The Christmas season would be a reason to be merry, would it not be for Hugo Chavez. More details about his expropriation threats emerge. Turns out, Chavez did not just threaten to kick out Toyota for being lackadaisical in the production of “rustic” vehicles.
“President Hugo Chavez told foreign automakers Wednesday to share their technology with local businesses or they will be told to leave the country,” writes the Boston Globe. Chavez gave the ultimatum in wholesale fashion to Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Fiat. Implied, the ultimatum is also meant for Fiat-controlled Chrysler, for Mitsubishi, Mack and Fiat-owned Iveco. All of the above have production facilities in Venezuela. All are at risk of instant deportation.
Their options are either to “share their technology with local businesses” (a half-expropriation) or get out (a full expropriation.) Chavez usually doesn’t do nationalizations in piecemeal fashion. He tends to nationalize whole industry sectors. The metals, cement, oil, coffee and electricity sectors are all being owned by the people of Venezuela, or Hugo Chavez, depending how one looks at it.
The auto sector appears to be next in line. Chavez is no fool, and he knows that building cars is not as simple as pumping crude, or baking limestone to make cement. Without foreign technologic know-how, Venezuelan’s roads will soon resemble Cuba’s highways. Hence the offer “share, or go.” If the foreigners go, other foreigners could be invited in: Automakers from Russia, Belorussia, or especially China.
Today’s Nikkei [sub] sees even more sinister dealings afoot: Oil and China. Says the Nikkei: “The takeover threat and possibility of turning control over to the Chinese comes on the heels of two days of bilateral talks with China that ended Tuesday. The Chavez administration said in a statement after the talks that it now considers China its ‘main strategic alliance.’”
Venezuela currently sells 1 million barrels a day of Venezuelan crude to the U.S. Chavez wants to reduce this co-dependency, and focus on China instead. Venezuela currently ships 400,000 barrels a day to China. Chavez wants to raise that to a million per day, damn the distance from Puerto La Cruz to Qingdao.
Chinese cars could be a nice icing on that trade cake. According to the Nikkei, Great Wall Motors begun selling cars in Venezuela in 2006. Chery had plans to open an assembly plant in Venezuela, but nothing came of it – yet.
US and Japanese makers dominate the market in Venezuela. GM leads the market with 45,523 vehicles sold so far in 2009, Ford is second and Toyota is third. Sales are down 49 percent this year, but not because of a lack of buyers. Demand far outstrips the low supply of cars in Venezuela. A gallon of gasoline costs about $0.07 in Venezuela. The land of the “21st Century Socialism” would be a driver’s paradise, if only the roads would be paved and if only cars would be there to be bought.
Indigenous production is hampered by strict currency controls that prevent automakers from getting the dollars to import auto parts they need to meet production goals. Auto makers also have to contend with a “high level of absenteeism, disobedience, aggression and lawlessness of some of the workers,” says the Nikkei. Mitsubishi had to shut down its plant for 30 days in August, because the workers didn’t show up. In May, a Toyota union leader was shot dead. He had led a month-long strike last year that paralyzed the Toyota plant in the eastern city of Cumana. In September, murder charges were brought against a man, but the motive remains a mystery.
Says the Nikkei: “It appears many auto workers hope their company is nationalized so they can become de facto government workers and enjoy the extra job security that comes with it.”
Should it really come to the Chinese taking over Venezuela’s auto plants, then the workers may be in for a rude surprise. Chinese factory managers are not necessarily known for their subtle style when it comes to labor relations. GM, Ford, and Toyota should send their union leaders on an all expense paid study tour to the suburbs of Shanghai, or to frigid Changchun, and they’ll quickly change their minds.
The matters are being complicated by the US and Japan being major trading partners of China, and by GM and Toyota having major joint ventures in China and buying lots of parts from Chinese manufacturers. China will gladly buy Venezuela’s oil and build them some ports to go with it. But they won’t put their booming auto business at risk for some 100,000 “rustic” cars built in Venezuela.