3 de diciembre de 1999

The world's real petro-pirates

When, as a citizen of an oil producing country, Venezuela, I see oil being valued by the market at US$ 150, and we only receive about US$ 20, I believe that I have the right to feel a bit let down by all those who promised us a rose garden if we duly signed up on all the international commercial agreements peddled by GATT; and lately by the World Trade Organization WTO. What do I mean?

From one barrel of oil, one can approximately and simultaneously obtain 84 liters of gasoline, 12 of jet fuel, 36 of gas oil, 16 of lubricants and 12 of heavy residues. In Britain today, educated consumers are paying (voluntarily and out of their own pockets) US$ 1.38 per liter of gasoline (sorry, petrol) using the traditional way of establishing a product's value. Even if we just consider the gasoline, we obtain a value of about US$ 116 per barrel of oil and then by adding the rest of the products, we should be close to US$ 150 since refining and distribution costs are fairly small.

I am well aware that the value US$ 150 is achieved by the taxman forcing himself in at the point of sale of gasoline, as an extremely expensive middleman, keeping 85% of the gross. But, was this not exactly the things that world governments agreed not to do, in order to foster free trade and growth ... and that which we believed when we signed up on all those reductions of protectionist duties, accepting to lend the developed world a hand, collecting, their pretensions of royalties for intellectual property rights?

Today's result is therefore that, when an oil producing country is selling it's non-renewable and scarce resource to the world, it's only getting a fraction of the real value.

The hurt and pain I feel at seeing so much poverty in my country, that could be alleviated by just a little bit more of justice by the developed consumer countries themselves, is made worse by adding salt to the wound in many ways.

Their bankers sold us on the idea, in the mid-seventies, that oil was going to increase in value, and therefore that we could calmly take on the responsibility for servicing a huge country debt ... they never told us that all the increase in the value of oil, which has actually occurred since then, was going to be confiscated by their taxmen.

We producers were, and still are, the remaining scapegoat for all inflationary pressures derived from any price increase in gasoline and other derivatives ... even when these were just the result of higher taxes.

We oil producers were, and still are, branded as the most wanted criminal in environmental issues when, in fact, we are the ones paying 100% of the cost of all the protection plans that through their taxes reduce world demand for oil.

Today we hear of even higher future oil taxes when Germany (for example) announces a plan of annual increases as a way to reduce their workers' social security payments and discriminate against us by not taxing coal and other energy sources.

For what it's worth, I would like to remind the developed world in good conscience that, when you're giving generous assistance to the under-developed world, much of it is with money properly belonging to the oil producing nations.

When I see the suffering of my more destitute fellow countrymen I blame myself, I blame all those lousy governments we have had ... but I also rightly blame the taxmen in the consumer countries, who are the true petropirates of the world.

In the Daily Journal, Caracas, December 3, 1999

1 de octubre de 1999

Fightning for one's country

Today, debates of the “cross-fire” or “opposite poles” type in which participants each defend opposite or extreme positions are very popular. I recently had the opportunity to be present during one of these debates, live, between to prestigious personalities from a European country. In simplified form, one represented “one trend” (the right), the other represented “the other trend” (the left) and the debate was about “exactly the opposite” (the third way).

The debate, needless to say, was excellent. I enjoyed the intellectual capacities of the debaters, as well as the abilities in the art of debate both of them displayed. Taking advantage of the presence of such distinguished personalities, of the serious academic environment in which the debate took place and the invitation to ask questions, I took it upon myself to ask the following:

Gentlemen: It is well known that in the country you come from, a tax that is often above 800% is levied on the value of gasoline. This type of tax is without a doubt the main reason why our country does not perceive more income from its oil exports. As a citizen of an oil producing country, I ask how, in your opinion, and from the perspective of “exactly the opposite”, the existence of these taxes can be explained in the context of the commercial aperture that is being developed worldwide?

That was the end of “cross-fire” and “opposite poles”. My question immediately fused the opinions of the debaters into one, as if by chemical reaction, and both seemed liberated from any type of academic requirements. Almost in unison both responded something like: Boy! (I am almost 50 years old now, but the response was basically as if I was being treated as “Boy”). You should know that these taxes are imposed in order to reduce gasoline consumption and save the world’s environments from contamination. Additionally, you should be aware of the fact that your country’s main problem is that it is wholly dependant on oil and in this sense it should thank us for any help we can give you in order to reduce this dependence.

