"OPEC can no longer play the role of a swing producer in the oil market," Energy and Mines Minister Humberto Calderon Berti said in an interview. "I think we have to begin talking to the non-OPEC producers and to the consumers."
Following OPEC's failed meeting in Geneva late last month, Calderon already has met with Mexican oil officials and obtained a separate promise that Mexico will hold to its current oil production levels. Further Venezuelan and Mexican talks are planned for next month.
"Everyone accepts now that there has to be an agreement between Venezuela and Mexico," said Rafael Tudela, a leading oil broker and congressman who is close to the government. "We need a policy much more concentrated in the hemisphere. Venezuela should give twice the time to bargaining with Mexico and the United States as it does to OPEC."
The Venezuelan dissatisfaction with OPEC comes after a year in which the country sought to assert its traditional role as a mediator between competing Arab, African and Asian factions--only to see production agreements fail and its own oil revenues drop by about 15 percent.
The $2 billion drop in revenue last year dealt a heavy blow to Venezuela's once enviable financial standing. As government efforts to control spending failed, businessmen stampeded to withdraw capital from the country. About $8 billion drained from the treasury's dollar reserves, the biggest bank in the nation failed and the first questions were raised about Venezuela's ability to pay billions of dollars worth of short-term foreign loans.
Now, said officials and economists here, the new prospect of oil price cuts has multiplied the financial dangers. This year's revenue losses, they said, would coincide not only with the charged politics of an election year but also with a foreign debt crunch brought on by a combination of Venezuelan mismanagement and the sudden reluctance of banks to grant credit to Latin America.
Venezuela's debt is described by financial experts here as relatively more manageable in the long term than those of such crisis-stricken countries as Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. But careless and uncontrolled borrowing by state agencies and companies has left 70 percent of the debt due this year, including about $9 billion in short-term loans that cannot be postponed automatically.
The government of President Luis Herrera Campins, while seeking to refinance the short-term debt, has taken some measures to bring the economic situation under control. A series of import bans have been implemented, and reserves were bolstered last year by the revaluation of Venezuelan gold and the transfer to the treasury of about $5 billion that had been held abroad by the state oil company.
The government also moved Sunday night to stem the flow of capital from the country by suspending all trading in foreign currency until Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported. The announcement was made by Finance Minister Arturo Sosa, who was called home from Europe where he was seeking to renegotiate the short-term foreign debt.
Nervous bankers said last week, however, that the government has not gone nearly far enough.
"They haven't accepted the realities and they are handling the situation piecemeal," an American bank official said. "They act as if to deal with the debt they don't have to deal with the problem of capital flight, or the decline in oil revenues or the loss of reserves."
The government's reluctance to take the major austerity measures sought by bankers, combined with the unwillingness of many banks to risk more capital in a South American country, has led many financial experts here to conclude that Venezuela will soon be forced into a major rescheduling of its debt.
Even if the government can avoid such enforced economic negotiations, it will still be obliged by Venezuelan laws to bring spending in line with lost revenues--meaning cuts and tax increases amounting to 20 percent or more of last year's $22.5 billion budget, analysts here predict.
Some politicians here maintain that trimming Venezuela's preponderant state sector will be relatively good for the economy as long as oil prices fall no more than $3 or $4 a barrel. Despite promises of fiscal austerity, Herrera's government has added about 400,000 employes to the state payroll and increased per capita spending by 15 percent above inflation during the past three years.
"The advantage of this is that it could end the era of the superstate," said Tudela. "Sooner or later we have to accept the fact that the government cannot build the whole economy, and make the cutback to a reasonable level."
But any cutting will be painful in an election year, politicians here say. Although Herrera is not a candidate in the presidential election, his Christian Social Party--called COPEI--trails the opposition Democratic Action party in the polls, and already there are reports of government promises not to lay off workers.
"The oil consumers are putting pressures on us, they are playing against us and it is having an effect," said Calderon. "We are in a very bad position, and it's only a matter of time before something happens."