In August 2011, while undergoing cancer treatments that ultimately failed him, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez began withdrawing 160 tons of gold from U.S., European and Canadian banks. “It’s coming to the place it never should have left. … The vaults of the central bank of Venezuela, not the bank of London or the bank of the United States. It’s our gold,” he said on national television as crowds cheered armored trucks carrying an initial bullion shipment to the central bank.
While Chávez suggested the gold repatriation might forestall a Libya-style seizure of Venezuela’s assets by Western powers he had antagonized, IHS Global Insight analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos told Reuters it might stymie potential claims by foreign corporations seeking compensation for nationalizations they had endured. Central Bank of Venezuela President Nelson Merentes said it was “an act of financial prudence and sovereignty” intended to guard against problems in the international markets.
The shipments, conducted by air after much talk of alternate delivery modes, concluded five months later in a celebratory caravan. (Germany’s doing it, too: Berlin has ordered repatriation of 674 metric tons of gold, worth $34 billion, from Paris and New York.)
The Caracas hoard would today be valued at around $9 billion, were it not for the fact that Venezuela has been selling it — about $550 million worth in the first eight months of 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. Did further sales follow over the past six months, with proceeds partly paying for the public largesse that helped fuel Chávez’s victorious up-from-the-sickbed presidential run?
Hint: Even with the additional cash from gold sales, Venezuela’s foreign exchange reserves hit a five-year low in September, three weeks before Chávez won a narrower-than-customary victory over Henrique Capriles, who will represent the opposition in a presidential election to be held on April 14.