South America: Reality Check on Lithium Fantasies

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Lithium mine at Salinas Grandes salt desert Jujuy province, Argentina/ EARTHWORKS/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

The urgent need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and transition to an energy matrix centered on renewable energy guarantees a steady demand for lithium, but speculation that South America is on the cusp of a lithium boom is premature. The chemical is critical in the production of rechargeable batteries for mobile devices, electric vehicles, and, increasingly, renewable energy storage systems. The so-called Lithium Triangle of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile holds just over half the world’s currently known lithium deposits, while Brazil and Peru have large amounts of spodumene hard rock that contains lithium.

  • Lithium in its natural form is part of a chemical compound that requires a complex re-composition process to make, among other things, lithium‑ion battery cells. How it is mined entails significant cost differences. Lithium from the brine below salt flats in Argentina and Chile is currently the most cost-competitive. While Bolivia also has brine deposits, the lithium is less concentrated, contains more impurities, and is found at more difficult-to-access lower depths in the Uyuni salt flats. Accessing lithium in spodumene hard rock pegmatites is even more complicated and hence costlier. The advantage, though, is that this type of lithium synthesizes better with the higher nickel content required to improve electric vehicle performance and range.

The region’s largest producers adopted different approaches to capitalizing on lithium reserves.

  • In 2008, then-President Evo Morales of Bolivia restricted extraction to the state-owned Corporación Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL) because past commodity boom and bust cycles profited foreigners and left little wealth but plenty of environmental catastrophes and other social ills in their wake. In 2017, lithium extraction was transferred to the newly created Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos (YLB).  Morales also promoted public-private partnerships to jointly produce batteries and even electric vehicles in Bolivia. The latter echoes a failed Andean Pact initiative during the 1970s in which aspects of automobile production were to be distributed among different member states. The scheme failed because, among other reasons, manufacturing anything in isolated Bolivia was cost prohibitive due to poor infrastructure. Several decades later, logistical realities still make exporting a Bolivian-produced electric vehicle, let alone lithium‑ion batteries, economically unfeasible.
  • Chile, which also deems lithium to be a strategic mineral, imposes onerous production quotas on private-sector producers and requires that they sell 25 percent of their output at preferential rates to domestic downstream buyers. The set-aside provision is designed to encourage manufacturing in Chile of lithium‑ion battery components such as cathodes, hydroxide, and electrolytes. While Argentina is more accepting of private investment in its lithium industry, the country is notorious for recurring economic crises and erratic oscillation in economic policy that make investing in the country a high-risk proposition.

Complicating resource extractive activities in South America are heightened environmental sensitivities. Indigenous communities are well versed in the prior consultation obligation of ILO Convention 169 as well the free, prior, and informed consent requirements of the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. For over a decade now, the continent has seen numerous energy and mining projects blocked and even abandoned because of an actual or perceived failure to adequately consult with detrimentally impacted Indigenous communities. Lithium brine deposits in the Lithium Triangle countries are found in some of the most arid spots on the planet, raising concerns that the water-intensive lithium brine extraction process directly competes with subsistence agricultural activities in nearby communities. This has sparked major road blockades protesting mining projects in Argentina’s Jujuy province and in southwestern Bolivia, as well as court litigation in both Argentina and Chile.

The panorama for the lithium industry in South America is subject to new social and political realities that were not true of past commodity booms. There is little tolerance today for extractive investment projects that are not environmentally sustainable and do not benefit local communities. This trend will accelerate with efforts to turn the voluntary United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights into a binding legal treaty. In addition, Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) principles emanating from the UN’s Principles for Responsible Development now make it very difficult for corporate management to push through projects that result in serious environmental damage and human rights abuses.

  • An example of this trend was the announcement last month that Daimler AG, Volkswagen AG, and BASF would join Dutch smartphone manufacturer Fairphone to launch the Responsible Lithium Partnership so that extraction in northern Chile will not negatively affect the sensitive ecosystem or the people who live in the surrounding areas.

July 14, 2021

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and a lecturer with the International Relations Program at Stanford University.

Mexico: AMLO’s Backwards Move on Fossil Fuels

By Daniela Stevens*

Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE) Building/ ThinkGeoEnergy/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s proposal early last month to overhaul the country’s electricity market – which appears likely to become law – will betray the country’s climate change commitments, curtail private investment, and hurt consumers. Rooted in 1960s left-wing nationalism, AMLO’s vision is for a state-led, fossil fuel-powered electricity system. It is blind to what many experts consider the urgency for the government to coordinate with the private sector, which he prefers to portray as an adversary, on strategies to curb carbon emissions.