This response, the result of a solid defense of national interest over and above any ideological consideration, was for me a true lesson in the policy of economic development. It clearly indicated that any country that cannot rally its people to fight the commercial war, body to body, that globalization has initiated, is utterly and completely lost.

The taxes on oil based products that I have mentioned above are no small matter. According to information obtained for June, courtesy of the Petrol Retailer’s Association of the United Kingdom, a liter of gasoline was sold at the pump for the equivalent of Bs. 661. The distribution of this amount is basically as follows: Bs. 47 (7%) for the distributor, Bs. 68 (11%) for the producer and Bs. 552 (83%) for the British tax authorities.

The taxes apparently have no limit. Governments such as the United Kingdom and Germany have recently formally approved future increases. The Sunday Telegraph of the 29th of August estimates that the gallon of gasoline in England in the year 2010 will be sold at £ 6.90, which is equivalent to Bs. 1,800 per liter. Out of this amount, the producer and the distributor must divide 10% since the taxman intends to keep about 90%.

There is no doubt that should these taxes not exist, Venezuela would today be selling more oil at better prices. There is also no doubt that these taxes represent a major threat to the future of our oil industry. In this sense, the problem should be one of national interest.

Not withstanding the above, there has been an absolute absence of formal protest in Venezuela. What is worse, only a tiny fraction of its citizens are aware of the problem. Worse still, the majority of those that work in the oil industry or that are experts therein, express surprise when confronted with the magnitude of these taxes.

Prices of oil have recently risen. These increases are historically very modest. The European press, however, is full of attacks on the “bad boys” of the OPEC. In The Observer of the 5th of September in England I read that the fault was attributed to “a number of far-flung dictatorships (and the odd democracy)….”, and the fact that OPEC had reduced its production somewhat “alarmed when the price of oil fell to its lowest level in 25 years and their petrol-addicted economies were suffering”.

In Venezuela, we see nothing in the way of response in the sense that the real “petrol-addicted” entities are the fiscal authorities of consumer nations. Our dailies basically limit themselves to reproducing articles that reflect preoccupation with possible inflationary pressures, making the uninformed Venezuelan feel like he is at fault for potential world crises.

It is high time that Venezuela begins to defend itself in a globalized world. For me, the negative effect to the country of having part of the value of our non-renewable assets commandeered by the taxmen in consumer nations is exactly as the same as if guerillas from a neighboring country come across the border and carry away a few barrels. Why do all our patriots have blinders on?

In the Daily Journal, Caracas, October 1, 1999

24 de septiembre de 1999

Close to crying "Yankee go Home"

I am a Venezuelan of European background and was born a few years after the end of World War II. I grew up under the influence of Audie Murphy movies and comic strips that extolled the valor and sacrifice of American soldiers in their efforts to save Europe from the clutches of fascism. As an adolescent, although against the Vietnam War, my little piece of American heart prevented me from participating in public protests outside the US Embassy, and even more so from flag burning.

However as I am nearing my fiftieth birthday, I suddenly have an incredible urge to yell “Yankee Go Home”. This occurred most recently when I read another of Rowan's articles, in this case blasting away at the latest changes implemented at PDVSA.

Theoretically, had we successfully arrived at the end of the opening of the oil industry, the recent cuts in production, which have had such positive effects over the last few months, would have been impossible to execute since the private sector would have to be compensated. The oil opening per se implied a departure, albeit clandestine, from OPEC. Since I have never been convinced that OPEC was losing relevance, I publicly opposed this oil opening policy, asking that its implications be democratically discussed.

I also considered that the Venezuelan oil industry benefited from being divided into several different entities. Even though this evidently represented additional costs, it was a good way of achieving mutual and cross supervision by experts in the industry. Therefore, when we were sold a restructuring based on supposed and overestimated savings (an annual figure of US$ 2 billion was brazenly bandied about) and which simply implied a total centralization of power, I loudly cried foul.

