Brazil, Economy, Energy, Environmental Conservation, Inter-American Relations, Mexico, Venezuela

State of Petro: National oil in the Americas

Energy is ever more becoming the piston driving Latin America to the contemporary world stage.

This reality arrives in lieu of major Chinese and Russian investments in Venezuela’s petroleum belt, Mexico’s intense debate over how to diversify foreign investment in its state-run energy powerhouse, and Brazil’s ever-expanding oil coffers that continue to propel its economy upward in the face of a global economic recession.

These three states lead energy production in Latin America and will increasingly become a lifeline for the world’s swelling consumer demand, and key to its sustainable growth. Petroleum and natural gas have for a time been assets sought heavily by the US and Europe, but now draw clientele from the surging populace of China, India, and wider Eurasia.

Amid this equation, guaranteed global supplies remain variable, tending to degrade in both refining ease and reserve accessibility. This, coupled with security concerns in the Middle East, marks a unique opportunity for the region to fund much needed domestic reform and present viable energy initiatives to the international community, beyond the distant third tier.

A fundamental challenge in scaling these energy companies to meet such global demand will be the state’s ability to balance its investment and revenue model. All three of these Latin American countries highlighted here have state-run energy sectors, though all are not created equal. For a more informative look, see the comparative breakdown below:

Country México Brazil Venezuela
Founded 1938 1953 1975
Petro Profile Heavy Crude (2/3, Maya), Light Crude (1/3, Isthmus & Olmeca) Predominantly Heavy Crude (Marlim), although newly discovered, subsalt fields are of Light grade and Sweet substance Almost entirely Extra-Heavy Crude, of Sour substance (high sulfur)
Proven Reserve Capacity 10-13.68 billion 12.35 billion 99 billion
Largest Reserve Cantarell Sugar Loaf Orinoco Belt
Onshore / Offshore % 20/80 40/60 Predominately onshore reserves, spread across 4 principal fields. Shallow water reserves in the Maracaibo Basin
Production Output 2.8 million bbl/d 2.72 million bbl/d 1.5 million bbl/d
Refining Capabilities 1.5 million bbl/d (6 refineries) 2.223 million bbl/d (16 refineries) 1.28 million bbl/d (Domestic & foreign refineries- Citgo USA)
Annual Revenue US $98 Billion (2008) US $118.3 billion (2008) US $120 billion (2008), est. US $50 billion  (2009)
Foreign Investors Sparse due to tight regulation by state apparatus, although the Calderón adminstration has opened doors for foreign investment on the deep sea exploration front Private sector energy (Shell, Cheveron), BP (biofuels), China Previous investors included major intl. petroleum giants, but after state reappropriation, Russia, Iran, China, & Brazil have agreed to looser terms under the Bolivarian regime
Principal Export Recipient(s) United States Largely utilized for growing domestic consumption, biofuels (ethanol) make up bulk of energy export United States & Europe, China fastest growing consumer

SOURCES: US Energy Information Administration, Oil & Gas Journal, Business Week, CIA World Factbook

These numbers are enlightening in the sense that they present a snapshot of current carrying capacity and orientation of each state’s petroleum sector. However, a deeper study of energy futures can prove to be a bit speculative.

In the case of México, PEMEX has long been the case study on state investment of natural resource and economic autonomy. It relies heavily on taxes from its rich output to fund an array of federal initiatives and deliver energy to the Mexican consumer at a subsidized price. But, wrought with declining output on its principal oil field, Cantarell, the company has a need to exploit deeper off-shore deposits that require sophisticated equipment and a niche expertise– tasks honed upon by transnational powerhouses such as ExxonMobil, BP, and other state companies such as PETROBRAS. Due to this shifting source dynamic, the Calderón administration has worked diligently to promote external investment. This however remains a major political hot button due to historic precedent, as the industry’s sovereignty is seen as a sacred right to the Mexican populace. PEMEX has more than the necessary resources to carry onward, but significant institutional reform will remain fundamental.

PETROBRAS has gained measurable authority in the international energy sector both for the diversification of its investments, and the expertise of its workforce. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has worked diligently to build a state model that profit shares with private enterprise, while promoting a solid domestic refining infrastructure. Recent offshore discoveries in sub-salt reserves via the Tupi fields continue to grow the Brazilian lot, while Brazilian officials are aiming to funnel revenue to direct state initiatives and maintain energy independence. For the time being, Brazil appears to be playing its cards right to promote sizable production in means to maximize internal growth. It will be interesting to see when it goes net positive in its production, to which countries it will direct its resources.

Turning to the more volatile petroleum sector, Venezuela has seen its share of production ebbs and waves in the past decade. President Hugo Chávez has too tapped into the ‘petro vein’ to fund large swaths of state initiatives, however often with a playbook at odds with much of its professional workforce. Lack of international investment (due to restrictive reappropriation efforts) and flight of expertise have reduced export capacity and bogged down exploratory projects in the Llanos sector and Orinoco Basin. The state energy company, PDVSA, however sits upon perhaps the world’s largest crude reserves in the Orinoco Belt, rivaling fields in Saudi Arabia. Due to its heavy tar-like viscosity though, special refining capabilities are needed to extract petroleum from sand and sludge– a role the United States currently fulfills. This is where large investment by China and Russia will float PDVSA initiatives in the near future despite waste from within. This, while the Venezuelan state maintains institutional direction and pads its GDP.

Overall, with the exception of Brazilian offshore reserves, it appears that most new petroleum pools are of heavier grade crude. This will require a more expensive refining process and specialized facilities, promoting favorable conditions for foreign direct investment (FDI) and transnational partnerships.

The manner in which each of these companies respond to its new role in the world energy sector will be developments watched closely by all, but seems to present favorable prospects to a long-forgotten region.

Standard
Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Inter-American Relations, U.S. Foreign Policy, Venezuela, War on Drugs

UNASUR: Amid bickering, García calls BS on Chávez Rant


Felipe Ariza, Presidencia – SP

Not surprisingly, the bilateral defense agreement to extend terms of US presence in Colombia has ruffled the feathers of a few Latin American leaders at the Unasur conference in the mountain oasis of Bariloche, Argentina this week.

In reality, most everyone who follows this agreement, and the two countries’ historic defense cooperation, realizes this is merely a formalization of affairs. It’s no secret the US had a definitive role assisting Colombian officials in the hostage dupe against the FARC (Operation Jaque) last year, nor that they continue to provide intelligence, logistics, and training to its officials in means to undermine insurgent opposition and disrupt narco factions.

However, by no means have we seen a surge of in US troop/contractor levels, ceding of Colombian sovereignty, nor direct engagement that even remotely presents a bellicose shift toward neighboring American states. Any quips of this nature are fabrications of pure ‘Pixar’ scale. Now, whether or not this extended agreement is truly an effective defense measure for either country, alongside Plan Colombia, is another debate entirely.

Nonetheless, verbal crossfire ensued between the ALBA-aligned nations and president Álvaro Uribe of Colombia surrounding the sealed agreement. While Uribe outlined the case of mutual responsibility in such partnership and preached its concrete results that extend beyond verbal apathy, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa emphasized the ulterior motives of US force projection and the destabilizing nature of such a move.

This is rather ironic considering that it was Correa’s mandate to scrub the lower-profile U.S. base in Manta that spurred this broadened initiative. And, in literal terms of regional destabilization, Chávez has a wrap sheet of saber rattling, ‘covert’ support for illicit factions, and arms acquisition from Russia and elsewhere that clearly trump any augmentative facet of this development.

Perhaps the most amusing exchange in this reunion came from Peruvian president Alan García, in lieu of Chávez’s insinuation that the US was preparing to invade Venezuela for its vast energy resources:

“Man, why are they going to dominate the petroleum if you already sell it all to the United States?” Mr. García said. The remark drew laughter, though not from Mr. Chávez.”

For a solid video recap of the summit, check out BBC Mundo (in Spanish), or its article review (in English).

Also, for more on the Chávez front, check out the polarizing profile by former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Otto Reich, at ForeignPolicy.com.

Standard
Elections, Mexico

PRI greases electoral machine in Mexican midterms

A number of weeks ago I happened to be visiting some friends in the Coahuila state of northern Mexico, just in the run-up to yesterday’s midterm, regional elections. Let’s just say you’d have to be living in a very deep hole to forgo the propaganda for its PRI governor candidate, Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz. In fact, between PRI’s luminous billboards and the beehive of Oxxo convenience stores, I had little trouble directing a taxi driver to distant locations in the city of Saltillo by pure landmark (psss, GPS, for what?). Well, it paid off.

After quite unsettling results in 2006, PRI yesterday gained critical traction nationwide, but specifically in Mexico’s federal congress, pulling rank among a divided legislature. It now carries 36% of its seats, allowing them to slingshot president Calderón’s party, PAN (27%), with the working consent of the minority party, PRD (12%). The result is a rather uncharacteristic power share in a traditionally unilateral Mexican government.

For a concise and introspective brief on the shifts implications for the Calderon’s administration, check out Alberto Saracho’s analysis on America’s Quarterly blog, reporting from Mexico City. One particular point that drew my eye came in lieu of the national budget:

Government efforts to improve the level of tax collection—one of the lowest such rates in Latin America—will also be affected by yesterday’s vote. Although it was not widely publicized, the PAN has been working with the executive to approve changes in the fiscal law that would improve public money collection. This was on target to go through after the elections, but its future may now be in doubt since one of the PRI’s main campaign promises was to not raise taxes. Either way, a solution must be found to find new revenue streams for the federal government—recent reductions in oil prices and the worldwide recession have hampered the government’s ability to obtain resources for to pay for basic functions.

Yea, a faltering tax base might pose a bit of a challenge to match cartel revenue in the billions of dollars and reign in a throbbing economy– amid shrinking remittances from abroad, a reeling tourist industry, and oh yea, the lack of technical investment in Pemex. Ouch.

While some analysts pinpoint PRI’s electoral gain to reactionary voter vengeance, maybe the old party cowboy can turn things around for Mexico. Certainly never hurts to be an optimist.

Standard
Colombia, Inter-American Relations, News, U.S. Foreign Policy, War on Drugs

US – Colombian alliance dying? Ah, not quite.


Presidencia – SP

Much has been made of a rift developing between Colombia’s Uribe administration and its US counterpart in the new Obama team. After all, the interstate free trade agreement (TLC) debuted on the Washington scene more or less dead-on-arrival, Plan Colombia funds face increased scrutiny and measures to reallocate distribution, and Colombia’s human rights reputation in the global sphere suffers in the shadows of organized extrajudicial killings. Don’t forget the background buzz of an audacious third presidential mandate for Uribe on the horizon. At face value, just a little bleak.

In truth, this distancing on some level was inevitable when one considers the synergy the Uribe and Bush administrations carried across his two terms. This in itself is not a gamebreaker, as the United States and Colombia entertain a longstanding partnership on multiple fronts. However, considering Bush’s wildly unpopular image across the Americas, preferential treatment at this point by the Obama team signals no shift in US diplomatic intentions, nor does its amplify the message of a new era previewed by Obama at this year’s Summit of the Americas. Diplomacy of now calls for a timeout on the dramatic award swapping and public displays of affection.

That being said, I see no tangible evidence of weakening in the US – Colombian strategic relationship. Its orientation will shift toward a more pan-regional approach, in security, energy and economic initiatives, but both countries have vested interests in maintaining strong ties and promoting this broader agenda.

Several realities back this notion. First, while Uribe and Obama were ‘walking the dog‘ in front of the press corp this week at the White House, jousting on the above mentioned tensions, Cambio magazine published an exclusive yesterday, citing a near finalized process to amplify US SOUTHCOM’s presence across five proposed bases in Colombia. Last April I outlined the initial whispers of DOD moving shop to its Andean neighbor after getting the boot from the Manta forward operating location in Ecuador. But, the scope of this proposed ten year lease would mark a shift in US defense and counternarcotics operations in scale, projection and orientation in the region.