  • The lower Chamber approved the proposal “without changing a comma,” as the President asked. The Senate passed it last night, but the law will face obstacles in court. The Supreme Court in February declared that some guidelines that the Secretariat of Energy presented last May were unconstitutional because they hindered free competition and unduly benefitted the state electricity utility, La Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE).
  • AMLO’s plan reverses the principle of “economic dispatch” – a provision of the 2014 Electricity Industry Law (LIE) that requires the most efficient power plants (those with the lowest production cost) to be the first to upload electricity to the grid. Given the inefficiency of the CFE’s aging hydroelectric and thermoelectric plants, the law currently favors renewables like wind and solar, which are generally inexpensive and in the hands of private investors. AMLO wants to give preference to CFE ahead of private generators.
  • Since hydroelectric plants cannot satisfy electricity demand, the main beneficiaries will be the power plants that generate electricity from fossil fuels. The administration has repeatedly argued, without evidence, that renewables should be downsized because they are unreliable and give undue advantage to private capital. In the President’s view, the initiative would end “price simulation” in a market that favors private participants.

The international community, private sector, and civil society organizations immediately rejected the proposal.

  • The country’s largest business organization, El Consejo Coordinador Empresarial (CCE), called it an “indirect expropriation” of private power plants. Further, the private sector warned that the proposal would lead to national and international lawsuits for state compensation.
  • Diplomats representing the European Union, Canada, and the United States in Mexico said the move will damage the investment climate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce pointed out that the “deeply worrisome” initiative violates the free trade spirit of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), undermining the confidence of foreign investors.
  • Activists and civil society organizations across Mexico said the policy reverses progress toward decarbonization and called it an infringement of international environmental commitments, such as the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda.

López Obrador’s response to the criticism has been to claim his proposal restores Mexico’s energy sovereignty and self-determination, but it ignores the reality of the country’s dependence on U.S. natural gas – brought home when last month’s snowstorm in Texas paralyzed production and eventually caused blackouts in 26 of Mexico’s 32 states. Indeed, he flipped the narrative in claiming Mexico’s handling of the crisis was a “success of CFE’s workers,” compared to the “failure” of the liberalized electricity sector in Texas.

  • Relying predominantly on the fossil fuel intensive CFE only deepens Mexico’s vulnerability. Natural gas – 80 percent of which comes from the United States – is used to cover around 60 percent of Mexican energy needs. The proposal also fails to address some deeper issues, such as the lack of storage capacity, diversity in power generation sources, and investment in the electric grid to incorporate renewables.

The move is typical of AMLO’s fixation with grandiose national projects, such as El Tren Maya and the Dos Bocas refinery, both of which will harm the ecosystem of the Tehuantepec Isthmus, and to waste money in obsolete and polluting technology that shows disregard for climate change in favor of short-sighted energy nationalism. The reform not only defies climate issues; it challenges the energy sector’s autonomy, chills the investment environment, and marks a return to monopolistic and authoritarian practices.

March 3, 2021

* Daniela Stevens is an Assistant Professor at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City.

Southern Cone: Rapid Transition to Non-Conventional Renewable Energy

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Edificio Alexander

Edificio Alexander, a building in Punta del Este, Uruguay, that produces wind energy on its roof. / Jimmy Baikovicius / Flickr / Creative Commons

South America’s Southern Cone is undertaking a transition to non-conventional, renewable energy resources – that is, production not dependent on fossil fuels or large-scale hydropower – that creates the opportunity for a historic regional consensus on energy policy.  Uruguay and Chile are at the forefront.  Both lack significant fossil fuel reserves and have experienced crises when droughts detrimentally impacted hydro-supplied electricity.  For them, the rapid shift to other forms of domestically sourced renewables is as much a means to guarantee energy security as to combat climate change.  Approximately a third of Uruguay’s electricity is currently generated from wind power (up from only one percent as recently as 2013).  Similarly, about a third of Chile’s electric power – depending on the time of day – is sourced from the sun and the wind.

