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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By Risa Grais-Targow
With Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gravely ill and the Castro brothers in their twilight years, debate has begun to focus on the future of Chavez's brand of leftist politics in Latin America. There is widespread speculation as to which leader might assume Chavez's role in the region, even though his influence has arguably been on the decline. Among the possibilities bandied about is Ecuador's President Rafael Correa. Correa easily won a third term in the Feb. 17 elections, beating his closest opponent, Guillermo Lasso, by more than 30 percentage points. Correa also expanded his base of support in the National Assembly, where his Alianza Pais looks likely to achieve an absolute majority. Correa, like Bolivia's Evo Morales and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, owes much to Chavez, who served as a model for socialist policies, anti-imperialist rhetoric, and doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to his regional allies. While Correa may aspire to use his strong mandate to assume leadership of the Chavez-created Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas, his ability to do so will be limited.
First and foremost, Correa simply lacks the resources. Ecuador is a relatively small country (its GDP is about 20 percent of Venezuela's), and while it is a major oil producer, it does not boast the quantity of oil that can sustain Chavez-like regional "petro-diplomacy" and aid programs. Moreover, in the likely event that Chavez's chosen successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, wins a new election, there is no evidence to suggest that he doesn't want to fill Chavez's regional leadership role himself. So far, Maduro's actions suggest that he will represent policy continuity. He is close with the Cuban regime and has imitated Chavez's playbook thus far, including cracking down on the private sector and suggesting that foreign agents were planning an assassination attempt against him.
That doesn't mean that Correa won't try. He boasts much of Chavez's charisma, and has taken every opportunity to vault himself, and Ecuador, onto the international stage, typically at the expense of US policy interests. This has been particularly true since Chavez first became ill in June 2011. Correa boycotted last year's Summit of the Americas in protest of Cuba's absence, and more recently made headlines by granting Julian Assange political asylum. While Venezuela grapples with its internal transition challenges, rather than its regional agenda, Correa could heighten his anti-imperialist rhetoric. Regardless, however, Correa's decisive victory-along with the endurance of Morales in Bolivia, Ortega in Nicaragua, and more center -- left governments in Peru and Brazil -- suggests that the left in Latin America has staying power, with or without Chavez.
Risa Grais-Targow is an associate in Eurasia Group's Latin America practice.
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The Call, from Ian Bremmer, uses cutting-edge political science to predict the political future -- and how it will shape the global economy.