World News

Venezuelan rum maker offers shares in hope of China-style transition

By Corina Pons and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Rum distiller Ron Santa Teresa <RST.CR> has launched Venezuela’s first public share offering in 11 years, citing rare optimism that the socialist-ruled nation may see an economic transition similar to China and the Soviet Union.

One of Venezuela’s best-known brands, Santa Teresa, which exports via an alliance with Bermuda-based Bacardi Ltd., sold an initial 1 million shares on Friday. It was the firm’s first in a series of offers of bolivar-denominated shares hoped to raise the equivalent of a modest $3 million this year.

Company president Alberto Vollmer compared the sale, the first public share offering since 2008 on the diminished Caracas bourse, to the re-opening of the Shanghai Stock Exchange 30 years ago that helped revive China’s economy.

Another Venezuelan company, real estate developer Fondo de Valores Inmobiliarios <FVIb.CR> (FIV), also plans a share issue this year, according to its president, Horacio Velutini.

The two men belong to an informal group known as “Optimists Anonymous” made up of 39 corporate leaders, bankers and investors who think businesses will become profitable again as President Nicolas Maduro will not be able to reverse his opening of the ailing economy.

Last year, the government unexpectedly relaxed 15 years of stringent economic regulations, abandoning enforcement of price controls and allowing dollar transactions in the face of runaway inflation and U.S. sanctions.

The Santa Teresa and FIV bosses’ views contrast with the rest of the business establishment, the political opposition, and U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration – all of whom maintain the economy cannot fully recover with Maduro in power.

“When we sit down with authorities, or businesses, or trade unions, we tell them that Venezuela’s economic recovery will involve (share offerings),” Vollmer told Reuters.

“We’re taking the first step, let’s see who follows.”

Vollmer led a ceremony at a Caracas roof bar on Friday, where attendants toasted with glasses of rum, to celebrate the sale of shares that will finance the expansion of warehouses and the acquisition of new barrels to age their spirits.

Investors included Venezuelans living in country and abroad.

“LOOSENED THE MOORINGS”

Velutini said his real estate group plans to use proceeds of its planned share sale to buy up office space in Caracas, which he says is looking cheap.

“After 15 years in a controlled economy, they’ve loosened the moorings, and we’re not used to it yet,” said Velutini, who likened the situation to the Soviet Union’s perestroika. “Venezuela is entering a cycle of liberal economic opening.”

Under Maduro’s rule since 2013, Venezuela has become a deeply unequal society in which small pockets of flashy wealth in the capital and major cities contrast with deep poverty and chronic malnutrition driving a migration exodus.

Vollmer and Velutini say members of “Optimists Anonymous” have met U.S. authorities to discuss how Washington’s sanctions have affected private sector businesses.

Those sanctions prevent U.S. firms from doing business with Venezuela’s government and state-run companies, but do not explicitly block commerce between private companies.

Venezuelan businesses say that in practice, overzealous compliance of sanctions often hamstring their operations, and measures such as prohibiting direct flights between the two countries have boosted operating costs.

The State Department, in a response to questions, said the United States is using sanctions to support a “transition to free and fair presidential elections.”

“U.S. sanctions on Maduro and his cronies have been targeted, while also ensuring that the flow of humanitarian goods and services to the Venezuelan people is not prohibited by U.S. sanctions,” said a State Department spokesperson.

Share offerings, albeit a pittance compared to others internationally, could serve as a lifeline to Venezuelan companies that have been effectively cut off from bank financing. Inflation of 30,000 percent and government regulations left banks unwilling to provide even the most basic of loans.

The Caracas bourse was largely abandoned after late socialist leader Hugo Chavez in 2007 nationalized the two largest companies that traded on it, though the exchange stayed open with a trickle of business.

Firms would at times issue shares to existing shareholders as a way of paying dividends. Entrepreneurs hope to lobby the government so that they can sell shares in dollars.

Local finance industry experts consulted by Reuters said they believe there is demand for shares both within the Venezuelan business community and among Venezuelans abroad who see the economic situation changing.

“Negativity is like a virus that reached Venezuela, and we’re the anti-body,” said Velutini.

(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

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