  • Brazil has also made significant strides in incorporating wind, and to a lesser degree, solar power into its energy matrix. The primary motivation is the need to offset carbon emissions from the burning of rain forests and the country’s greater use of natural gas.  Brazil has long enjoyed the cleanest energy of any large economy in the world because of its heavy reliance on hydropower, which still covers some two-thirds of the country’s electric needs.  Brazil was also a pioneer in the development of more environmentally friendly sugar-based ethanol (as opposed to corn favored in U.S. ethanol production); most passenger vehicles today have flex-fuel engines.  Paraguay gets almost all its electricity from hydropower (and exports the bulk of what it produces).
  • Argentina, while increasing exploitation of its large shale gas and oil reserves, in 2017 expanded renewable energy projects nearly 800 percent over the previous year, according to reports. President Mauricio Macri has created a more inviting investment climate for the private sector, rapidly increasing natural gas output, especially from the Vaca Muerta shale reserves in Patagonia.  He is also encouraging the expansion of renewable energy beyond large hydro by, among other things, allowing long-term power purchase agreements in U.S. dollars as a hedge against currency devaluations.  Furthermore, large industrial consumers face penalties if they do not meet increasing thresholds set for renewable energy use.  Current laws require that at least 20 percent of the nation’s electricity come from non-conventional renewables by the end of 2025, and they include tax exemptions, import duty waivers, and a special trust fund called FODER, created in 2016, to provide subsidized loans and other assistance.

The rapid expansion of the renewable energy sector in the Southern Cone will enable countries to export excess production to their neighbors, facilitated by a robust regulatory framework to facilitate the cross-border trade in energy resources.  In addition, by creating a fully integrated regional market in renewable energy products, a crucial backup is established for resources such as wind and solar power that are inevitably prone to interruptions during the day.  It would also mitigate the impact of droughts on hydro-generated electricity, which are likely to worsen with global climate change.  Accordingly, there are strong incentives to revive efforts begun by MERCOSUR in the late 1990s to integrate energy markets that collapsed with the Argentine energy crisis at the start of the 21st century.  The fact that all the Southern Cone governments are now ideologically aligned in favor of market-oriented economic and investment policies facilitates achieving a regional consensus on energy for the first time.  Governments in the region now need to move beyond the discussion phase to turn all this into a concrete reality.

October 19, 2018

*Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is the President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and currently teaches at Stanford University in Palo Alto and Santiago, Chile.

Chile’s Transition to Clean Energy Matrix

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Giant wind turbines in Northern Chile

Parque Eólico Canela in Coquimbo, Chile, one of many wind-producing farms in Northern Chile. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Since Michelle Bachelet’s return to the presidency in March 2014, Chile has aggressively pursued an ambitious program to transition the country’s energy matrix toward non-conventional renewable resources.  The emphasis on non-conventional includes mini-hydro facilities with a generating capacity under 20 Megawatts, geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, and potentially ocean currents.  Chile aims to generate 60 percent of its electricity from domestic renewable energy resources (including all forms of hydro) by 2035, and 70 percent by 2050.  To encourage that transition, Chile is one of only two Latin American countries (the other being Mexico) to establish a carbon tax, under which energy-intensive industries and utilities that exceed mandated emissions levels are charged US$5.00 per ton of CO2 emissions.  Chile’s drive to adopt a cleaner energy matrix is motivated as much by a desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it is to enhance energy security.

  • During the mid-1990s, Chile faced consecutive years of severe drought that had hugely detrimental impacts on the country’s dams, responsible at the time for around 50 percent of the country’s electricity. An abundance of natural gas in neighboring Argentina led to the construction of pipelines across the Andes and new thermal generators in Chile, but Argentina began cutting natural gas exports in 2004 (and eventually stopped them altogether) because disastrous policies there had caused domestic shortages.  Bolivia, in turn, rebuffed Santiago’s entreaties to purchase its gas unless Chile granted it territorial compensation for the loss of Bolivian access to the Pacific after the 19th century War of the Pacific.  Chile had to build two expensive receiving terminals to import Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from East Asia as well as Trinidad and Tobago.  The Chileans were also forced to use more coal and diesel, exacerbating the already precarious air quality in many Chilean cities, particularly during the winter.

