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Regime change for profit: Chevron, Halliburton cheer on US Venezuela coup

If Guaidó comes to power and privatizes PDVSA, U.S. oil companies — with Chevron and Halliburton leading the pack — stand to make record profits in the world’s most oil-rich nation, as they did in Iraq following the privatization of its national oil industry after U.S. intervention.

by Whitney Webb

Part 3 - Betting on regime change

As oil production has lagged and profits have continued to slide, tensions between Chevron and the Maduro government have grown dramatically since 2017, when the Maduro-led government began arresting employees of Petropiar — the joint venture between Chevron and PDVSA — during a controversial corruption probe. For Chevron, the issue exploded after the Venezuelan government last April arrested two Chevron employees working at Petropiar, who were detained for seven weeks for their alleged role in fraud. Those tensions — in combination with worries that Chevron’s Venezuela operations could become unprofitable in less than five years — resulted in a report published by the Wall Street Journal claiming that Chevron was considering leaving Venezuela entirely.

However, despite media speculation in the U.S., Chevron denied that it was planning to leave Venezuela anytime soon, with Clay Neff, Chevron’s president for Africa and Latin America, telling Bloomberg, “we’re committed to Venezuela and we plan to be there for many years to come,” and adding that reports that Chevron would soon leave the country were “not accurate.” “We’ve been in the country for almost 100 years, we know how to operate, we’re a very experienced operator and we’re committed to our partner PDVSA,” Neff declared.

Halliburton’s activities in Venezuela have also taken a hard hit in recent years, with the company losing over $1 billion in investments since 2017. In 2017, Halliburton was forced to write off $647 million in Venezuelan investments and then was forced to sell $312 million more last year — its last remaining investments. Halliburton’s chief financial officer, Christopher Weber, told the New York Times last year that “the collapse of the Venezuelan currency and the worsening political climate,” as well as U.S. sanctions, were responsible for the decision. Halliburton later said in a statement that it planned on “maintaining its presence in Venezuela and is carefully managing its go-forward exposure.

Since both Halliburton and Chevron announced their plans to “weather the storm” despite growing tensions, it has become more and more evident that both companies have found the U.S. government’s promise of increased control over Venezuela’s oil sector through privatization much more appealing than facing the prospect of maneuvering around recently imposed U.S. sanctions on PDVSA — which have been in the works for months — as well as the prospect of dwindling profits stemming from the continued decline of the Venezuelan economy and the degradation of its oil-sector infrastructure.

This raises the possibility that Chevron and Halliburton had decided to ride out the Venezuelan economic crisis and growing tensions with Maduro because it was betting on an aggressive regime-change policy toward the country. Indeed, some analysts have stated that planning on the current iteration of regime-change policy in Venezuela only began this past November, around the same time that Chevron decided to stick it out despite falling profits.

The fact that Chevron’s operations in Venezuela are expected to collapse in less than five years, as a result of the country’s oil sector and larger economic woes, lends further support to the possibility that Chevron sought to back a Washington-based effort to dramatically alter the Venezuelan government.

In Halliburton’s case, the fact that the company has already lost over a billion dollars in its Venezuelan investments since 2017 offers a different motive, one that involves not only recouping those losses but also gaining increased contracts in a post-coup Venezuela. Halliburton executives surely remember the $39.5 billion in profits they made following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is worth pointing out that, in media reports, Halliburton has stated its commitment “to the market in Venezuela,” signaling that it is interested in retaining a role in the country’s oil sector regardless of who governs it.

It should then come as no surprise that recent U.S. government sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sectors included exemptions for both Halliburton and Chevron. Equally unsurprising is the fact that the U.S.-backed “president” of Venezuela — Juan Guaidó — has already signaled his plans to open up Venezuela’s state oil assets to foreign corporations if he succeeds in ousting Maduro.

According to oil rating agency S&P Global Platts, Guaidó has already made “plans to introduce a new national hydrocarbons law that establishes flexible fiscal and contractual terms for projects adapted to oil prices and the oil investment cycle.” This plan would also create a “new hydrocarbons agency” that will “offer bidding rounds for projects in natural gas and conventional, heavy and extra-heavy crude” to international oil corporations.

The clear message here is that the U.S.-backed “president” of Venezuela is already signaling to his Washington backers that he will quickly privatize Venezuela’s state oil company if he succeeds in taking power, a move that has long been a key component of the platform of Venezuela’s U.S.-funded opposition, of which Guaidó is part.

Bolton’s recent statements have made it clear that Chevron and Halliburton are set to be the main benefactors of this privatization effort, as both are heavily invested in Venezuela and Chevron the only U.S. oil company still active in the country. The historically close relationship of both companies to the U.S. government, and covert coordination with the U.S. government in undermining or overthrowing governments in the recent past, also hint at their likely role in the current U.S. “meddling” in Venezuela.

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