U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Venezuela, March 1998
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 pop. 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 (1997 est.): 22.4 million.
Annual growth rate (1988-97 est.): 2.1%.
Ethnic groups: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arab, German, African, 
indigenous people.
Religions: Roman Catholic 96%.
Languages: Spanish (official), numerous indigenous dialects. 
Education: Years compulsory--9. Literacy--90.7%. 
Health: Infant mortality rate--28.5/1,000. 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 (1997 est.): $72.1 billion.
Growth rate (1997): 4.5%.
GDP per capita: $3,164.
Natural resources: Petroleum, natural gas, coal, iron ore, gold, other 
minerals, hydroelectric power, bauxite.
Agriculture (4.7% of GDP): Products--rice; coffee; corn; sugar; bananas; 
dairy, meat, and poultry products.
Petroleum industry (27.6% of GDP): Oil refining, petrochemicals. 
Manufacturing (15.6% of GDP): Types--iron and steel, paper products, 
aluminum, textiles, transport equipment, consumer products, and 
petroleum refining.
Trade (1997 est.): Exports--$23.7 billion: petroleum ($18.3 billion), 
iron ore, coffee, steel, aluminum, cocoa. Major markets--U.S. (Jan.-
Oct.1997, 55%), Japan, Germany, Colombia, Netherlands, Brazil, Italy. 
Imports--$10.6 billion: machinery and transport equipment, manufactured 
goods, chemicals, foodstuffs. Major suppliers--U.S. (Jan.-Oct. 1997, 
38%), Japan, Germany, France, Canada, Italy, Colombia, Brazil.
Exchange rate (Dec. 1997): 504.25 bolivars=U.S.$1.

U.S.-VENEZUELAN RELATIONS

U.S. relations with Venezuela are close and we share a strong mutual 
commitment to democracy. As our number-one supplier of foreign oil, 
U.S.-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. 
Underscoring the importance of this bilateral relationship, President 
Clinton's October 1997 visit launched a "Partnership for the 21st 
Century" to promote common solutions for energy development, trade and 
investment, and protecting the environment, as well as a strategic 
alliance against crime and drug trafficking.

The United States is Venezuela's most important trading partner, 
representing approximately half of both imports and exports. In turn, 
Venezuela is our-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. For 
contact information and a list of government publications, please refer 
to the last page 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 FY 1998, the United States 
earmarked $600,000 for counternarcotics assistance and about $400,000 
through the International Military Education and Training program. In 
addition, the United States plans to deliver excess U.S. military 
equipment worth $13.25 million to the Venezuelan armed forces for 
counternarcotics use. There is no 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

The Venezuelan people comprise a combination of European, indigenous, 
and African heritages. 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 people 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 1908-35 and from 1950-58. 
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 
elected directly 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 PDVSA, the 
parastatal oil company) stood at approximately $26.5 billion in 1996. 
The economy grew by 4.5% in real terms in 1997. Consumer prices rose 
only 37.6% in 1997 compared to the record 103% of 1996. The government 
is hoping for inflation of 24% during 1998.

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. Oil prices have shown a 
continual decline since 1996, which is serving to erode the budgetary 
surplus from 4.5% in 1996 to an estimated 1.5% in 1997.

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 1997, this sector accounted for more than one-quarter of GDP, 
almost three-quarters of export earnings, and almost half of 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 15.6% of GDP in 1997. The manufacturing sector 
grew slightly (2.2%) in direct contrast with the contraction in 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 4% of GDP, 12% of the labor force, and 24% of 
Venezuela's land area. 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. During 
the first 10 months of 1997, the United States registered $3.0 billion 
in exports (about 38% of Venezuela's total) and purchased $12.9 billion 
in imports (about 55% of Venezuela's total). 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 1997, official unemployment was 12.8%, 
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 people 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 people 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 Attache--Eric Sletten
Consul General--Marilyn Jackson
Administrative Counselor--John Collins
Regional Security Officer--Harold Jenkins
Public Affairs Counselor--Nicholas Robertson

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 a.m. to 5 p.m., 
Monday through Friday.

OTHER GOVERNMENT CONTACTS:

Department of State
Inter-American Affairs, Venezuela Desk 202-647-3023
Overseas Citizens Services 202-647-5225

Department of Commerce
14th and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20230
Venezuela Desk: 202-482-0475
800-USA-TRADE
Home page: http://www.ita.doc.gov

Venezuela-American Chamber of Commerce
Torre Credival, Piso 10
2nda Avenida de Campo Alegre
Campo Alegre, Apartado 5181
Caracas 1010A, Venezuela
Tel: 582-263-0833
Fax: 582-263-1829/0586
E-mail: Venam@ven.net
Home page: http://www.venamcham.org 

U.S. Government Publications:

Consular Information Sheet 202-647-3000 (by fax)
Economic Trends Report 202-736-7760 (fax on demand)
Country Commercial Guide 202-736-7760 (fax on demand)

These publications are available through the State Department's World 
Wide Web page (www.state.gov).

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:  
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). 
Registering with the embassy may help you to replace lost identity 
documents or 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; 
Country Commercial Guides; directories of key officers of foreign 
service posts; etc. DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at 
http://www.state.gov.

U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on an 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.

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