In recent years, more than half of all investment in non-conventional, renewable energy in Latin America and the Caribbean has been directed to Chile, primarily to build solar and wind parks to supply the mining industry in the north of the country.  The shift to renewable energy has largely been financed by the private sector, with no subsidies other than reimbursement for small-scale photovoltaic and other nonconventional contributors to the grid at the full retail price (and no transmission charge).  Chile’s antipathy to subsidies reflects the country’s market-based economic orientation and a conscious decision to prioritize state-of-the-art renewable technology sourced from elsewhere rather than encourage the development of its own industry.  The recent investment boom in renewables was driven by the business-friendly climate, the fact that Chile is not a significant hydrocarbons producer, and the inflationary impact of the last three years of drought on the price of hydroelectricity.

Chile has several other things going for it in achieving its goals, including a good regulatory framework and resources that are in growing demand.  Chilean regulators allow generators to sell electricity in only one of three time blocks during the day — giving solar and wind power a competitive edge in public purchase agreement auctions.  This more than halved the bidding price offered by generators and made solar power competitive with natural gas and even electricity sourced from hydro.  In the near future, as the country’s energy matrix shifts to greater reliance on solar and wind power, Chile intends to utilize hydroelectricity to supply peaks in demand for electric power (usually in the evening hours) to make up for intermittencies in sunshine and wind.  (At the moment, fossil fuels provide that function.)  New developments in storage technology will also help.  Chile is one of the world’s largest producers of lithium, needed to make storage batteries.  The interconnection of Chile’s northern and central grids in 2018 should also facilitate greater use of different renewables and redirect the electric power generated from them to where it is most needed.  Chile, already a leader in Latin American alternative energy production, is poised to enhance that position.

September 11, 2017

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is President of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He taught a seminar on “Energy and Climate Cooperation in the Americas: The Role of Chile” at Stanford’s Santiago campus during the summer 2017 quarter.

Who Really Benefited from the Commodities Supercycle – and Who Loses with Its End?

By Carlos Monge*

2017-05-13 AULABLOG_Carlos_Monge_graphic

Latin American governments and business associations have tended to overstate the benefits of extractive industries during the commodities supercycle that ended in 2014-15.  Resource-rich Latin American countries did experience high rates of economic growth and diminished poverty and inequality during the boom years.  On the surface, this would appear to strengthen arguments that – despite their negative environmental impact – extractive industries are the key to progress, especially in resource-rich areas.  Nevertheless, a closer look at data from household surveys in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru shows that things are a bit more complicated.

  • The inequality gap between individuals, as measured on the GINI Index, has narrowed, but the gaps between groups of the population have not evolved evenly. For example, the National Resource Governance Institute (of which I’m regional director) recently completed a study of the performance of social indicators during the supercycle that concluded that the poverty gap between urban and rural populations has increased in all countries.  (The report is available in English and Spanish.)  In Peru and Chile, the gap increased more in territories where extractive territories are located, while in Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador less so.  The gap between indigenous and non-indigenous populations increased only in extractive territories in Ecuador, decreasing in both extractive and non-extractive settings in the rest of the countries considered.  Regarding gender, in all five countries the gap between men and women increased slightly in non-extractive territories and decreased a bit more in extractive ones.

This report establishes correlations between the increase in extractive activities, the availability of extractive rents, and patterns of inequality reflected in social indicators, but it does not establish a causal relation between such variables.  For example, the data show that urban populations in Peru’s extractive regions have benefited more than rural ones – which some very preliminary research shows is probably because urban centers provide extractive projects with the goods and services they need, while less sophisticated rural areas do not.  At the same time, rural populations have to compete with the extractive projects for those same urban goods and services, and with local governments for the labor force that the public sector contracts to develop infrastructure projects that are paid for through increased revenues delivered by the extractive sector.  This is what we have called the “Cholo Disease.”  A variation of the “Dutch Disease,” it reflects a loss of competitiveness resulting not from large exports of raw materials causing the currency to appreciate, but rather from increases in the cost of labor and of urban goods and services consumed by campesinos.  However, a more definitive explanation regarding exactly how this happens in Peru and in other countries certainly needs further research.

While our data clearly show the impact of mining and hydrocarbons extraction and the resulting expenditure of extractive rents on the poverty gaps between urban and rural populations, men and women, and indigenous and non-indigenous populations, further investigation into the causes and consequences is needed.  The end of the supercycle has already meant a fall in growth rates and extractive revenues, leading to a worrisome rebound in poverty rates.  We are still unable to answer, however, the question of how broadly it will impact the substantial segments of Latin America’s population that emerged from poverty but remains in a vulnerable position – and how it will aggravate poverty gaps among individuals and between groups in extractive and non-extractive territories.

May 16, 2017

* Carlos Monge is Latin America Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

Latin America: End of “Supercycle” Threatens Reversal of Institutional Reforms

By Carlos Monge*

Monge graphic

By Eduardo Ballón and Raúl Molina (consultores) and Claudia Viale and Carlos Monge (National Resource Governance Institute, América Latina), from Minería y marcos institucionales en la región andina. El superciclo y su legado, o las difíciles relaciones entre políticas de promoción de la inversión minero-hidrocarburífera y las reformas institucionales, Reporte de Investigación preparado por NRGI con colaboración de la GIZ, Lima, Marzo del 2017. See blog text for high-resolution graphic

Policies adopted in response to the end of the “supercycle” have slowed and, in some cases, reversed the reforms that moved the region toward greater decentralization, citizen participation, and environmental protection over the past decade.  Latin American governments of the left and right used the commodities supercycle to drive growth and poverty reduction at an unprecedented pace.  They also undertook institutional reforms aimed at improving governance at large.

  • Even before demand and prices for Latin American energy and minerals began to rise in the early 2000s, some Latin American countries launched processes of decentralization (Colombia and Bolivia); started to institutionalize mechanisms for citizens’ participation in decision making (Colombia and Bolivia); and built progressively stronger environmental management frameworks (Colombia and Ecuador). Peru pressed ahead with decentralization and participation at the start of the supercycle, and when it was in full swing, created a Ministry of the Environment.
  • Implementation of the reforms was subordinated by governments’ overarching goal of fostering investments in the extractive sector. Indigenous consultation rights in Peru, for example, were approved in the second half of 2011, but implementation was delayed a year and limited only to indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin.  President Ollanta Humala, giving in to the mining lobby, claimed there were no indigenous peoples in the Andes and that no consultations were needed around mining projects.  Local pressure forced a reversal, and by early 2015 four consultation projects on mid-size mining projects were launched.

These reformist policies have suffered setbacks since the decrease in Asia’s and particularly China’s appetite for Latin American energy and minerals has caused prices to fall – and the value of exports, taxes, and royalties, and public incomes along with them.  The latest ECLAC data show a decline in economic growth and a rebound of poverty both in absolute and relative figures.  The gradual fall in the price of minerals starting in 2013 and the abrupt collapse in oil prices by the end of 2015 reversed this generally favorable trend.

The response of the governments of resource-dependent countries has been “race to the bottom” policies, which included steps backward in fiscal, social, and environmental policies.  Governments’ bigger concern has been to foster investments in the new and more adverse circumstances.  In this new scenario, the processes of decentralization, participation, and environmental management have been negatively impacted as local authorities and citizens’ participation – as well as environmental standards and protocols – are perceived by companies and rent-seeking public officials as obstacles to investments.

  • Peru’s Law 30230 in 2014, for example, reduced income tax rates, weakened the oversight capacity of the Ministry of the Environment, and weakened indigenous peoples’ claim public lands.

The correlation between the supercycle years and the progress and regressions in reforms is clear. (click here for high-resolution graphic).  During the supercycle – when huge amounts of money were to be made – companies and government were willing to incorporate the cost of citizen participation, decentralization and environmental standards and protocols.  But now, governments are desperate for new investments to overcome the fall in economic growth and extractive rents, and extractive companies are not willing any more to assume these additional costs.  Those who oppose the “race to the bottom strategy” are fighting hard to restore the reforms and to move ahead with decentralization, increased participation, and enhanced environmental management, to achieve a new democratic governance of the territories and the natural resources they contain.

April 7, 2017

* Carlos Monge is Latin America Director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute in Lima.

Mexico: Environmental Initiatives Likely to Stir Things Up

By Daniela Stevens*

mexico-environment

Mexico City’s Reforma axis under a blanket of smog / Lars Plougmann / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexico has made a big push on climate issues over the past month that could have far-reaching consequences internally and in the hemisphere.  On August 16, it announced a pilot Emission Trading System (ETS), also known as “cap-and-trade,” that will begin a simulation in November and officially initiate trading carbon permits in 2018.  Two weeks later, at the second Climate Summit of the Americas (CSA), the Mexican federal government signed a joint declaration with the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Québec to advance “cooperation activities on carbon markets.”  Mexico’s motives are not immediately clear.  For a middle-income nation, with annual growth (around 2 percent) compromised by the crash in oil prices, an ETS represents a potentially significant economic burden.  Mexican officials have not explained, moreover, how they might link their cap-and-trade to the Canadian provinces’ systems and to the Western Climate Initiative (WCI), North America’s largest carbon market and the second largest in the world.