We were told that due to the lack of internal resources it was necessary to invite foreign capital to participate in the development of basic activities such as exploration and production. Soon after, as if by magic, resources suddenly appeared tand were quickly invested in the “strategic” but very poorly explained building of gasoline stations that could also sell fast food. I felt misled and publicly informed PDVSA that the risk of Kuwait building a gas station in Las Mercedes in Caracas in order to compete directly and sell its ultra-light gasoline to the local market was really very slight.

I also protested, and continue to do so, when PDVSA, in the face of an upward trend in outsourcing of services, created the CIED in order to sell seminars and courses to captive clients. I protested and continue to protest when PDVSA, without much explanation, used an inmense amount of resources to finance studies of commercial ports in rivers in the eastern part of the country, for example.

The President of PDVSA should occupy his post as if he were a soldier on a battlefield on a sacred national mission. It wrenched my soul to see how he thinks he is a General Patton instead, and finds his way onto an entire page of the Wall Street Journal as Executive of the Year. Perhaps it should have been Entrepreneur of the Year.

Three years ago, as I traveled in the interior of the country, I observed how high interest rates, new taxes and a foreign exchange policy that in real terms strongly revalued the national currency were taking the country on a wild ride towards recession. At that point, while expressing my anguish at the possibility of a permanent loss of jobs, the then President of PDVSA, as if he were any common politician on TV, happily informed whoever would listen, that Venezuela was "condemned to success”. I almost cried with rage.

Last week, Rowan wrote that PDVSA’s ex-President, Luis Giusti, had produced a bonus of US$ 2.3 billion for the state with the oil opening - as if this were not simply the fruit of oil income perceived in advance, unfortunately already frittered away.

Rowan wrote: “Giusti’s strategy was brilliant. From a national perspective, Giusti was a patriot”. With respect to the recent changes at PDVSA, he wrote: “The development of this country has just been set back twenty years. The only institution in active transition to modernization, professionalism and meritocracy in Venezuela has been sacked. It’s been vandalized, ruined by ideologues from a Dark Age”.

I recently registered a NGO called Petropolitan, and through it I am fighting against the taxes on oil products imposed by a majority of the oil consuming countries of the world. These charges prevent oil-producing countries from receiving what they should rightly be receiving from the sale of their non-renewable resources.

The real value of an item of goods is normally measured at the consumer level, and in this sense the average value of a barrel of oil in the world might have already surpassed US$ 100. Of that value, up to a few months ago, the producer only received US$ 10, and today still has to settle for a meager US$ 20. I hope that someday when the absurd confiscation by taxmen in the developed world is eliminated, they will receive, say US$ 40 or more. If this defense of what is rightly ours classifies me in Rowan’s world as being one of the ideologues of the Dark Ages, then that is exactly what I am, and am proud of being so.

Daily Journal, Caracas, September 24, 1999

23 de julio de 1999

The mouse that roared

This is dedicated to all of those who consider that the only way to combat the actual lack of self esteem present today in the country is to reduce it even further.

Last week, columnist Michael Rowan issued several recommendations for Venezuela, among these that you should “Ask not how you can be protected from the world. Ask only how best you can live in it”. I have frequently asked myself this question, but since the response that begins to develop in my mind is vastly different from the text book type answer hinted at by Mr. Rowan, I wish to make note of some of these differences.

To begin with, and even though I agree that a lot of the country’s internal problems as mentioned by Mr. Rowan really do exist, I consider it to be wrong to label Venezuela as a protectionist country. It could be that he did not know the Venezuela of old, but as of 1989 the country has, not always in a straight line and more often than not out of necessity rather than conviction, been submerged in a process of commercial and cultural aperture of such import that it is today one of the least protectionist countries in the world.

Upon rereading some of the articles I have written over the years, I find clear evidence of the fact that I have always been a constant defender of the markets as prime regulators and motors of the economy and as a consequence of this, I have also always been totally against what is today know as protectionism. In this sense, I am worried that Venezuela’s opening has not produced the desired results.

The commercial recipes common in today’s world are comprised primarily of the following two commandments: 1) Open your borders and allow the products, services and capital offered by the rest of the world to come in so that all of your citizens may have access to the best the world can offer, produced in the most efficient manner possible; 2) Respect the rights to intellectual property and to brands and patents in order to insure the adequate return of costs and to allow those who today fuel development to continue their mission.

In exchange for compliance with these commandments, the interested party is offered a first class ticket on the Train of Sustained Development on the way to a better economic future. Certainly, some of the passengers will be weaker than others. However, if all follow the same basic diet and exercise plan, based on the exploitation of inherent strengths with the adoption of an effort towards specialization, sooner or later, so goes the theory, all will be more or less equal.

Chile, for example, is a good example of what excellent results a ride on this Train can produce. Unfortunately, Venezuela, while having complied with the commandments almost religiously has absolutely nothing to show in the way of favorable results. Why? Rowan would answer, ‘It is Venezuela’s own fault’. I would say that while he is partially right, it is also important to say that the world is not playing a fair ball game.

The indisputable fact is that the world is applying duties on products derived from oil, as is the case of taxes on gasoline that in some parts of the world top 800% and that bar the producers from receiving his fair share of the sale of their resources. If these taxes were eliminated or were simply limited, for example, to something like the 26% duty imposed by Venezuela on the importation, Venezuela’s income would be much greater. Easily US$ 10 billion greater!

In this sense, if I am to respond to Mr. Rowan’s questions as to “How best you can live in it (the world)”, I would not be lying if I told you that I am feeling dangerously close to suggesting that we quit being stupid and that until the world comes around and gives us a fair shake by eliminating the damaging taxes on oil, we begin to behave as rogues.

As a first dish, it would be most tempting to raise all import duties to the same levels each country applies to oil. As a main dish I could suggest we violate all brands and intellectual property rights, copy all medicines and facilitate their generic sale world wide. Finally, as a dessert, I could ask PDV to quit building fancy gasoline stations in Venezuela which, being sure that Kuwait is not waiting in the wings to compete on our turf, do not generate the sale of even one extra liter of gasoline. Instead I would construct large floating gasoline stations, anchor them off the coast of Europe and offer each European entrepreneur with a neoliberal bend the right to freely commercialize our gasoline tax free.

Am I exaggerating? One of the principal elements of discussion in the universe of ecological taxes, the ecotax, is how to insure that oil producing nations are also convinced to adopt fiscal policies involving high oil or energy taxes. The reason for this, in layman’s terms, is that if we don’t, industries that consume large amounts of energy could conceivably move to those countries with cheap energy, causing the loss of jobs in non-oil producing countries. So much for the specialization credo.

We should declare total and absolute war on the injustices of today’s system of commercial interchange. Just like the small country that declared war on Europe in the movie The Mouse That Roared, we have absolutely nothing to lose and much to gain. With so many enemies without why do we need to have enemies within?

