Venezuela Table of Contents

Spanish expeditionaries arrived in what is present-day Venezuela in 1498, but generally neglected the area because of its apparent lack of mineral wealth. The Spaniards who remained pursued rumored deposits of precious metals in the wilderness, raised cattle, or worked the pearl beds on the islands off the western end of the Península de Paria. Colonial authorities organized the local Indians into an encomienda system to grow tobacco, cotton, indigo, and cocoa. The Spanish crown officially ended the encomienda system in 1687, and enslaved Africans replaced most Indian labor. As a result, Venezuela's colonial economic history, dominated by a plantation culture, often more closely resembled that of a Caribbean island than a South American territory.

Cocoa, coffee, and independence from Spain dominated the Venezuelan economy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Cocoa eclipsed tobacco as the most important crop in the 1700s; coffee surpassed cocoa in the 1800s. Although the war of independence devastated the economy in the early nineteenth century, a coffee boom in the 1830s made Venezuela the world's third largest exporter of coffee. Fluctuations in the international coffee market, however, created wide swings in the economy throughout the 1800s.

The first commercial drilling of oil in 1917 and the oil boom of the 1920s brought to a close the coffee era and eventually transformed the nation from a relatively poor agrarian society into Latin America's wealthiest state. By 1928 Venezuela was the world's leading exporter of oil and its second in total petroleum production. Venezuela remained the world's leading oil exporter until 1970, the year of its peak oil production. As early as the 1930s, oil represented over 90 percent of total exports, and national debate increasingly centered on better working conditions for oil workers and increased taxation of the scores of multinational oil companies on the shores of Lago de Maracaibo. In 1936 the government embarked on its now-famous policy of sembrar el petróleo, or "sowing the oil." This policy entailed using oil revenues to stimulate agriculture, and later, industry. After years of negotiations, in 1943 the government achieved a landmark 50 percent tax on the oil profits of the foreign oil companies. Although Venezuela reaped greater benefits from its generous oil endowment after 1943, widespread corruption and deceit by foreign companies and indifferent military dictators still flourished to the detriment of economic development. Nevertheless, despite unenlightened policies, economic growth in the 1950s was robust because of unprecedented world economic growth and a firm demand for oil. As a result, physical infrastructure, agriculture, and industry all expanded swiftly.

With the arrival of democracy in 1958, Venezuela's new leaders concentrated on the oil industry as the main source of financing for their reformist economic and social policies. Using oil revenues, the government intervened significantly in the economy. In 1958 the new government founded a new noncabinet ministry, the Central Office of Coordination and Planning (Oficina Central de Coordinación y Planificación--Cordiplan) in the Office of the President. Cordiplan issued multiyear plans with broad economic development objectives. The government in 1960 embarked on a land reform program in response to peasant land seizures. In 1960 policy makers also began to create regional development corporations to encourage more decentralized planning in industry. The first such regional organization was the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana (Corporación Venezolana de Guayana--CVG), which eventually oversaw nearly all major mining ventures. The year 1960 also marked the country's entrance as a founding member into the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which set the stage for the economy's rapid expansion in the 1970s. Throughout the 1960s, the government addressed general social reform by spending large sums of money on education, health, electricity, potable water, and other basic projects. Rapid economic growth accompanied these reformist policies, and from 1960 to 1973 the country's real per capita output increased by 25 percent.

The quadrupling of crude oil prices in 1973 spawned an oil euphoria and a spree of public and private consumption unprecedented in Venezuelan history. The government spent more money (in absolute terms) from 1974 to 1979 than in its entire independent history dating back to 1830. Increased public outlays manifested themselves most prominently in the expansion of the bureaucracy. During the 1970s, the government established hundreds of new state-owned enterprises and decentralized agencies as the public sector assumed the role of primary engine of economic growth. The Venezuelan Investment Fund (Fondo de Inversiones de Venezuela--FIV), responsible for allocating huge oil revenues to other government entities, served as the hub of these institutions. In addition to establishing new enterprises in such areas as mining, petrochemicals, and hydroelectricity, the government purchased previously private ones. In 1975 the government nationalized the steel industry; nationalization of the oil industry followed in 1976. Many private citizens also reaped great wealth from the oil bonanza, and weekend shopping trips to Miami typified upper-middle-class life in this period.

A growing acknowledgment of the unsustainable pace of public and private expansion became the focus of the 1978-79 electoral campaign. Because of renewed surges in the price of oil from 1978 to 1982, however, the government of Luis Herrera Campins (president, 1979-84) scrapped plans to downgrade government activities, and the spiral of government spending resumed. In 1983, however, the price of oil fell and soaring interest rates caused the national debt to multiply. Oil revenues could no longer support the array of government subsidies, price controls, exchange-rate losses, and the operations of more than 400 public institutions. Widespread corruption and political patronage only exacerbated the situation.

The government of Jaime Lusinchi (president, 1984-89) attempted to reverse the 1983 economic crisis through devaluations of the currency, a multi-tier exchange-rate system, greater import protection, increased attention to agriculture and food self-sufficiency, and generous use of producer and consumer subsidies. These 1983 reforms stimulated a recovery from the negative growth rates of 1980-81 and the stagnation of 1982 with sustained modest growth from 1985 to 1988. By 1989, however, the economy could no longer support the high rates of subsidies and the increasing foreign debt burden, particularly in light of the nearly 50 percent reduction of the price of oil during 1986.

In 1989 the second Pérez administration launched profound policy reforms with the support of structural adjustment loans from the International Monetary Fund ( IMF) and the World Bank. In February 1989, price increases directly related to these reforms sparked several days of rioting and looting that left hundreds dead in the country's worst violence since its return to democracy in 1958. Ironically, Pérez, who oversaw much of the government's expansion beginning in the 1970s, spearheaded the structural reforms of 1989 with the goal of reducing the role of government in the economy, orienting economic activities toward the free market, and stimulating foreign investment. The most fundamental of the 1989 adjustments, however, was the massive devaluation of the bolívar from its highly overvalued rate to a market rate. Other related policies sought to eliminate budget deficits by 1991 through the sale of scores of state-owned enterprises, to restructure the financial sector and restore positive real interest rates, to liberalize trade through tariff reduction and exchange-rate adjustment, and to abolish most subsidies and price controls. The government also aggressively pursued debt reduction schemes with its commercial creditors in an effort to lower its enervating foreign debt repayments.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress