Opinion

Biggest news for Latin America: Low oil prices

While other issues dominated the headlines, the most important news for Latin America in 2014 – and the one that will have the biggest impact in the near future – was the dramatic collapse of world oil prices.

Granted, other news such as President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that the United States will normalize relations with Cuba and the reelection of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will no doubt have an impact. But nothing is likely to change the region’s political map like the decline in world oil prices, which have plummeted nearly 50 percent since June to the current level of about $55 a barrel.

According to a new International Monetary Fund study released last week, it’s a trend that is likely to stay with us in coming years.

The study, by IMF economists Rabah Arezki and Olivier Blanchard, notes that the oil futures market suggests that prices will rebound slightly to about $73 a barrel by 2019, but that they will remain depressed compared to their levels of recent years. Oil prices hit a record of $145 a barrel in 2008.

The main reasons behind the decline in oil prices are the energy revolution going on in the United States, which has dramatically increased oil production thanks to a new technology known as “fracking,” and a decline in the demand of oil because of the recent world economic downturn.

Oil importing countries will be the big winners, and oil exporters such as Russia, Venezuela and Ecuador the big losers. But, worldwide, the international economy will be better off, with an increase of between 0.3 and 0.7 percent in the world’s gross domestic product in 2015, the IMF paper says.

In Latin America, by far the most hard-hit country will be Venezuela, which relies on oil for 95 percent of its total exports.

Since the 1999 Socialist revolution of late President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has virtually decimated its private sector, and has become more oil dependent than ever.

At the same time, Venezuela has failed to invest in new oil-refineries, and its oil production is falling rapidly.

With inflation in Venezuela estimated at an annual rate of 70 percent and its economy shrinking by 3 percent this year, most economists agree that unless the country makes a political U-turn and adopts pro-investment policies, it will be lucky if it can avoid hyper-inflation over the next few years.

The new energy landscape has suddenly turned Venezuela from a major regional player – which bankrolled more than a dozen Latin American and Caribbean nations in exchange for their political loyalty – into an increasingly weaker political actor.

Venezuela’s clout in the region has been directly proportional to world oil prices: when oil prices were on their way to an all-time record in the mid-2000’s, Chavez was campaigning to become a Third World leader. Now, Venezuela cannot even keep its closest ally, Cuba, from seeking economic relief from the United States.

Brazil, Mexico and Argentina are also likely to suffer somewhat from the decline in oil prices, but nowhere nearly as much as Venezuela or Ecuador.

With depressed oil prices, Brazil and Argentina will have a harder time attracting investments for their recently discovered massive oil reserves. And Mexico may see fewer investments than it expected after its major energy reform this year, economists say.

But other factors will make up for these potential losses, such as bigger purchases from China and the United States, two major oil importers that are benefiting from declining oil prices.

My opinion: Granted, the U.S.-Cuba thaw and Rousseff’s reelection will have a political impact across the region, but perhaps not as much as their respective headlines may have suggested.

Obama’s normalization deal with Cuba is likely to be watered down by the Republican-controlled Congress, and by Cuba’s regime, which needs a foreign enemy to justify its repression of fundamental freedoms at home.

Brazil’s president, in turn, is taking office as one of the weakest Brazilian leaders in recent history. Not only did nearly 50 percent of Brazilians vote against her, but she will have significant opposition in Brazil’s Congress, and – perhaps more important – faces growing revelations of government corruption in the Petrobras oil company.

But none of these headlines will affect the region as much as the sharp decline in oil prices. Latin America’s petro-populist countries have suddenly become weak, and the ones with economically responsible governments will become increasingly assertive in the regional scene. Things are changing.

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Email him at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.

  Comments