The moves may be driven by increasing Mexican belief that more assertive, market-oriented approaches are necessary to meet its international commitments.

  • Mexico is dependent on fossil fuels for over a third of its total energy production, wreaking havoc with the country’s air quality. Over the last few months, Mexico City decreed several “environmental contingencies,” situations of abnormally high concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere.
  • Moreover, Mexico may be seeking the advantage that increased regional cooperation represents. Its international commitments on emission reductions are very ambitious, and a linkage to its North American partners lends itself almost as a natural solution to help in the advancement of its pledges.  Mexico could export sectoral offsets that American and Canadian partners need – contributing to Mexican revenues and to market stability.  Mexico would also benefit from the resulting transfer of information expertise, technology, training, and methodologies.
  • An important first step for the Mexican authorities would be to commit the resources to establish the robust institutional mechanisms and capacities to launch, monitor, enforce and sustain a system as intricate as a national ETS, and only after that, lend itself as a reliable partner in an internationally linked market.

The details of the pilot ETS have not been publicized, and the agreement with Québec and Ontario does not establish commitments beyond “identifying opportunities for linking systems as much as possible.”  Mexican companies already voluntarily buy and sell carbon bonds on a small national market – a system complemented by a carbon tax in place since 2013 – but an enforced and internationally linked market would highlight the disparities among the North American nations – and represent a challenge to Mexico.  Unlike its partners, Mexico is still an industrializing nation, with a thriving motor vehicle industry, and industrializing nations have traditionally been reluctant to pricing emissions.  Industrialized countries are the highest historical emitters and reached that status of development by polluting without paying the price.  Although the need to prioritize economic growth does not exempt Mexico from fulfilling its commitments as the eleventh highest global emitter, it does signal that besides opportunities, Mexico faces challenges with trading partners at different stages of development.  The Climate Summit of the Americas showed, however, that regional fora and of subnational partnerships can further environmental commitments beyond the global and national summits.  The CSA signaled an opportunity for the region to develop North American or, more ambitiously, hemispheric solutions to climate change.

September 15, 2016

* Daniela Stevens is a PhD candidate in the American University School of Public Affairs.  Her research focuses on national and subnational policies that put a price on carbon emissions.

Cuba: Time to Move Ahead with Reforms

By Ricardo Torres*

cuba-economy

Oil drums and a tobacco curing hut near Viñales, Cuba / Adams Jones / Flickr / Creative Commons

The economic challenges that Cuba currently faces probably do not signal the beginning of a new Período Especial – the profound crisis Cuba experienced in the 1990s – but they are a painful reminder of the country’s chronic structural problem: the inability to generate enough hard currency to develop the economy and the failure of efforts to overcome that obstacle so far.  The immediate predicament was caused by a combination of internal and external factors, including the Venezuelan crisis and the low prices for certain Cuban exports.  (Ironically, oil byproducts from a refinery in Cienfuegos, which Cuba jointly owns with Venezuela’s PDVSA, have become a leading export.)  Venezuela is affecting income from services that Cuba sells there (in particular that of medical doctors) as well as a drop in the supply of oil products, which has covered about a half of Cuba’s needs.  This has placed extreme stress on Cuba’s external finances and forced a significant economic adjustment.  The government has imposed restrictions on energy consumption and a reduction in imports and investments – with important recessionary effects on an economy that desperately needs growth.  The energy rationing has fueled fears that the country could repeat the deep shortages of the early 1990s and again experience one of the most powerful symbols of that period: blackouts.

The situation is serious, but a crisis on the scale of the Special Period does not appear to be on the horizon.  Cuba today has a more diversified economy and produces a significant portion of its own energy, and the majority of the population has other sources of income to cushion themselves during bad times.  Most creditors and suppliers have shown confidence in their ability to move ahead.  In July, important contracts were announced for French companies to expand and operate Havana’s airport, which has been overwhelmed by the increase of international visitors (one of the few bright spots in the economy this year) in tandem with the improvement in relations with the United States.  Early this month, Cuban officials made presentations to firms from around the world on the government’s timely interest in renewable energy.  They emphasized the great opportunities that exist, not just current problems.