While Colombian defense minister Freddy Padilla has made it clear that negotiations are indeed underway, he and others in the Uribe administration have made strident efforts to emphasize the more integrated nature of this agreement. In essence, the US presence would be on a shorter leash, operating in the context of collaborative guests, privy to limitations on immunity ordained to US personnel, military and civilian, that carry out mission objectives in Colombian territory.

Predictably, this remains a sensitive issue for US officials. It strongly objects to the trying of US citizens involved in state business under international jurisdiction. The advantages to this agreement however, would further force projection and narcotics interdiction efforts to include the Caribbean and Pacific sectors, and through the well equipped operations base, Palanquero, in central Colombia. Colombia would too benefit on some level from bolstered surveillance and counterinsurgency capabilities provided by US military aid.

Still to be determined is the legality of such an agreement under Colombian law. Critics question whether the nature of foreign force augmentation would require permission from its congress and/or supreme court. In any case, this move spells anything but toeing away from US security commitment to its Andean counterpart.

A second reality appears a bit more dubious for now, but nonetheless will come to pass. I’m fairly confident that the Obama administration would have no qualms in pushing the Colombian Free Trade Agreement out the door under a subdued political climate. Yet, much as during the election season, this move under our economic dry spell would equate to swift political suicide. Now it would not only do battle with labor unions, but the American taxpayer would also cry ‘job exodus’.

In reality, as many have pointed out, much of these free trade stipulations already exist and are actively utilized by multinationals– just in temporary form. The benefit of actually solidifying them would draw greater potential for foreign investment under the premise of economic security to Colombian industry. Between intermittent nationalization and waves in free trade initiatives, many international firms will simply not invest in Latin American infrastructure if there are marginal doubts of its sustainability in hard times. Bottom line, yes, labor conditions and security are issues, but not the principal factor halting the agreement.

Beyond these two dynamics stand many more complexities — but regardless of who draws numbers in the upcoming 2010 Colombian presidential election, they’ll likely recognize this alliance has, in reality, drifted little, even if now a bit more behind closed doors.

Standard
Admin

Blogopia

After a much longer than anticipated hiatus tending to my paycheck obligations and the travel bug, I now hope to return to regular posting. Despite woefully neglecting this blog, check out the fruits of sacrifice with the new ForeignPolicy.com, when you have a spare moment. Don’t miss this year’s Failed States Index, which features a number of interesting developments on Latin American states.

In the meantime, as most of you have undoubtedly noticed, there’s been no lack of developments coming from the region of recent. This upcoming week I want to dig into a few of these pressing issues, at least to piss off someone in the blogosphere and rile up some much needed debate.

Standard
Colombia, Locuras, Media

Last action hero— Uribe's prowess on the airwaves

Perusing the Colombian presidential site recently, I happened to stumble upon perhaps the most entertaining and self-aggrandizing highlight reel of Álvaro Uribe to date, donning a gushy tagline, ‘[A] fighter for democracy- 2008: A historic year’.

If the title doesn’t throw you a bone, the Tony Scott-esque, multi-hued quick cuts, and dramatic choir score all but drown you in Colombia’s political meld ’08. The short boasts a theatrical depiction of the year’s crises, to a theme vaguely reminiscent of Man on Fire— Uribe confronts Colombian injustice with a personal fervor, not afraid to rub elbows. Well, almost.

Running a hefty 20+ minutes, the recap of his administration’s advances in its ‘Democratic Security’ agenda marches to an obsessive crescendo rhythm: enter the ominous threat (be it FARC, ponzi schemes, etc.), pause for a reflecting lull, and alas, queue the over-the-top reverence of Uribe’s resolution (think teary Jerry Springer reunion of abandoned orphan siblings).

Apart from its telenovela sappiness, the video provokes its viewer and however awkwardly, highlights just a few reasons Uribe retains an impressive approval rating among Colombians. Not only has the president towed a line of security advances this past year, but he also showcases a cunning ability to leverage the media—both domestically and internationally.

