Venezuela is staying on top of its debts, even with its people going hungry

Key Points
  • Venezuela's economic dysfunction has led to an incalculable human cost
  • The country's government fears being closed out of international markets
  • A default would hurt Venezuela's most important industry: crude oil
Opposition supporters set up a burning barricade during clashes with security forces at a rally against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela May 20, 2017.
Carlos Garcia Rawlins | Reuters

Venezuela has been ravaged by severe food shortages, tremendous protests and a sky-high inflation rate, but it's avoided one problem: the country refuses to default on its debt.

The country's ability to keep making payments on its debt may be "in doubt," but its willingness is "strong," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a senior analyst at IHS Markit. "The government is cutting imports of food and basic goods at the expense of social unrest to pay its debt."

The country's 20-year government bond pays 20.23 percent to lenders, according to

Why keep paying?

There are several reasons Venezuela hasn't defaulted. First, it would hurt a government that is already in trouble.

"A default would be a blow to the regime," said Jason Marczak, Latin American Economic Growth Initiative director, Atlantic Council. "A default could lead to Venezuela being closed out of international markets."

Venezuela protests turn deadly

President Nicolas Maduro's regime has been shaken by nationwide protests and dissent among a handful of high-profile officials. Video of the Venezuelan National Guard running over protesters with armored vehicles went viral earlier this month. Attorney General Luisa Ortega condemned the state's violence against protesters.

"Words can barely articulate the situation in Venezuela," Marczak said. "This is a country that has become deeply divided, deeply polarized."

The one industry that matters

Defaulting on its debts also would present more problems for Venezuela's biggest industry.

The country's economy is almost completely at the mercy of the oil industry — its economic and social tailspin nothwithstanding, Venezuela holds the largest proven oil reserves on earth. As of last year, they stood at the equivalent of 300 billion barrels — approximately 33 billion more than Saudi Arabia — according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But its oil production has cratered to its lowest levels in about 20 years since a crash in prices that started in late 2014.

US crude since September 30, 2014 until now

Source: FactSet

Oil minister Nelson Martinez said Thursday that Venezuela is seeking alternatives to pay key lenders, namely China and Russia.

"We are looking forward to solving the issue of the debt," Martinez said at a meeting OPEC, of which Venezuela is a member. "We are looking at all options, some financial support through bonds, and so on."

Venezuela has struck oil-for-loans deals with China and Russia, and those countries together have lent Venezuela at least $50 billion in exchange for promised oil and fuel deliveries.

But Petroleos de Venezuela, the state-run oil company better known as PDVSA, could default on its debt either this fall — when it's scheduled to pay more than $3 billion in debt — or "in the coming years," said Reggie Thompson, Latin America analyst at Stratfor.

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"It's risky for PDVSA because, even though they made a similar payment earlier this year, their cash flow problems keep worsening by the day," Thompson said. "They also have other headwinds, like mechanical failures."

Thompson added that Venezuela's unwillingness to default also stems from a desire to preserve its own assets.

"They'd have to deal with lengthy lawsuits against bondholders that could end with [the government] having some assets seized."

Lastly, Venezuela won't default on its debt because "many high-ranking government officials and their associates are bondholders," said Moya-Ocampos of IHS, who noted it's "not too common" for high-ranking officials to own their country's debt.

—Reuters contributed to this report.