Once again, a close partner’s difficulties have put Cuba in a bind – too many times in too short a period.  Moreover, these problems arise at a politically sensitive moment.  Cubans are discussing the new model and development strategy through 2030, and – while Cubans are expecting results after six years of reform – President Raúl Castro has little time remaining in office.  The current complications can further delay essential monetary and exchange reforms.  Cuba needs to fix its foreign trade to supply oxygen for dynamic activities, such as its booming private sector.  Its development potential can’t rely just on its mystique as la Perla del Caribe.  Today’s challenges are an opportunity to remove the obstacles to changes that already have been announced, such as by accelerating the heretofore slow and ineffective implementation of agreed policies on foreign investment.  Some multilateral financial institutions can help, but Havana’s recent agreement with the Corporación Andina de Fomento (CAF), while a positive signal, is not enough.  The short-term answer is clear:  Only a combination of structural measures can guarantee that this latest economic crunch will be the last.

September 12, 2016

*Ricardo Torres is a professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

How are the Americas Faring in an Era of Lower Oil Prices?

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Gas Station Guatemala

Photo Credit: Josué Goge / Flickr / Creative Commons

The sharp drop in global oil prices – caused by a combination of a slowing Chinese economy hurting commodities sales and efforts by Saudi Arabia to retain market share – has both downsides and advantages for Latin America and the Caribbean.  By keeping production levels steady, despite decreased demand, so that a barrel of crude remains below US$40, the Saudis’ hope is to put U.S. shale oil producers and Canadian tar sands producers out of business.  The drop in oil prices has had a varied impact elsewhere in the Americas:

  • The effect in Venezuela, already reeling from over a decade of economic mismanagement, has been catastrophic. The ripple effect is being felt in those Caribbean and Central American countries that grew to depend on PetroCaribe’s generous repayment terms for oil imports that allowed savings to be used for other needs.  In 2015, for example, this alternative funding mechanism in Belize was slashed in half from the previous year.  The threat of interest rate hikes on money that must eventually be repaid for oil imports also pushed the Dominican Republic and Jamaica to use funds raised on international capital markets to reduce their debt overhang with Venezuela.  (For those weening themselves off PetroCaribe dependency, however, the lower prices are a silver lining.)
  • Low oil prices have also knocked the wind out of Mexico’s heady plans to overhaul its petroleum sector by encouraging more domestic and foreign private-sector investment.
  • In South America, the decline has undermined Rafael Correa’s popularity in Ecuador because the government has been forced to implement austerity measures. The Colombian state petroleum company, Ecopetrol, will likely have to declare a loss for 2015, the first time since the public trading of its shares began nine years ago.  In Brazil, heavily indebted Petrobras has seen share prices plummet 90 percent since 2008, although that is as much the result of the company being at the center of a massive corruption scandal that has discredited the country’s political class.
  • On the other hand, lower petroleum prices have benefitted net energy importers such as Chile, Costa Rica, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

The one major oil producer in the Americas that has not cut back on production and new investment is Argentina – in part because consumers are subsidizing production and investment by the state petroleum firm YPF, which was renationalized in 2012 and now dominates domestic end sales of petroleum products.  Prices at the pump remain well above real market values.  While successive Argentine governments froze energy prices following the 2001-02 implosion of the Argentine economy, this time policy is keeping some energy prices high.  This encourages conservation and efficiency and spurs greater use of renewable alternatives, but it becomes unsustainable during a prolonged dip because it will, among other things, make the country’s manufacturers uncompetitive.  The Argentine example underscores that predictions of a pendulum shift in Latin America in favor of private-sector investment in the hydrocarbons sector over state oil production are still premature.

The lower prices do not appear likely to harm the region’s continuing substitution of natural gas for coal and oil as a transitional fossil fuel to greener sources of energy.  Natural gas prices remain at their lowest levels in over a decade, and the expansion of liquefied natural gas plants allows for easier transport of natural gas to markets around the world.  They are also unlikely to dent the global shift to greater reliance on renewable energy resources driven by the international consensus that climate change can no longer be ignored and something must be done to address it.  At the UN climate change talks in Paris last December, for example, countries agreed to keep temperature increases “well below” 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and made a specific commitment “to pursue efforts” to achieve the much more ambitious target of limiting warming to no more than 1.5 degrees centigrade.  The year 2015 was the second consecutive year in which energy-related carbon emissions remained flat in spite of 3 percent economic growth in both years. 

