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Venezuela opposition presidential hopefuls back eventual debt restructuring

Maria Corina Machado, candidate of the Vente’s party in Venezuela’s opposition primaries, greets a supporter during a visit at the low-income neighbourhood of Petare, in Caracas, Venezuela, July 15, 2023. REUTERS/Leonardo Fernandez Viloria/File Photo

By Mayela Armas and Luc Cohen

CARACAS/NEW YORK, July 18 (Reuters) – The need to restructure Venezuela’s public debt, raise international financing and provide guarantees for investors are key policy focuses for several candidates competing to represent the opposition in the 2024 presidential election.

Some of the 14 hopefuls in the Oct. 22 primary have begun to share their plans for reviving Venezuela’s battered economy – which shrank for eight consecutive years amid crisis in the oil sector, state controls and U.S. sanctions.

A de facto dollarization and more controlled inflation allowed a slight recovery last year, but the economy is once again slowing and annual inflation was 404% through June.

Venezuela’s often divided opposition is seeking to dislodge President Nicolas Maduro, who has ruled the country since 2013. The last election he won in 2018 was widely condemned by Western democracies as fraudulent.

Several opposition candidates have already been barred from holding public office, including Maria Corina Machado, who despite the ban – which she received for supporting U.S. sanctions on the government – is ahead in opinion polls for the primary.

The primary is being held without state support, so bans are moot, but disqualified candidates would not be able to register for the general election, an eventuality that is the subject of ongoing debate within the opposition.

Campaigning has also continued despite an effort to get Venezuela’s top court to suspend the primary on unspecified allegations of irregularities and a ruling party leader’s pledge not to allow European Union election observers.

Should she eventually triumph, Machado would quickly reestablish suspended relationships with lenders like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, she said on Tuesday.

Debts owed by Venezuela and its state-run oil company PDVSA total more than $60 billion, not including potential repayments of more than $10 billion for past expropriations.

“Of bonds that arise from a debt restructuring, some could be eligible to participate in a wide swap process in a massive program of privatizations,” said Machado during a Council of the Americas event.

Machado would also seek to raise oil production and attract major companies, “putting an end to the state monopoly,” she said.

Cristofer Correia, adviser to opposition candidate Freddy Superlano, said: “We want to recover confidence and look for agreements (with bondholders) that benefit stakeholders,” adding that Superlano would seek international financing to recover Venezuela’s manufacturing.

Another primary candidate, Carlos Prosperi, also backs renegotiations but says the amount of debt that could be restructured must be evaluated, given ongoing court cases in the United States, according to his economic adviser Armando Jaen.

Negotiators representing Venezuela have held settlement talks with bondholders and creditors, who Maduro stopped paying in October 2017 amid the lower oil income and sanctions.

Some creditors are moving ahead with a lawsuit meant to force the sale of shares in a parent of state-owned refiner Citgo Petroleum, to enforce judgments for past expropriations.

Meanwhile, some small funds and investors outside the United States are looking to increase their exposure to Venezuelan bonds, on the expectation of renegotiations or legal action.

Henrique Capriles, a two-time opposition candidate and current hopeful, has said talks must be held with creditors to preserve Citgo.

“Losing the refiner is a problem for the country,” Capriles told Reuters in June.

Machado agreed on Tuesday, telling Reuters Citgo should remain in Venezuelan hands.

“A disorganized sale would produce a great destruction of value,” she said. “Remaining under Venezuelan control and allowing (Citgo) to comply with all its obligations … that would benefit all the creditors, the shareholders, the suppliers and the United States.”

Barclays said this month the 2024 elections could present a window of opportunity to find a solution to Venezuela’s political crisis, a pre-requisite for sovereign debt restructuring, but added that it was too early to draw conclusions about an outcome for the elections.

The opposition is crafting a proposal to redirect about 200,000 barrels per day of oil exports to pay creditors, an opposition official said this month.

Reporting by Mayela Armas in Caracas and Luc Cohen in New York, additional reporting by Vivian Sequera; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Sonali Paul

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