How GM got caught in the grip of Venezuela’s chaos – Detroit Free Press
General Motors halted operations in Venezuela on Thursday after the car maker’s plant in the country was seized by public authorities, the company said.
Elissa Robinson/ DFP
Automakers and other global companies with a presence in Venezuela have struggled for years to deal with falling demand for their products and to keep control of their plants as the country descended into economic and political turmoil.
The dire business environment became highly publicized Thursday, a day after the country’s government seized a General Motors plant in Valencia.
GM has said the plant “was unexpectedly taken by the public authorities,” and said it plans to fight the seizure through all legal means both inside and outside of the country.
The automaker also said the government’s action caused “irreparable damage to the company, its 2,678 workers, its 79 dealers and its suppliers,” even though it declined to say what the plant has been producing in recent years.
But there have been plenty of warning signs of trouble over the years as the government nationalized several other industries and seized assets from companies including ExxonMobil and Auburn Hills-based Guardian Industries.
Former President Hugo Chavez took control of a number of industries, including the electricity, telecom, metal and agricultural sectors. Many companies have challenged the legality of the takeovers and Venezuela faces more than 20 international arbitration cases, according to Daniel Rustmann, co-chair of Butzel Long’s global automotive practice.
Meanwhile, automotive sales have dropped from more than 112,000 in 2012 to about 3,375 in 2016, according to estimates from IHS Automotive.
“The problem has been largely around currency,” said Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst for IHS Automotive. “The government hasn’t been allowing the companies to convert Venezuelan bolivars into dollars and suppliers want to be paid in dollars.”
Several automakers reached agreements with the government last year allowing them to accept U.S. dollars as they sold vehicles or in a mixture of dollars and bolivars.
At one time, GM was building several different Chevrolet cars including the Aveo, Cruze and Spark in the country, Brinley said. But demand for new cars and trucks has fallen so low that GM has not built any vehicles in the country since 2015, Brinley said.
GM has retained workers on its payroll even though the plant has not been operating.
Toyota shut down its plant for six months last year before resuming production in August.
And while Fiat Chrysler Automobiles said Thursday that it is “maintaining its production plans,” the Auburn Hills automaker only built an estimated 37 vehicles there last year, Brinley said.
Ford recorded a onetime charge of $800 million against its 2014 financial results so it could stop reporting income from its operations in the country.
Automotive suppliers also have faced difficulties in the country.
Last August, Auburn Hills-based Guardian Industries said the Venezuelan government gained full authority to control and operate Guardian Venezuela. Guardian did not return a phone call and an e-mail Thursday to provide an update on the status of its operations.
Dana Corp., a Toledo-area based axle manufacturer, sold its two plants in Venezuela in 2015 and recorded a $77-million charge so it could exit the country.
ExxonMobil initially had some luck with its legal challenge against Venezuela. In 2014, the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes ordered the country to pay ExxonMobil $1.4 billion. But Venezuela challenged that ruling. A World Bank arbitration panel has ruled that Venezuela will not have to pay most of the judgment.
Earlier this year, a number of political observers predicted U.S. relations with the country would grow worse after former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was nominated to become secretary of state.
Tillerson, on Wednesday, was critical of how the government was handling political protests in Venezuela as thousands took to the streets, leading to several deaths and hundreds of arrests, according to numerous media reports.
“We are concerned that the government of Maduro is violating its own constitution and is not allowing the opposition to have their voices heard, nor allowing them to organize in a way that expresses the views of the Venezuelan people,” Tillerson said during a news briefing.
All of this will make GM’s effort to regain control of its plant more difficult, said Butzel Long’s Rustmann.
Venezuela has terminated its membership in the World Bank, eliminating the legal option that ExxonMobil had, he said. GM can file a lawsuit against the country in the U.S. under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Rustmann said. But even if GM wins, collecting a settlement would be unlikely.
Contact Brent Snavely: 313-222-6512 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BrentSnavely.