In the Daily Journal, Caracas, July 23, 1999

17 de marzo de 1999

La injusta distribución de la actual bonanza petrolera

Henos aquí, consternados por la baja del petróleo, con nuestro país sufriendo hambre, cuando al mismo tiempo, en muchos países del mundo la gasolina está más cara que nunca. Por alguna extraña razón no deseamos darnos cuenta de lo que está pasando, en el sentido de que el petróleo no ha perdido valor, simplemente somos nosotros los que estamos recibiendo menos por él.
Si observamos que un carro, que hace poco se vendía en 30.000 dólares hoy se vende en 100.000, tendríamos que concluir, aun cuando en total se vendan algunos menos, el mercado para dicho carro está atravesando una bonanza. Si el fabricante sólo recibe 10.000, su preocupación no sería el mercado sino quién le está robando el diferencial. ¿Por qué no razonamos de forma similar con el petróleo?
Por ejemplo, con un precio para la gasolina de 20, si se le añaden 5 por distribución y 5 por concepto de IVA y otros impuestos (20%) ésta pudiese llegarle al consumidor en 30. Sin embargo, hoy día en Europa y otros países, el producto está en 10, la distribución sigue en 5 pero el fisco cobra 85, situando el precio final al consumidor en 100.
De los 85 referidos que cobra el fisco, 80 son definitivamente un exceso y conforman, en esencia, un arancel comercial del 800%. Me pregunto: ¿Qué otro producto pudiera vivir con un arancel del 800%? ¿Qué estaría diciendo un fabricante de carros si hoy tuviese que reducir su ingreso, de 20.000 a 10.000 por unidad, sufriendo además una contracción en la demanda, al tener que aumentar el precio final del vehículo de 30.000 a 100.000, por el solo hecho de que el fisco ahora, en vez de 5.000, quiere obtener 85.000 en ingreso fiscal por unidad?
La OPEP y los demás productores petroleros no dicen nada sobre el tema y me desespera pensar que en la próxima reunión de la OPEP sólo discutan la reducción de la producción petrolera, como única opción para fortalecer los precios.
El mundo, tal como yo lo veo, le ha declarado la guerra a los países productores de petróleo; ya les han ganado una inmensa cantidad de batallas y aún no se han dado cuenta. O reaccionamos o no tenemos salvación. Cada barril de petróleo que se extrae, al no ser renovable, equivale a vender, no un bien que se produce, sino un activo del país. Es nuestra responsabilidad asegurarnos de obtener el máximo por él.
La situación sólo ha de empeorar. Un país europeo, como parte de su política 'ambiental'-fiscal, ha declarado un plan de aumentos anuales de los impuestos a la gasolina en un 6% sobre la inflación. Nosotros, ilusos, ciframos nuestras esperanzas en una recuperación del mercado petrolero, cuando tales aumentos significarán para el año 2007 una duplicación del precio de la gasolina, sin que al productor le toque un céntimo más.
La globalización o la apertura de los mercados no significa que se pueda bajar la guardia. Por el contrario, requiere que un país esté más atento que nunca a la defensa de sus intereses. Como ejemplo, basta notar el hecho de que los Estados Unidos amenazan a la Comunidad Europea con unos aranceles del 100%, en defensa de la producción de cambures, fruta que ni siquiera producen en ese país.
Ya es hora de que empecemos a defendernos de verdad. Sugiero analizar las posibilidades de concertar acciones contra aquellos países que aplican, disfrazados como impuesto a la gasolina, unos aranceles exorbitantes al petróleo. Ante la gravedad del asunto, no me temblaría el pulso para imponer aranceles del 799% a los países que tengan impuestos a la gasolina en ese orden, ofreciendo, por supuesto, rebajarlos a 0% como un quid pro quo razonable.
Tampoco podemos seguir aceptando que el Fondo Monetario Internacional siga engañándonos, predicando un desarrollo económico sobre las bases de una apertura comercial y la baja de aranceles, al mismo tiempo que no solo alaba, sino además hace obligatorio para conceder su ayuda, el aumento de los impuestos a la gasolina. Por lo menos deberíamos estudiar las posibilidades de que la OMC intervenga para tratar de rectificar esta política claramente proteccionista, aupada por el FMI.
Acabo de leer un largo ensayo en la prestigiosa revista The Economist titulado el Petróleo Barato, en el cual asoman la posibilidad de que el precio por barril de petróleo caiga a 5 dólares. Aun cuando nos dan un muletazo, indicando que tal disminución, a cuenta del impuesto superior al 80%, no la notará el consumidor en la bomba de gasolina, no dedican una sola palabra al problema de la injusta distribución del ingreso petrolero. Como ciudadano de un país petrolero, me siento tratado como un estúpido.
El consumo actual del petróleo ronda los 73 millones de barriles diarios. Se estima que reducir la producción en 2 millones, puede lograr que los precios no sigan bajando. Señores OPEP y demás países petroleros, les pregunto: ¿Cuál sería el efecto en la demanda si los aranceles actuales del 800% se reducen a un nivel del 100%, aún exorbitante, y provocan de tal manera una disminución del 70% en el precio de la gasolina en Europa y muchos otros países?

