[A-List] VENEZUELA: The Cost of the World’s Cheapest Gasoline
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Thu Jan 22 20:05:59 MST 2009
VENEZUELA: The Cost of the World's Cheapest Gasoline
By Humberto Márquez
CARACAS, Dec 29 (IPS) - The world's most inexpensive gasoline is sold
in Venezuela, through a longstanding subsidy programme that benefits
car owners while depriving the oil industry of a large source of funds
"What's the problem? I suppose if we produced wheat or tractors they
would be very cheap here. If we have oil, then gasoline should be
cheap," 38-year-old Alexis Santana, who has been driving a bus since
he was 22, told IPS. The argument may seem logical in a country that
is one of the world's biggest oil producers.
For the past 10 years, gasoline has cost between three and four cents
of a dollar per litre. Soft drinks cost 20 times more, a bottle of
mineral water 25 times more, and an espresso in a local café 30 times
Customers often leave more in tips to service station attendants than
what they actually pay in gas.
"Gasoline is practically given away here for free," said Finance
Minister Alí Rodríguez, who has done stints as energy minister,
secretary-general of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries
(OPEC), and president of the state oil monopoly PDVSA.
"It is obscene to sell our gasoline this way. We might as well give it
away!" President Hugo Chávez said in a January 2007 speech, when he
ordered studies to be carried out into the possibility of raising
domestic gas prices. However, such a move would be almost tantamount
to political suicide in Venezuela.
PDVSA and the state heavily subsidise the price, mainly to the benefit
of the owners of the four million private vehicles circulating in this
country of 27 million.
"According to our numbers, Venezuela consumes nearly 750,000 barrels a
day of liquid fuels, 70 percent of which is gasoline, and the
difference between domestic prices and prices paid in net oil consumer
countries will amount to 26 billion dollars this year," economist
Asdrúbal Oliveros with Ecoanalítica, an economic consultancy in
Caracas, told IPS.
If Venezuela were to sell fuel at cost on the domestic market, the
subsidy would still total 17 billion dollars, said the analyst.
When the price of Venezuelan oil stood at 116 dollars a barrel in
July, former Central Bank chief economist José Guerra estimated the
annual subsidy at around 19 billion dollars. But by mid-December, the
price of oil had plunged to 31 dollars a barrel.
According to official figures, the vehicles circulating in Venezuela
consumed 400,000 barrels a day of gas and diesel, which meant a
subsidy -- based on the difference between domestic and export prices
-- of 12.5 billion dollars
It costs PDVSA two cents of a dollar to produce one litre of gas,
which it sells domestically for three cents.
"By giving away more than 3,000 dollars a year away to every car
driver, PDVSA has been left without money that could be reinvested
with a view to improving the domestic system of fuel distribution,
stimulating other sectors, or reducing the company's debt," Ramón
Espinasa, who was PDVSA chief economist from 1992 to 1999, told IPS.
And although Venezuela is a major oil exporter, it is facing growing
purchases of oil derivatives, including 50,000 barrels a day of
gasoline blending components, according to José Suárez Núñez, a
veteran journalist who specialises in the oil economy.
PDVSA purchased 2.59 billion dollars in oil derivatives in 2006 and
4.03 billion in 2007, according to its reports.
The low price of gasoline "is essentially a regressive subsidy,
because most of the fuel is consumed by private vehicles belonging to
the middle and upper classes, while the poor use the deficient public
transport system," said Espinasa.
"Eighty percent of the gasoline is used in private vehicles, which
transport just 20 percent of the population, while 80 percent of
citizens depend on public transport, which consumes 20 percent of the
gasoline. It is a backwards case of Robin Hood," said economist José
High economic growth rates, low domestic gas prices and government
incentives like the Family Vehicle Programme, which exempts certain
cars from the value added tax, have fueled a buying spree of cars,
with new records set each year since 2004, until reaching a total of
400,000 new cars sold in 2007.
However, restrictions on imports reduced sales to 252,000 cars between
January and November 2008, according to the Venezuelan automotive
"Small service stations, on the other hand, are hurt because with
these prices, the cash flow is small and it's not worth investing in
installations, we cannot seek large loans, and our employees are
poorly paid," José Costa, the manager of a gas station in Caracas,
commented to IPS.
Through its broad range of social programmes, the Venezuelan
government has made public spending not only the engine of economic
activity but of improved living standards as well, based on soaring
oil prices. For that reason, it must feel the burden of the heavy
subsidy for domestic gas prices, said Oliveros.
