As the news of Hugo Chavez’s death filtered through the Great Hall of the People yesterday, China’s leaders must have had mixed emotions.
During the past few years they have supported Venezuela’s socialist president with billions of dollars in loans and investments, all aimed at securing access to the country’s abundant oil reserves.
Sinopec and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) are both invested in projects within a vast deposit of oil sands in the Orinoco River basin that contains 1.6 trillion barrels of oil, according to PDVSA, the national oil company.
Venezuela says it will be able to recover 260 billion barrels of that, which would make it the world’s biggest oil reserve.
However, as is often the case, Venezuela’s oil wealth does not seem to have benefited the country much. After winning the presidency in 1999, Chavez’s power rose with the price of oil, but his socialist revolution has caused chaos in the country’s oil industry.
After nationalising most of the foreign-owned oil assets in his first term and firing thousands of workers who disagreed with him, Chavez diverted much of the oil money to socialist projects that were popular with the country’s poorest people but which has left the oil industry under-invested and struggling. Despite all the oil, Venezuelans still suffer from regular power outages.
Even so, China has gambled on Venezuela getting its act together. Sinopec has 40% stakes in two projects (Junin 1 and Junin 8) while CNPC has a 40% stake in one project (Junin 4), with funding coming directly from the unlisted parent companies — or directly from the government, in effect.
“The projects each hold billions of barrels of oil reserves and will require huge investments from the Chinese companies,” according to one source.
In addition to these projects, China Development Bank has agreed to lend Venezuela $46.5 billion since 2008, according to the National Autonomous University of Mexico, with 95% of this amount to be repaid with crude oil.
However, the squandering of this money under Chavez has led many analysts to question PDVSA’s production targets, which have already been halved since 2005.
“Venezuela’s plan to achieve 2.6 million barrels per day of production from Orinoco by 2016 is far too ambitious given local infrastructure problems, as well as financial problems for PDVSA, not to mention political uncertainties,” said the source.
With Chavez gone, China’s new leaders will be hoping for the arrival of a more competent administration, but they will also be worried about a less friendly one.
One potential successor is Henrique Capriles, leader of the centre-right opposition, who has previously said that he would review the contracts signed with China and other countries, and only continue those that are good for Venezuela.
However, few expect such rhetoric to lead to real change, at least in the relationship with China. More important, Capriles is seen as a reformer. He has promised to address some of the problems at the national oil company and is keen to modernise the economy.
The other likely candidate is Chavez’s vice-president, Nicolas Maduro, who would likely continue the socialist policies of his mentor.
Assuming that China is not keen on more of the same under Maduro, it may find itself in the unusual position of backing the socialists’ opponents. Oil is thicker than blood, clearly.