March 24, 2016

*The author is the President of San Francisco-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd.  He chaired the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program at the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute between July 2011 and November 2015.

Venezuela: Trying to Stay Afloat

By Michael McCarthy* and Fulton Armstrong

Venezuela Oil Maduro

Photo Credit: Democracy Chronicles and Charles Henry (modified) / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro continues to receive increasingly bleak economic news, and his modestly positive policy responses seem unlikely to help.  Oil revenues dropped 293 percent from 2014 (US$37 billion) to 2015 (US$12.5 billion).  The value of oil exports, which account for 95 percent of the country’s export earnings, has dropped to a 30-year low ($30 a barrel), accelerating a recession, paralyzing shortages, and soaring inflation.  The Central Bank reported that inflation reached 180.9 percent in 2015, and that the GDP contracted for the second consecutive year (5.7 percent).  Maduro blamed an “imperialist strategy in a petroleum war” aimed at destroying OPEC.  He also asserted that Venezuela suffered from an “international financial blockade” that – by obstructing the country’s efforts to refinance its debt – was intended to force it “to its knees” and to “take over” its wealth.

Several days after celebrating a Supreme Court decision reaffirming his authority to declare an “economic emergency,” which the opposition challenged last month, Maduro this week announced several modest economic measures aimed at stemming the slide.

  • He ordered a 60-fold increase in gasoline prices – dramatic-sounding but preserving Venezuelan gas (about US$0.23 per gallon at the black-market exchange rate) as one of the cheapest in the world – but the decision is significant as the first increase in about 20 years. An increase in 1989 triggered riots – the famous Caracazo that most analysts cite as the beginning of the end of the old order that Hugo Chavez toppled definitively when elected President in 1998.  In allusion to this past, Maduro said he “hoped people on the streets would understand.”  (Caracas-based consultancy Ecoanalítica estimates that the existing fuel subsidy costs the Venezuelan government US$12 billion a year.)
  • Maduro also announced a 37 percent devaluation of the bolívar – from 6.3 to 10 to the U.S. dollar – for official exchange rates used for the essential goods like food and medicine. The bolívar trades at about 1,000 to one on the black market, but the decreased subsidy implicit of the official rate for necessities is nonetheless significant.
  • Venezuela’s proposal for an OPEC freeze in oil production, in hopes of driving oil prices back up, drew supportive remarks from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran, but the scheme has lacked traction. Industry observers said one reason is that Tehran is eager to increase exports to regain market share as sanctions against it are lifted.
  • Maduro replaced economic czar Luis Salas – known as a hardline leftist – just five weeks after appointing him, and appointed in his place a more business-friendly economist, Miguel Pérez Abad, who had been serving as Minister of Commerce. Pérez Abad, whose appointment the President of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce described as a “friendly sign,” has publicly (and accurately) said that Venezuela must simplify its byzantine exchange rate system.
  • These changes come amid Maduro’s increasingly frank self-criticism about state corruption. He recently described a government food distribution company as “rotten” while calling for a restructuring of state-run food import and distribution outlets.

In a four-hour speech replete with foul language and insults against opposition leaders, the President argued that the measures are “a necessary action to balance things,” and he said, “I take responsibility for it.”  But his measures are piecemeal at best.  As opposition leaders have pointed out, he has not explained how he is going to pay Venezuela’s debt, obtain the foreign exchange to import sufficient amounts of basic goods, and guarantee food for the people.  With US$10 billion in bond payments coming due this year, the country has no clear path for avoiding default.  However painful for the population and politically costly for the government, measures such as gasoline price increases will have little impact.  The government wanted the opposition to share some of the costs for economic policy changes, but opposition politicians say that the gas price increase and devaluation are too little, too late. Most believe economic revival depends on dismantling the entire chavista system.  They are once again talking about removing Maduro through a referendum or other means – with one leader, Henrique Capriles, openly calling for a presidential recall, and another, Henry Ramos, the President of the National Assembly, calling for a constitutional amendment to cut the presidential term from six to four years.  The government’s measures suggest a welcome change from Maduro’s previous strategy of buying time through diversionary tactics.  However, the economic measures are likely to fail and, moreover, they increase the chances political temperatures will surge once again.

February 19, 2016

* Michael McCarthy is a Research Fellow with the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies.