U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
BACKGROUND NOTES: VENEZUELA
PUBLISHED BY THE BUREAU OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS
Official Name: Republic of Venezuela
Area: 912,050 sq. km. (352,143 sq. mi.); about the size of Texas and
Cities: Capital--Caracas (metropolitan area population est. 2.8
million, 1990 census). Other major cities--Maracaibo, Valencia,
Climate: Varies from tropical to temperate, depending on elevation.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Venezuelan(s).
Population (1993 est.): 20.6 million.
Annual growth rate: 2.3%.
Ethnic groups: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arab, German, Indian,
Religions: Roman Catholic 96%.
Languages: Spanish (official), numerous Indian dialects.
Education: Years compulsory--9. Literacy--91%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--21/1,000. Life expectancy--72 yrs.
Work force (about 7.5 million): Services--62.5%. Manufacturing--15.5%.
Agriculture--11%. Construction--9%. Other--2%.
Type: Federal republic.
Independence: July 5, 1821.
Constitution: January 23, 1961.
Branches: Executive--president (head of government and chief of state;
five-year term); Council of Ministers (cabinet). Legislative--bicameral
congress (203-member Chamber of Deputies, 53-member Senate) elected for
Judicial--18-member Supreme Court.
Subdivisions: 22 states, one federal district (Caracas), and one
federal dependency (72 islands).
Major political parties: Democratic Action (Accion Democratica--AD),
Social Christian (Comite Organizador Politico por Elecciones
Independientes--COPEI), Convergencia (the President's coalition), the
Radical Cause (Causa R), and the Movement to Socialism (Movimiento al
GDP (1993): $58.5 billion.
Growth rate (1993): -1%.
GDP per capita: $2,800.
Natural resources: Petroleum, natural gas, coal, iron ore, gold, other
minerals, hydroelectric power, bauxite.
Agriculture (5% of GDP): Products--rice; coffee; corn; sugar; bananas;
dairy, meat, and poultry products.
Petroleum industry (23% of GDP): oil refining, petrochemicals.
Manufacturing (21% of GDP): Types--iron and steel, paper products,
aluminum, textiles, transport equipment, consumer products.
Trade (1993): Exports--$14.2 billion: petroleum ($10.5 billion), iron
ore, coffee, steel, aluminum, cocoa. Major markets--U.S., Japan,
Germany, Colombia, Netherlands, Brazil, Italy. Imports--$11 billion:
machinery and transport equipment, manufactured goods, chemicals,
foodstuffs. Major suppliers--U.S., Japan, Germany, Spain, Italy,
Official exchange rate: 170 bolivars = U.S. $1.
PEOPLE AND HISTORY
Most Venezuelans are of European, Indian, and/or African descent. Many
Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants arrived during the early
1950s. About 85% of the population lives in urban areas, most of which
are along the coast or in the Andes. Almost half of Venezuela's land
area lies south and east of the Orinoco River, yet it contains only 5.3%
of the population. In 1992, Venezuelans' median age was 21.
The indigenous peoples of Venezuela ranged from agriculturalists--the
Timotes, who used irrigation and terracing--to less-advanced groups
living on islands offshore. Coastal Carib tribes, especially the Teques
and the Caracas, proved formidable enemies to the Spanish who followed
Columbus after 1498; the Carib leader Guarcaipuro mobilized as many as
10,000 warriors to resist Spanish settlement.
The first permanent Spanish settlement in South America--Nuevo Toledo--
was established in Venezuela in 1522. Spanish explorers noted that
natives used a black, oily liquid--petroleum--in their daily chores and
took some of it to Spain as a curiosity. But the Spanish were
interested in gold and looked for it elsewhere in their colonial empire.
Nor did they appreciate Venezuela's agricultural potential.
Other Europeans, especially English adventurers and Dutch and French
traders, began developing important commercial connections in the
Venezuela region. Spain's eventual efforts to limit their inroads and
develop the colony proved counterproductive, and Venezuelans began to
grow restive under colonial control. Armed uprisings broke out in 1795,
1797, and 1799. In 1806, Francisco de Miranda--a Venezuelan aristocrat-
-launched an unsuccessful rebellion.
Independence was achieved in 1821 under the leadership of Simon Bolivar.
Venezuela, along with what are now Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador, was
part of the Republic of Gran Colombia until 1830, when it separated and
became a sovereign country.
Much of Venezuela's 19th-century history was characterized by periods of
political instability, dictatorial rule, and revolutionary turbulence.
The first half of the 20th century was marked by periods of
authoritarianism--including dictatorships from 1908-35 and from 1950-58.
Following the overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958, democratic
elections were held every five years. Perez Jimenez' ouster also marked
the start of the military's withdrawal from direct involvement in
national politics. The presidency has passed back and forth between the
country's two main political parties: Democratic Action (AD) won in
1958, 1963, 1973, 1983, 1988, and the Social Christian (COPEI) Party won
in 1968 and 1978.
After a constitutionally mandated 10-year hiatus from power, Carlos
Andres Perez took office again as President on February 2, 1989, for a
second five-year term. He abandoned economic nationalism, import
substitution, and state intervention, the trademarks of his first term
(1974-79). The decline of oil prices in the mid-1980s and changes in
policy forced austerity on consumers accustomed to subsidies. Economic
hardship and the austerity program sparked violence in February 1989.
When police no longer could maintain order, the government temporarily
suspended some constitutional rights and used military force to restore
order. This turmoil set the stage for two military coup attempts
against the Perez government, in February and November 1992. In May
1993, Perez was removed from office pending resolution by the Supreme
Court of charges against him for malfeasance.
Perez was replaced by Ramon J. Velasquez, who presided over the December
1993 elections that brought Rafael Caldera to office. Caldera, a
founder of COPEI and a former president (1969-1974), ran on a coalition
"Convergence" ticket promising a reduction in corruption; he won the
presidency with just over 30% of the valid vote--a seven-percentage-
point margin over his closest rival. However, new elections and a new
leader did not bring to an end the country's economic and political
The president is elected by a plurality vote with direct and universal
suffrage. The term of office is five years, and a president cannot be
re-elected until at least two terms have been served by others. The
president decides the size and composition of the cabinet and makes
appointments to it with the involvement of the congress. The executive
branch initiates most legislation, which the legislature debates and
approves, alters, or rejects. The congress has the authority to
override a presidential veto, but the president can also ask the
congress to reconsider the portions of the bill found objectionable.
The congress is bicameral, and elections for the Senate and the Chamber
of Deputies are held at the same time every five years. Until 1993,
voters cast ballots for a party list of candidates. The 1993 national
election permitted, for the first time, the direct election of one-half
of the Chamber of Deputies by name and district. When the congress is
not in session, its Delegated Committee acts on matters relating to the
executive and in oversight functions.
All courts in Venezuela are part of the federal system. The 18 members
of the Supreme Court of Justice are elected by a joint session of the
congress to serve nine-year terms; one-third of the court is elected
every three years, and each justice can serve only one term. The
minister of justice names judges to the lower civilian courts, which
include district courts, municipal courts, and courts of first instance.
The armed forces number 89,000 personnel in four service branches--army,
navy (including the marine corps), air force, and the Armed Forces of
Cooperation (FAC), commonly known as the national guard--whose primary
mission is to enforce internal security.
Principal Government Officials
Foreign Minister--Miguel Angel Burelli Rivas
Ambassador to the United States--Pedro Luis Echeverria
Ambassador to the United Nations--Enrique Tejera Paris
Ambassador to the OAS--Sebastian Alegrett
Venezuela's embassy in the United States is at 1099 30th St. NW,
Washington, DC 20007 (tel. 202-342-2214). Consulates are in Boston,
Chicago, Houston, Miami, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and
Puerto Rico. Only consulates issue visas.
Venezuela's history of free and open elections since 1958 and lack of
military dominance in national politics has earned it a reputation as
one of the more stable democracies in Latin America. But the country
has undergone a series of political and economic crises since early 1992
which have resulted in suspensions of constitutional rights.
Its most recent economic and financial crisis led to restrictions on
civil liberties earlier this year. President Caldera gave the police
the power to detain people without warrants, to enter homes without
warrants, and to seize property without compensation. With the
government controlling imports--including supplies of imported newsprint
and ink--newspaper publishers worried that the President would try to
exert undue influence over reporting. When the congress voted to
restore civil liberties in late July 1994, the President signed a decree
suspending them again. He then challenged the congress to put the
matter to a national referendum; congressional leaders agreed to uphold
the President's decree.