In the 1990s, a World Bank study on subsidies in Latin America showed
that with the four billion dollars that the Venezuelan state shelled
out to gasoline consumers, "41,000 primary schools or 7,000 secondary
schools a year could be built," said Cordeiro.
PDVSA contributed nearly 14 billion dollars to the government's social
programmes in 2007, according to the company's annual report.
The social programmes, or "missions", include literacy training,
primary health care provided by Cuban doctors in the slums, food for
the poor at subsidised prices, soup kitchens for low-income women and
children, free eye operations, dental care, microbusiness loans,
support for cooperatives, scholarships at all educational levels, and
stipends for the unemployed who agree to take training courses.
According to the National Statistics Institute (INE), the poverty rate
was reduced from 43.9 percent in 1998 -- when Chávez was first elected
-- to 28.5 percent in 2007. And the Planning Ministry reports that the
proportion of households under the poverty line has now shrunk to 23.4
percent, while the proportion of households in extreme poverty has
dropped to nine percent.
But with the price of Venezuelan oil plunging to one-quarter of its
high of over 120 dollars a barrel, the country will be hit hard by the
current global crisis.
"The fiscal situation could become so critical that the government
will turn to measures like devaluation, hiking taxes or increasing the
price of gasoline. But what it is not likely to do is cut spending,"
said economist Emeterio Gómez.
Subsidies, whether direct or indirect, usually translate into a
comparative advantage that boosts the industry's competitiveness.
"But that is not the case in Venezuela, because the advantage of cheap
gasoline is cancelled out by price controls on other products,
exchange controls, traffic jams and the poor state of the roads," said
Because of the lack of road transport corridors, a truck hauling
merchandise from the Colombian border in the west to industrial or
consumption centres in eastern Venezuela must drive through Caracas
and other large cities.
The low gas prices also stimulate contraband with Venezuela's
neighbours -- Colombia, Brazil, and to a lesser extent, Guyana --
estimated at 25,000 barrels of fuel a day by the Energy Ministry,
which at an average price of 90 dollars a barrel in 2008 would
represent 800 million dollars a year.
Investigative reports by the local press estimated that some 80,000
families in northeastern Colombia depend on smuggling of fuel for all
or part of their income. The fuel is carried across the border in
plastic containers and jugs on bicycle or by foot, or in trucks that
form part of large-scale smuggling rings.
"The problem is the difference in prices, because fuel in Venezuela is
20 times cheaper (than in Colombia), and if this problem is not
resolved, it will be impossible to combat smuggling," said Lino
Iacampo, president of the association of gasoline distributors in the
border state of Táchira.
"And people in Táchira are often angry because they can't find gas, or
because it is rationed out," he added.
In the United States, young people become independent when they move
into their own place; in Venezuela, middle-class youngsters become
independent when they get their own car, says Oliveros.
The cult of owning one's own car has become so entrenched that
municipal authorities in Caracas are requiring that in certain lanes
during rush hour, each vehicle must carry at least one other person
besides the driver.
During rush hour traffic jams, cars carrying an average of 1.2 people
move at an average speed of five kilometres an hour.
But as Oliveros and other analysts point out, the lack of safety on
buses, where there has been a rash of armed robberies, and in taxis
has led people to desperately seek to purchase a car of their own.
Nearly all major arteries in Caracas are packed from dawn till late at
night. Aliana Giménez, who lives in the commuter city of Guatire, east
of the capital, told IPS that "my life has been reduced to sleeping on
the bus, working, getting home, showering and changing my clothes,
taking what amounts to a little nap at night, and setting out for
Caracas again before the sun comes up."
Economists say the first step towards a solution could be gradually
increasing gasoline prices to the halfway point between the domestic
and export prices.
"But that measure would only work if economic policies are modified to
keep inflation down; otherwise it would cause more problems," said
Venezuela has the highest inflation rate in the hemisphere: around 35
percent a year, and over 50 percent for foodstuffs, which in this
country are transported mainly by road.
But in the past, gasoline price hikes have sparked severe social
protests, the worst of which was the 1989 "Caracazo", in which
hundreds of people were killed in the brutal crackdown by security
In Venezuela, such a move could be extremely costly in terms of votes
And Chávez -- who has not touched the price of gasoline since he took
office in 1999, and who has held elections of some kind nearly every
year -- may be planning an early 2009 referendum to seek a
constitutional amendment that would make it possible for a president
to run for indefinite reelection. (END/2008)
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