LA INJUSTA DISTRIBUCIÓN DE LA ACTUAL BONANZA PETROLERA

Henos aquí, consternados por la baja del petróleo, con nuestro país sufriendo hambre, cuando al mismo tiempo, en muchos países del mundo la gasolina está más cara que nunca. Por alguna extraña razón no deseamos darnos cuenta de lo que está pasando, en el sentido de que el petróleo no ha perdido valor, simplemente somos nosotros los que estamos recibiendo menos por él.
Si observamos que un carro, que hace poco se vendía en 30.000 dólares hoy se vende en 100.000, tendríamos que concluir, aun cuando en total se vendan algunos menos, el mercado para dicho carro está atravesando una bonanza. Si el fabricante sólo recibe 10.000, su preocupación no sería el mercado sino quién le está robando el diferencial. ¿Por qué no razonamos de forma similar con el petróleo?
Por ejemplo, con un precio para la gasolina de 20, si se le añaden 5 por distribución y 5 por concepto de IVA y otros impuestos (20%) ésta pudiese llegarle al consumidor en 30. Sin embargo, hoy día en Europa y otros países, el producto está en 10, la distribución sigue en 5 pero el fisco cobra 85, situando el precio final al consumidor en 100.
De los 85 referidos que cobra el fisco, 80 son definitivamente un exceso y conforman, en esencia, un arancel comercial del 800%. Me pregunto: ¿Qué otro producto pudiera vivir con un arancel del 800%? ¿Qué estaría diciendo un fabricante de carros si hoy tuviese que reducir su ingreso, de 20.000 a 10.000 por unidad, sufriendo además una contracción en la demanda, al tener que aumentar el precio final del vehículo de 30.000 a 100.000, por el solo hecho de que el fisco ahora, en vez de 5.000, quiere obtener 85.000 en ingreso fiscal por unidad?
La OPEP y los demás productores petroleros no dicen nada sobre el tema y me desespera pensar que en la próxima reunión de la OPEP sólo discutan la reducción de la producción petrolera, como única opción para fortalecer los precios.
El mundo, tal como yo lo veo, le ha declarado la guerra a los países productores de petróleo; ya les han ganado una inmensa cantidad de batallas y aún no se han dado cuenta. O reaccionamos o no tenemos salvación. Cada barril de petróleo que se extrae, al no ser renovable, equivale a vender, no un bien que se produce, sino un activo del país. Es nuestra responsabilidad asegurarnos de obtener el máximo por él.
La situación sólo ha de empeorar. Un país europeo, como parte de su política 'ambiental'-fiscal, ha declarado un plan de aumentos anuales de los impuestos a la gasolina en un 6% sobre la inflación. Nosotros, ilusos, ciframos nuestras esperanzas en una recuperación del mercado petrolero, cuando tales aumentos significarán para el año 2007 una duplicación del precio de la gasolina, sin que al productor le toque un céntimo más.
La globalización o la apertura de los mercados no significa que se pueda bajar la guardia. Por el contrario, requiere que un país esté más atento que nunca a la defensa de sus intereses. Como ejemplo, basta notar el hecho de que los Estados Unidos amenazan a la Comunidad Europea con unos aranceles del 100%, en defensa de la producción de cambures, fruta que ni siquiera producen en ese país.
Ya es hora de que empecemos a defendernos de verdad. Sugiero analizar las posibilidades de concertar acciones contra aquellos países que aplican, disfrazados como impuesto a la gasolina, unos aranceles exorbitantes al petróleo. Ante la gravedad del asunto, no me temblaría el pulso para imponer aranceles del 799% a los países que tengan impuestos a la gasolina en ese orden, ofreciendo, por supuesto, rebajarlos a 0% como un quid pro quo razonable.
Tampoco podemos seguir aceptando que el Fondo Monetario Internacional siga engañándonos, predicando un desarrollo económico sobre las bases de una apertura comercial y la baja de aranceles, al mismo tiempo que no solo alaba, sino además hace obligatorio para conceder su ayuda, el aumento de los impuestos a la gasolina. Por lo menos deberíamos estudiar las posibilidades de que la OMC intervenga para tratar de rectificar esta política claramente proteccionista, aupada por el FMI.
Acabo de leer un largo ensayo en la prestigiosa revista The Economist titulado el Petróleo Barato, en el cual asoman la posibilidad de que el precio por barril de petróleo caiga a 5 dólares. Aun cuando nos dan un muletazo, indicando que tal disminución, a cuenta del impuesto superior al 80%, no la notará el consumidor en la bomba de gasolina, no dedican una sola palabra al problema de la injusta distribución del ingreso petrolero. Como ciudadano de un país petrolero, me siento tratado como un estúpido.
El consumo actual del petróleo ronda los 73 millones de barriles diarios. Se estima que reducir la producción en 2 millones, puede lograr que los precios no sigan bajando. Señores OPEP y demás países petroleros, les pregunto: ¿Cuál sería el efecto en la demanda si los aranceles actuales del 800% se reducen a un nivel del 100%, aún exorbitante, y provocan de tal manera una disminución del 70% en el precio de la gasolina en Europa y muchos otros países?

The Unfair Distribution Of Today’s Oil Bonanza

Here we are, worried about the fall in oil prices while our country goes hungry and observing how in other countries around the globe, the price of gasoline at the pump is higher than ever. For some strange reason, we have not wanted to see what is really happening. It is not that oil has lost it’s value, it is simply that we are receiving less for it.

If, for example, a new automobile that has been sold recently at US$ 30,000 now goes for a cool US$ 100,000, we would probably have to conclude that the market for this specific vehicle is booming. If the producer of the automobile only receives US$ 10,000 from the sale, his preoccupation would not be the market, but rather who is walking away with the difference. Why can’t we reason in the same way when it comes to our oil?

For example, it the cost of gasoline were 20 units and you add 5 units to cover distribution and another 5 units to cover value added and other taxes (i.e. taxes of 20%), the final cost to the consumer would theoretically be 30 units. Instead, in countries in Europe and elsewhere, the cost today is 10 units, the distribution chain adds the same 5 units, but the taxman tags on a whopping 85 units. The final price to the consumer turns into 100 units.

Of the total 85 units that go to the taxman, 80 are definitely excessive and basically represent a commercial duty or tariff of 800%. I ask myself, what other product can survive with an import duty of 800%? What would the producer of the automobile described in the example above say if he would be forced to reduce his income from US$ 20,000 per unit to US$ 10,000 and simultaneously be forced to increase the final sales price from US$ 30,000 to US$ 100,000 thereby causing his market to shrink? All this because the taxman now wants to obtain US$ 85,000 per unit instead of US$ 5,000.

OPEC and the rest of the oil producing nations do not protest loud enough and it pains me to think that during the next meeting of OPEC members, discussion will center around the further reduction of production as the only option to firm up the price of oil.

As I see it, the world has declared war on the oil producing nations; the latter have lost an immense amount of battles and they are still unaware. We either react or there is no salvation. Since oil is non-renewable, the production and sale of every barrel is like selling an asset, not a simple manufactured product. It is our responsibility to insure that we maximize the income we receive for it.

The way it looks today, the situation will only get worse. One of the European nations has made public its plan to impose annual increases equivalent to inflation plus 6% on the sale of gasoline as part of its environmentally fiscal policy. This means that the price of gasoline will double by the year 2007 while the producers will not receive one penny more. We, however, continue to naively hope for a recovery of the market for oil.

The globalization or free markets do not mean we must lower our guard. On the contrary, it means our country must be even more wary than ever in order to defend its interests. As an example of this, it is enough to see how the United States are threatening to impose duties of 100% on products imported from EC countries in defense of the production of bananas, a crop that isn’t even grown by them.

It is high time we begin to defend ourselves. I suggest we analyze the possibility of putting together a concerted effort against those countries that put into effect exorbitant duties on oil disguised as a tax on gasoline. The situation is so serious that I would not hesitate to impose duties of 799% on products from countries that tax gasoline at similar levels. I would obviously offer to reduce them to 0% as a reasonable quid pro quo.

Additionally, we cannot continue to accept the continuing pressure from the International Monetary Fund. The IMF pushes economic development based on free markets and low duties. At the same time it does not only praise, but actually makes the increase of taxes on gasoline a must in order to qualify for its assistance. We should at least study the possibility of calling on the World Trade Organization to intervene in order to rectify what is clearly a protectionist policy backed by the IMF.

I have just finished reading a long essay in the prestigious magazine The Economist titled Cheap Oil. The author brings up the possibility that oil could fall to US$ 5 per barrel. While they play games with us, indicating that this fall in prices will not be felt by the final consumer due to taxes in excess of 80%, there is no mention what so ever about the problem of the unjust distribution of oil income. As a citizen of an oil producing nation, I somehow feel I am being taken for a ride and treated like a dunce.