Despite this latest crisis, Venezuela's political and electoral system
in recent years had made progress in becoming more open. The 1993
national elections--with the presidency won by Caldera's coalition
party--saw the first time in decades that elections were not dominated
by the usual two political parties. Also, as noted, the direct election
of one-half of the Chamber of Deputies by name and district was
permitted for the first time. This resulted in a national congress
comprised of four political blocs of roughly equal size, in contrast to
the AD- and COPEI-dominated political system of the recent past.
Venezuela's armed forces have rejected a direct role in national
politics since 1959. Civil-military relations in Venezuela are good.
The majority of the military support democracy and the Caldera
administration. There have been some departures from this apolitical
position in the recent past--such as the two tries in 1992 by elements
of the military to overthrow the government--but these coup attempts
were put down by the armed forces.
On the local level, a decentralization of power from the national
government to state and municipal authorities had begun in 1989 with the
direct election of governors and mayors. Until that year, the states
were administered by governors appointed by the president. In December
1989, governors in 20 states and mayors in 269 municipalities were
elected for the first time in the country's history. This election also
was the first to use a system allowing the voter to choose individual
candidates by name, rather than selecting only among party slates.
State and municipal elections were held again in 1992; the next round
of local elections is scheduled for 1995.
Venezuela is rich in oil and other mineral resources, but its per capita
income is only average for Latin America. The economy has been
shrinking in real terms since 1992; the inflation rate for 1993 was 46%.
As of December 1993, the country had $27.3 billion in public external
Venezuela's current economic crisis was triggered by the collapse of the
country's banking system in early 1994. The government's unsuccessful
bank bailout cost an estimated half-year's budget. The government had
tried to intervene and assist many of the largest banks, which
represented more than half of the nation's deposit base. President
Caldera has implemented a system of exchange and price controls to stem
the flow of foreign exchange and to halt price increases. GDP is
expected to decline by 4%-5% for 1994.
Due to the series of political and economic crises that Venezuela has
experienced since 1992, business confidence within the country has been
shaken, and there is increased caution by international investors.
Although new banking and insurance laws extend national treatment to
foreign investors in the financial field, few have expressed interest.
Small and undercapitalized, the financial sector already had been
declining as a percentage of GDP in recent years.
The government has no current financing arrangement with the
International Monetary Fund (IMF). Venezuela receives project loans
from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.
Petroleum and Other Resources
Venezuela's economy is dominated by petroleum; oil prices rebounded
earlier this year, providing a boost for the economy. Until recently,
the country was largely an exporter of crude oil but now is
predominantly a marketer of oil products. In 1993, the petroleum
industry accounted for 23% of GDP, 74% of exports, and 61% of central
The Government of Venezuela has opened up much of the hydrocarbon sector
to foreign investment, promoting the establishment of massive new
petrochemical joint ventures and reactivation of inactive fields.
Authorization of foreign participation in exploration and production
seems imminent. A program to privatize state-owned enterprises, begun
in 1991, has stalled in recent years, but the Caldera administration has
announced that further privatizations, including heavy industry, will go
An abundance of other resources, such as iron ore, coal, bauxite,
hydroelectric power, and gold are in various stages of development. The
Guasare Basin coal field is one of the larger fields in the Americas,
and the government hopes to produce 10 million metric tons a year by the
mid-1990s, making Venezuela a leading exporter of coal. As projects
develop over the next five years, mineral exports are expected to at
least double in volume.
Manufacturing, Agriculture, And Trade
Manufacturing makes up 21% of GDP. Venezuela manufactures and exports
steel, aluminum, textiles, apparel, beverages, and foodstuffs. It also
produces cement, tires, paper, and fertilizers, and assembles cars for
both the domestic and export market.
Agriculture accounts for only 5% of GDP, 11% of the labor force, and 20%
of the land area. The staple crops are maize and sorghum; most of
Venezuela's wheat is imported. Venezuela's main export crops are coffee
and cocoa. The sector is inefficient and depends on a network of
subsidies and trade barriers.
Venezuela usually has a trade surplus. In recent years, non-traditional
(i.e., non-petroleum) exports have been growing rapidly but still
constitute only about one-fourth of total exports. The United States is
its major trading partner, but regional markets--particularly that of
fellow Andean Pact member and neighbor Colombia--are growing in
Under former President Perez, Venezuela evinced an interest in joining
the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). President Caldera
supports Venezuela's bilateral free trade agreement with Colombia and
also signed the G-3 agreement with Colombia and Mexico earlier this
Labor and Infrastructure
Venezuela's labor force of about 7.5 million is growing at 2.5% a year.
Economic contractions sharply pushed up unemployment beginning in 1993
and also increased the informal sector's share of total employment to an
estimated 43% in 1994. The public sector employs 19% of the work force,
while less than 1% works in the capital-intensive oil industry. About
25% of employed workers are unionized.
Venezuela has an extensive road system. With the exception of air
service, transportation and communications have failed to keep pace with
the country's needs. Much of the infrastructure suffers from inadequate
maintenance. Caracas has a modern subway, but only one functioning rail
line serves the rest of the country.
Venezuela traditionally has said that its international conduct will be
-- Respect for human rights;
-- The right of all peoples to self-determination;
-- Non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations;
-- Peaceful settlement of disputes between nations, including border
-- The right of all peoples to peace and security; and
-- Support for democracy.
During the Perez presidency, Venezuela maintained an influential role in
foreign affairs. Joined by Colombia, Mexico, and Panama, the country
sought a regional solution to Central America's problems through the
Contadora process. Venezuela's political parties played a prominent
role in helping Nicaragua organize its own elections in 1990, and it
hosted peace talks between El Salvador and the rebel Farabundo Marti
National Liberation Front. Venezuela also was active in international
forums such as the Non-aligned Movement. It has adopted the American
Convention on Human Rights and supports the Inter-American Commission on
Under the Caldera administration, Venezuela has been less active in the
international and regional arenas, reflecting the country's and the
government's preoccupation with pressing internal economic problems.
Regionally, Venezuela continues to participate in such groupings as the
Friends of Haiti and the Friends of Guatemala. The Caldera government
has indicated that its foreign policy priorities will be relations with
Colombia, Brazil, and the Caribbean; regional and sub-regional economic
integration; and relations with the United States.
The country has numerous border disputes with its neighbors but seeks to
resolve them peacefully. Bilateral commissions have been established by
Venezuela and Colombia to address a range of pending bilateral issues,
including the resolution of the maritime boundary in the Gulf of
Venezuela. Relations with Guyana are complicated by Venezuela's claim
to the area up to the Essequibo River--more than one-half the area of
Guyana. With the concurrence of both countries, the border issue was
referred to the UN Secretary General for a determination of suitable
means for settlement in 1987. Since then, representatives of the two
governments have held exchanges on the boundary under the auspices of
the "good offices" of the United Nations.
The United States is Venezuela's most important trading partner,
representing more than 45% of its international trade. The U.S. exports
to Venezuela machinery, transportation equipment, agricultural
commodities, and auto parts and imports oil and other natural resources.
The United States allocated $400,000 in FY 1994 for anti-narcotics
assistance to Venezuela, which also received about $87,500 in
International Military Educational Training (IMET) funds. There is no
USAID or Peace Corps mission in Venezuela.
The United States and Venezuela share views on strengthening democratic
institutions around the world; furthering human rights; accelerating
sound economic, social, and cultural development through orderly and
progressive change within the framework of a free society; and
cooperating in the defense and security of the Western Hemisphere
against aggression or subversion.
Along with the United States, Venezuela supports the goals of nuclear
non-proliferation in the hemisphere, conventional arms restraint, anti-
terrorism, and the promotion of hemispheric economic development.
Venezuela and the United States both consider democratization in the
region important. But Venezuela also emphasizes avoiding force and not
intervening in the internal affairs of states.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Deputy Chief of Mission--Robert Morley
Political Counselor--Thomas Tonkin
Economic Counselor--Charles Ahlgren
Commercial Attache--Edgar Fulton
Consul General--James Blanford
Administrative Counselor--Arnold Munoz
Regional Security Officer--Edward Napoliello
Public Affairs Counselor--Peter De Shazo
The U.S. embassy is on Avenida de Miranda and Avenida Principal de la
Floresta, Caracas (tel. 58-2-285-5294). Office hours are 8 am to 5 pm,
Monday through Friday. The embassy is scheduled to move to a new
location early in 1995.
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