Background Listings: Republic of Venezuela

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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.

At the time of the Spanish discovery, the indigenous people were mainly agriculturists and hunters living in groups along the coast, the Andean mountain range, and along the Orinoco river. The first permanent Spanish settlement in South America -- Nuevo Toledo -- was established in Venezuela in 1522. 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 Venezuela 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 after the first World War from a primarily agricultural orientation to an economy centered on petroleum production and export.

Since the overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958 and the military's withdrawal from direct involvement in national politics, Venezuela has enjoyed an unbroken tradition of civilian democratic rule. Until the 1998 elections, the traditional political parties Accion Democratica (AD) and the Christian Democratic (COPEI) Party controlled the political environment at both the state and federal level.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Venezuelan(s).
Population (1999 est.): 23.7 million.
Annual growth rate (1988-99 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 9.9 million in 1998): Services--66%. Manufacturing--14%. Agriculture--10%. Construction--9%. Other--1%.

A National Constituent Assembly is currently in the process of drafting a new constitution to replace the 1961 Constitution currently in force. Venezuelans will vote on December 15, 1999, on the new draft Constitution. The political system described below is that defined by the 1961 Constitution.

The President is elected by a plurality vote with direct and universal suffrage. The term of office is 5 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 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 9-year terms; one-third of the court is elected every 3 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.

President--Hugo Chavez
Foreign Minister--Jose Vincente Rangel
Ambassador to the United States--Alfredo Toro Hardy
Ambassador to the United Nations--Carlos Bivero
Ambassador to the OAS--Virginia Contreras

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. Although the country suffered a series of political and economic crises at the beginning of the 1990s, Venezuela has enjoyed political stability and social peace since that time.

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. Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez Frias, leader of a coup attempt in February 1992, won the presidency in December 1998 after campaigning for far-reaching reform, constitutional change, and a crackdown on corruption. His election was associated with deep popular dissatisfaction with the traditional parties, income disparities, and the nation's economic difficulties.

Chavez was a leading advocate for rewriting the 1961 Constitution through a constitutional congress. The National Constituent Assembly (ANC), a 131-member group, was elected on July 25, 1999, and began work in August. The ANC had a six-month period to write a new draft constitution. The draft was completed in November and Venezuelans will vote on it in a referendum on December 15, 1999.

GDP (1999 est.): $95.1 billion.
Growth rate (1999 est.): -5% (negative growth).
GDP per capita: $4,013.
Natural resources: Petroleum, natural gas, coal, iron ore, gold, other minerals, hydroelectric power, bauxite.
Agriculture (4.7% of GDP, 1998): Products--rice, coffee, corn, bananas, dairy, meat, and poultry products.
Petroleum industry (27.4% of GDP): Oil refining, petrochemicals.
Manufacturing (20.0% of GDP): Types--iron and steel, paper products, aluminum, textiles, transport equipment, consumer products, and petroleum refining.
Trade (1999 est.): Exports--$17.6 billion: petroleum $14.1 billion, aluminum, steel, chemical products, iron ore, cigarettes, plastics, fish, cement, and paper products. Major markets--U.S., 1998--53%, Colombia, United Kingdom, Mexico, Japan, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, and Netherlands. Imports--$12.0 billion; machinery and transport equipment, manufactured goods, chemicals, foodstuffs. Major suppliers--U.S., 1998--48%, Colombia, Japan, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Canada, and France.
Exchange rate (December 1999): 641 bolivars=U.S.$1.

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 Chavez 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 groups for Haiti, El Salvador, and Guatemala. 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 more than half of Guyana's territory. Since 1987, the two countries have held exchanges on the boundary under the "good offices" of the United Nations.

U.S. relations with Venezuela are close and we share a strong mutual commitment to democracy. Venezuela is the number-one supplier of foreign oil to the U.S. market, and U.S.-Venezuelan commercial ties are close. Major U.S. interests in Venezuela include promotion of U.S. exports and protection of U.S. investment; continuation of the economic reform program; preservation of Venezuela's constitutional democracy; closer counternarcotics cooperation; and continued access to a leading source of 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 protection of 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 extensive trade and investment opportunities for U.S. companies. New legislation is expected to open up investment opportunities in natural gas and mining. 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 2000, the United States is planning $700,000 for counternarcotics assistance and about $400,000 for Venezuelan participants in the International Military Education and Training program. 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.

Ambassador--John F. Maisto
Deputy Chief of Mission--Nancy M. Mason
Political Counselor--Thomas Ochiltree
Economic Counselor--Gary Maybarduk
Commercial Counselor--Charles Ford
Consul General--Marilyn Jackson
Administrative Counselor--Robert Weisberg
Regional Security Officer--Henry Jenkins
Public Affairs Counselor--Philip Parkerson

The U.S. Embassy is on Calle F and Calle Suapure, Colinas de Valle Arriba, Caracas (tel. 58-2-975-6411). Office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

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