U.S. Department of State 
Background Notes: Venezuela, May 1997 
Released by the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs.

Official Name: Republic of Venezuela

PROFILE

GEOGRAPHY

Area: 912,050 sq. km. (352,143 sq. mi.); about the size of Texas and 
Oklahoma combined.
Cities: Capital--Caracas (metropolitan area population est. 2.8 million, 
1990 census). Other major cities--Maracaibo, Valencia, Barquisimeto.
Terrain: Varied.
Climate: Varies from tropical to temperate, depending on elevation.

PEOPLE

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, 
indigenous peoples.
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--
13%.
Agriculture--13%. Construction--8%. Other--2%

GOVERNMENT

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 
Socialismo--MAS).

ECONOMY

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 
petroleum refining.
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.-VENEZUELAN RELATIONS

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 
petroleum.

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 
document.

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.

GOVERNMENT

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 
instance. 

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 
national guard.

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.

POLITICAL CONDITIONS

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 
compensation.

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.

ECONOMY

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 
investment.

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.

FOREIGN RELATIONS

Venezuela traditionally has said that its international conduct will be 
governed by:

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 
United Nations.

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-
4000. 

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 
emergency. 

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 
gopher://gopher.state.gov.

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: 
http://www.ita.doc.gov

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

(###)


Return to Western Hemisphere Background Notes Archive
Return to Background Notes Archive Homepage
Return to Electronic Research Collection Homepage