Today’s worldwide production of oil is about 73 million barrels. It is estimated that the reduction of 2 million barrels could stop the prices from falling further. I ask OPEC and other oil producing countries: What would the effect on demand be if today’s duties of 800% are reduced to 100% (which is still exorbitant), thereby provoking a fall of 70% in the price of gasoline at the pump in Europe and in many other countries?          

Daily Journal, Caracas, March 17, 1999

26 de febrero de 1999

A Nation Guilty Of Innocence

In a European country (it does not really matter which it is since in this sense they are pretty much alike), out of every US$ 100 that a motorist spends on gasoline, $ 85 goes towards taxes, $ 5 to cover the cost of distribution and $ 10 or less to pay for the refined product itself. In other words, the amount that a country will be paid in order to extract this non-renewable resource is actually peanuts.

The 85% that goes to the European taxman is nothing other than a simple duty. In normal markets, a fall in oil prices of about 55% should technically result in an increase in consumption. In Europe, however, gasoline prices remain basically the same. This means that the tax authorities simply took advantage of the above-mentioned fall in prices to simply increase their collections.

I am among those that believe that the solutions to Venezuela’s current financial crisis will require much more than a simple increase in oil prices. Among other things, I feel it is necessary to develop a real national conscience which will allows us to properly defend our own interests. Ironically, I don’t see any other place to begin but with our own oil.

Should Venezuela have properly invested the resources obtained during the oil boom, it would definitely been in a better financial position. However, should it not have recycled this income it would have simply aggravated the global recession and would have been considered a pariah. There is no doubt that Venezuela’s crime was to spend and give away excessively. An example of this excess is that the overspending did not only include oil income but indebtedness as well.

However, neither the excess generosity described above, even if it borders on stupidity, nor the country’s masochistic streak (nobody can deny that our problems are self-inflicted) should result in the loss of fair and respectful treatment from the rest of the world.

Because of this, it angers me no end that in spite of the fact that Venezuela is suffering due to low oil prices, the country is not being offered other alternatives to restructure its debt other that suicide by way of the ingestion of 20 year credits at 20% interest per annum available in the marginal emerging market.

The taxes imposed by Europe on gasoline (while they also promote free markets), the prohibition on Orimulsion imposed by Florida (the entity that benefits the most due to its attraction for Venezuelans), and finally, the usurious demands made by the financial markets are sufficient evidence to prove that, even if it seems like a contradiction in terms and even when globalization continues to steam along, it is basically up to every man to look out for himself.

When we also note that the developed world spends huge amount of resources to co-opt those that ‘misbehave’, logic would seem to imply that one simply has to play hardball.

It would seem to me that something like a suspension of landing rights in Venezuela for flights from Florida as a response to that state’s continued imposition of its ban on Orimulsion simply in order to favor some particular local interests, is a fairly civilized level of roughness, specially when compared to what is going on in, for example, Kosovo.

It would seem to me that something like a special duty imposed by Venezuela (preferably backed by OPEC) on all products coming from countries that locally apply a direct tax on oil products is neither worse nor different than all the conflicts being debated today in the international commercial system.

It would seem to me that we would not be asking too much from the United States if we propose to restructure all of our external debt on 30 year terms at an interest rate of 0.5% over Treasury Rates to be repaid in advance if and when the price of oil goes over US$ 30 per barrel. Especially if we consider the expense the USA undertakes in order to build its strategic oil reserves by burying them in underground deposits or in militarily guaranteeing access to other strategically important areas. Especially if we consider that after such a restructure, Venezuela, with a fairly small debt, would immediately merit a much better credit rating than many of the other countries, currently favored by the markets.

Hunger is a violation of human rights. In my country innocent people are suffering from hunger, most of them as a direct result of populism. The battle against internal populism, however, often results in falling into the trap of innocently accepting imposed external economic populism, more often than not resulting in more hunger. It is high time Venezuela defends its own interests by not consistently bending over backwards.

In the Daily Journal, Caracas, February 26, 1999