It’s actually quite fascinating to observe the dichotomy of Uribe’s public demeanor in each sphere.

In declarations and interviews to the Colombian populace, he passes as intellectually calculating, authoritative, and rather inflexible to his agenda’s detractors (ie. branding his critics camouflaged communists or guerrilla sympathizers). Although undeniably a master orator, on many occasions he tends to polarize an audience with sharp rhetoric.

Whether it be at President Bush’s side in the Rose Garden, or at the table with Charlie Rose, Uribe has a lightened demeanor all together when addressing the international arena. Yes, iterating the complexities of one’s agenda in a foreign language dulls the scene, but more so, Uribe knows his audience, what he wants, and is quite witty in his varied approach to obtain it. He was an attorney after all.

While Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez often grabs headlines for the audacity of his media stunts and rants on his weekly television program, perhaps Bush, who awarded Uribe the Medal of Freedom this week, now wonders why he hadn’t sought a few media pointers from his more subtle, South American ally.

Standard
Colombia

‘Firm hand, big heart’ really at play for Uribe?

César Carrión – SP

The FARC has been dealt a series of stiff blows in 2008— its founding father forfeits to the abyss, several of its principal commanders are killed, even betrayed, and actionable intelligence flows from a wave of demoralizing desertions. In its wake, president Uribe has refortified his campaign of ‘Democratic Security’, to unprecedented approval ratings among Colombians.

Yet, the rural insurgency slugs onward, low-level and diminished, but at a perpetual buzz. The state’s counterinsurgency campaign has for the time plateaued.

Uribe now faces a tactical crossroad. He’s rolled back force projection of the rebel faction and fractured its operational cohesion. Utilizing his venerable, Mano Firme (Firm Hand) tactics, he has calculatingly diminished the state adversary in both size and capacity, gleaning intelligence and pouncing when it yields actionable targets.

However, the promise always on the horizon, but almost impalpable to the pages of Colombian history— a demobilization of the guerrilla— might just hinge upon the latter part of the president’s catchphrase doctrine, Corazón Grande (Big Heart). Aptly, does the conflict now call for more carrot than stick?

To this end, Uribe reiterated this past week the government’s offer to grant ‘liberty’ to any guerrilla who chooses to abandon the cause and takes with them a hostage to be freed. This serves to undermine discipline through the FARC ranks, appear lenient to the public, and marks potential to draw hostages out by exploiting FARC’s weakest internal links.

In a stump speech from Popayán, Uribe articulated the policy in a rather round-about and ambiguous manner. One is left pondering what exactly the demobilization guarantees the FARC member and what it really means with regard to the judicial review of state crimes— listen below (in Spanish):

[audio:http://web.presidencia.gov.co/banco/2008/diciembre/voces/voz3469.mp3|titles=President Uribe on Demobilization of FARC w/ Hostages]

In summary, Uribe equates this offer to the preconditions of a humanitarian exchange, under which grave crimes against the state cannot be forgiven outright with impunity— they must enter the judicial process for investigation and rendered to due process of the courts. However, in highlighting the case of the recently defected guerrilla, alias ‘Isaza’, Uribe emphasizes an offer of fair treatment, leniency, and generous monetary compensation. Isaza fled a FARC camp with former congressman Oscar Tulio Lizcano and has since been given medical attention and offered asylum in France under the wing of former captive, Ingrid Betancourt.

Uribe’s intended message? Pretty straight forward: flee your dire straits with a hostage and you will be compensated with a potentially respectable living– choose to continue waging the insurgency and you will end up in a body bag.

While I believe this psychological run is a very effective tactic in undermining the FARC, I remain skeptical due to the extremely ambiguous nature of the offer. These guerrillas face a certain death if caught attempting to desert. For a bite at the carrot, the state has to dangle something provocative. Beyond this, if judging by the ugly mess of contemporary paramilitary demobilization, there is much reason for both sides and their respective victims to remain skeptical of guarantees.

Standard