U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Venezuela, May 1997
Released by the Bureau of Inter-American 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, Barquisimeto.
Climate: Varies from tropical to temperate, depending on elevation.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Venezuelan(s).
Population (1996 est.): 22.3 million.
Annual growth rate (1985-95 est.): 2.2%.
Ethnic groups: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arab, German, African,
Religions: Roman Catholic 96%.
Languages: Spanish (official), numerous indigenous dialects.
Education: Years compulsory--9. Literacy--91%.
Health: Infant mortality rate--26.5/1,000. Life expectancy--73.31 yrs.
Work force (about 8.8 million in 1996): Services--64%. Manufacturing--
Agriculture--13%. Construction--8%. Other--2%
Type: Federal republic.
Independence: July 5, 1811.
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 five-year term.
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 (President Caldera's party), the
Radical Cause (Causa R), and the Movement to Socialism (Movimiento al
GDP (1996 est.): $65 billion.
Growth rate (1996): -1.6%
GDP per capita: $2,900.
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 (25% of GDP): oil refining, petrochemicals.
Manufacturing (21.5% of GDP): Types--iron and steel, paper products,
aluminum, textiles, transport equipment, consumer products, and
Trade (1996 est.): Exports--$22.8 billion: petroleum ($18.2 billion),
iron ore, coffee, steel, aluminum, cocoa. Major markets--U.S. (55%),
Japan, Germany, Colombia, Netherlands,
Brazil, Italy. Imports--$10.6 billion: machinery and transport
equipment, manufactured goods, chemicals, foodstuffs. Major suppliers--
U.S. (45%), Japan, Germany, France, Canada, Italy, Colombia, Brazil.
Exchange rate (12/96): 477 bolivars = U.S. $1.
U.S. relations with Venezuela are close. The two countries share a
strong mutual commitment to democracy. As the U.S. number-one supplier
of foreign oil, Venezuelan commercial ties are close. Major U.S.
interests in Venezuela include protection and promotion of U.S. exports
and investment; continuation of the economic reform program;
preservation of constitutional democracy; closer counternarcotics
cooperation; and maintaining access to a leading source of foreign
The United States is Venezuela's most important trading partner,
representing approximately half of both imports and exports. In turn,
Venezuela is the U.S. third-largest export market in Latin America,
purchasing U.S. machinery, transportation equipment, agricultural
commodities, and auto parts. Venezuela's opening of its petroleum sector
to foreign investment in 1996 created tremendous trade and investment
opportunities for U.S. companies. The Department of State is committed
to promoting the interests of U.S. companies in overseas markets.
Contact information and a list of government publications can be found
in the section Other U.S. Government Contacts toward the end of this
Venezuela is a minor source country for opium poppy and coca, but a
major transit country for cocaine and heroin. Money laundering and
judicial corruption are major concerns. The United States is working
with Venezuela to combat drug trafficking. In FY1997, the United States
allocated $600,000 for counternarcotics assistance and about $350,000
through the International Military Education and Training (IMET)
program. In addition, the United States plans to deliver excess U.S.
military equipment worth $12.25 million to the Venezuelan armed forces
for counternarcotics use. There is no U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID) or Peace Corps mission in Venezuela.
Approximately 23,000 U.S. citizens living in Venezuela have registered
with the U.S. embassy, an estimated three-quarters of them residing in
the Caracas area. An estimated 12,000 U.S. tourists visit Venezuela
annually. About 500 U.S. companies are represented in the country.
PEOPLE AND HISTORY
Most Venezuelans are of European, indigenous, and/or African descent.
About 85% of the population lives in urban areas in the northern portion
of the country. While almost half of Venezuela's land area lies south of
the Orinoco River, this region contains only 5% of the population.
The indigenous peoples ranged from agriculturists to less advanced
groups living on islands offshore. The first permanent Spanish
settlement in South America--Nuevo Toledo--was established in Venezuela
in 1522. However, Venezuela was a relatively neglected colony in the
1500s and 1600s as the Spaniards focused on extracting gold from other
areas of their empire in the Americas.
The Venezuelans began to grow restive under colonial control toward the
end of the 18th century. After several unsuccessful uprisings, the
country achieved independence from Spain in 1821 under the leadership of
its most famous son, 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 1908-1935 and from 1950-
1958. The Venezuelan economy shifted from a primarily agricultural
orientation to one centered on petroleum production and export after the
First World War.
Since the overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958, Venezuela has
enjoyed an unbroken tradition of civilian democratic rule marked by the
military's withdrawal from direct involvement in national politics.
Until 1993, when Rafael Caldera won the presidential election on a
coalition Convergence ticket, the presidency had passed back and forth
between the country's main political parties, Accion Democratica (AD)
and the Christian Democratic (COPEI) Party.
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 bills 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 nine-year terms; one-third of the court is elected every
three years, and each justice can serve only one term. The Judicial
Council oversees the selection of judges to the lower civilian courts,
which include district courts, municipal courts, and courts of first
National Security The armed forces number 80,000 personnel in four
service branches--army, navy (including the marine corps), air force,
and the Armed Forces of Cooperation (FAC), commonly known as the
Principal Government Officials President--Rafael CALDERA Foreign
Minister--Miguel Angel BURELLI RIVAS Ambassador to the United States--
Pedro Luis ECHEVERRIA Ambassador to the United Nations--Ramon ESCOVAR-
SALOM Ambassador to the OAS--Francisco PAPARONI
The Venezuelan Embassy in the United States is located at 1099 30th St.
NW, Washington, DC 20007 (tel. 202-342-2214). Venezuela maintains
consulates in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Miami, New Orleans, New York,
San Francisco, and Puerto Rico.
Venezuela's history of free and open elections since 1958 and its
prohibition of military involvement in national politics earned it a
reputation as one of the more stable democracies in Latin America. But
the country suffered a series of political and economic crises at the
beginning of this decade which culminated in a temporary suspension of
constitutional rights in 1994-95. The current government has returned
political stability and social peace to Venezuela.
Venezuela experienced political turbulence in response to a 1989
economic austerity program launched by then President Carlos Andres
Perez. Disgruntled military officers unsuccessfully mounted two coup
attempts in 1992 and, in 1993, Congress impeached Perez on corruption
charges. President Rafael Caldera was elected in December 1993. His
administration's primary concerns were economic problems, particularly a
financial crisis in 1994 and, in 1996, it introduced a new economic
plan, the Agenda Venezuela, to liberalize Venezuela's economy and
promote economic growth.
The economic and financial crisis in 1994 led to restrictions on some
civil liberties. President Caldera gave the police the power to detain
people and enter homes without warrants and to seize property without
When the Congress voted to restore civil liberties in 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. Full civil liberties
were restored in July 1995, except in some border areas.
Despite these conditions, Venezuela's political and electoral system in
recent years has become more open. The 1993 presidential elections, won
by Caldera's coalition, were the first since democracy was re-
established in 1958 that were not won by the two major political
parties. In addition, half the members of the Chamber of Deputies were
directly elected for the first time in 1993. This reform resulted in a
national congress comprised of five main political forces 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 1958. Civil-military relations in Venezuela are good. The
two 1992 coup attempts failed because senior military commanders
remained loyal to civilian authorities and suppressed the rebels.
On the local level, the decentralization of power from the national
government to state and municipal authorities began in 1989 with the
direct election of governors, state legislators, mayors and city council
members every three years. Until that year, governors had been appointed
by the president.
Venezuela is rich in oil and other mineral resources. Its per capita
income is about average for Latin America. The country's public external
debt (excluding the obligations of the central bank and the parastatal
oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., known as PDVSA) stood at
approximately $26.5 billion in 1996. The economy contracted by 1.6% in
real terms in 1996. It is expected to recover and post positive growth
of at least 3% in 1997. Consumer prices rose a record 103% in 1996
because of the lifting of foreign exchange and price controls. The
government is hoping for inflation of 25%-30% during 1997.
The Venezuelan economy is making a comeback under the Agenda Venezuela,
propelled primarily by the opening of the petroleum sector to foreign
investment (the apertura), a far-reaching privatization program, and
plans to reform public sector operations. Buoyed by higher than
anticipated oil revenues and privatization proceeds, Venezuela
registered a budget surplus for 1996 through increased sales taxes and
domestic fuel prices.
In July 1996, the Venezuelan Government and the IMF formally announced a
$1.4 billion stand-by loan. The World Bank and Inter-American
Development Bank are also contributing to efforts to promote fundamental
structural reforms -- in the judiciary, electoral system, and social
security/severance pay programs.
Petroleum and Other Resources Venezuela's economy is dominated by
petroleum, and the country is a founding member of the Organization of
Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In 1995, this sector accounted for
a quarter of GDP, almost three-quarters of export earnings, and almost
half of the central government's revenues. Most of Venezuela's energy
exports consist of crude oil, but the country is also the United States'
leading foreign source of refined petroleum products.
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. The
Venezuelan petroleum corporation and foreign oil companies signed eight
contracts for exploration and production joint ventures in July 1996.
These contracts are expected to generate over $15 billion in foreign
A range of other natural resources, including iron ore, diamonds, coal,
bauxite, hydroelectric power, gold, and nickel are in various stages of
development. In 1996, CVG, the state-owned mining firm, announced its
first joint venture with a foreign company to develop the Las Cristinas
gold mine. Congress is also considering legislation which would update
Venezuela's 1945 mining law in an effort to encourage greater private
sector participation in mineral extraction.
Manufacturing, Agriculture, and Trade Manufacturing contributed 21.5% of
GDP in 1996. The manufacturing sector contracted in 1996 due to
decreased aggregate demand, the devaluation of the bolivar, and tight
foreign exchange controls in place until April 1996. 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. The Agenda
Venezuela envisions the privatization of a range of state-owned
enterprises, including banks.
Agriculture accounts for 6% of GDP, 12% of the labor force, and 24% of
Venezuela's land area. In 1996 this sector grew by approximately 2%-3%
in volume terms. Venezuela exports beef, rice, coffee, and cocoa.
However the country is not self-sufficient in most areas of agricultural
production and imports about 60% of food consumed. In 1996, U.S. firms
exported approximately $475 million of agricultural products including
wheat, soybeans, corn, soymeal, and cotton to Venezuela, our third-
largest agricultural export market in Latin America. The U.S. usually
accounts for slightly more than a third of Venezuela's food imports.
Thanks to petroleum exports, Venezuela usually posts 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 Venezuela's leading trade partner. In
1996, the United States posted $4.7 billion in exports (about 45% of
Venezuela's total imports) and purchased $12.9 billion in imports (about
55% of Venezuela's total exports). Venezuela's trade with other Andean
Pact members, particularly Colombia, is growing in importance.
Labor and Infrastructure Venezuela's labor force of about 8.8 million is
growing faster than total employment. At the end of 1996, official
unemployment was 13%, but unofficial estimates are higher. The public
sector employs 14% of the work force, while less than 1% work in the
capital-intensive oil industry. About 25% of the labor force is
unionized. Unions are particularly strong in the public sector.
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 disputes; The right of all peoples to peace and security; and
Support for democracy.
The Caldera Government has made hemispheric cooperation and integration
its foreign policy priorities. Venezuela worked closely with its
neighbors following the Summit of the Americas in many areas,
particularly energy integration, and championed the OAS decision to
adopt an Anti-Corruption Convention. Venezuela also participates in the
UN Friends of Haiti, of El Salvador and of Guatemala groups. It is
pursuing efforts to join the Mercosur trade bloc to expand the
hemisphere's trade integration prospects.
Venezuela has long-standing border disputes with Colombia and Guyana,
but seeks to resolve them peacefully. Bilateral commissions have been
established by Venezuela and Colombia to address a range of pending
issues, including resolution of the maritime boundary in the Gulf of
Venezuela. Relations with Guyana are complicated by Venezuela's claim to
over half of Guyana's territory. Since 1987, the two countries have held
exchanges on the boundary under the auspices of the good offices of the
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador - John Maisto
Deputy Chief of Mission - John Keane
Political Counselor - Thomas Shannon, Jr.
Economic Counselor - Perry Ball
Commercial Attach - Eric Sletten
Consul General - James Blanford
Administrative Counselor - John Collins
Regional Security Officer - Harold Jenkins
Public Affairs Counselor - Peter DeShazo
The U.S. embassy is on Calle F and Calle Suapure, Colinas de Valle
Arriba, Caracas (tel. 58-2-977-2011). Office hours are 8 am to 5 pm,
Monday through Friday.
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides
Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings are
issued when the State Department recommends that Americans avoid travel
to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for all
countries and include information on immigration practices, currency
regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and
security, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in
the country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to disseminate
information quickly about terrorist threats and other relatively short-
term conditions overseas which pose significant risks to the security of
American travelers. Free copies of this information are available by
calling the Bureau of Consular Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-
on-demand system: 202-647-3000. Travel Warnings and Consular Information
Sheets also are available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page:
http://travel.state.gov and the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB).
To access CABB, dial the modem number: (301-946-4400 (it will
accommodate up to 33,600 bps), set terminal communications program to N-
8-1 (no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop bit); and terminal emulation to VT100.
The login is travel and the password is info (Note: Lower case is
required). The CABB also carries international security information from
the Overseas Security Advisory Council and Department's Bureau of
Diplomatic Security. Consular Affairs Trips for Travelers publication
series, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a
safe trip abroad, can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents,
U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-
7954; telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-2250.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be
obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-
5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and holidays, call 202-647-
Passport Services information can be obtained by calling the 24-hour, 7-
day a week automated system ($.35 per minute) or live operators 8 a.m.
to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per minute). The number is 1-900-
225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778). Major credit card users (for a flat rate
of $4.95) may call 1-888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648)
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at
(404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health advisories, immunization
recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water
safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled Health Information
for International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is
available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC
20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and
customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to
travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's
embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this country, see Principal
Government Officials listing in this publication).
U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling in dangerous
areas, are encouraged to register at the U.S. embassy upon arrival in a
country (see Principal U.S. Embassy Officials listing in this
publication). This may help family members contact you in case of an
Further Electronic Information:
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet,
DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy
information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; Dispatch,
the official magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press briefings;
directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc. DOSFAN's
World Wide Web site is at http://www.state.gov; this site has a link to
the DOSFAN Gopher Research Collection, which also is accessible at
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a semi-annual basis
by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on the
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an array of
official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. Contact
the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O.
Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or
fax (202) 512-2250.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of
Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information,
including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on the Internet
(www.stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-
1986 for more information.
Other U.S. Government Contacts:
Department of State: Inter-American Affairs, Venezuela Desk 202/647-3023
Overseas Citizens Services 202/647-5225 Department of Commerce:
International Trade Administration Office of Latin America and the
Caribbean Venezuela Desk 14th and Constitution, NW Washington, DC 20230
Tel: 202/482-0475 800-USA-TRADE Fax: 202-482-4464 E-Mail:
Private Sector Contacts: Venezuelan-American Chamber of Commerce Torre
Credival, Piso 10 2da Avenida de Campo Alegre Campo Alegre; Apartado
5181 Caracas 1010-A, Venezuela Tel: (582) 263-0833 Fax: (582) 263-
1829/0586 E-Mail: venam
ven.net Home Page: http://www.venamcham.org
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