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The information in this study was compiled in a visit to the western Andean region of Venezuela by the author from December 27, 1994 to January 15, 1995. It is largely based on the author's own observations and on discussions with Venezuelans, primarily Venezuelan radio station personnel. My wife, Theresa Bries, who is a former journalist, was with me on the trip until January 6 and she also contributed some valuable insights. I also wish to thank Jeff White, who sent me a copy of a media study he did of the Caracas area in 1992. Although I did not get this until I was back in the US, it has allowed me to make some interesting comparisons.


Venezuela ranks as one of the more prosperous and more developed nations in Latin America. Indeed, depending on which statistic and year one is looking at, Venezuela even sometimes ranks at the top of some specific social and economic indicators. In real terms this means that Venezuela has a very educated population and a large middle class, at least by Latin American standards. True, there is still a lot of poverty to be seen, but it is not at the bare survival level commonly seen in places like Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, and Bolivia. Even the poor are better off in Venezuela.

Of course, the primary reason for Venezuela's wealth has been its huge oil reserves. These oil reserves have also been Venezuela's economic downfall. In the 1970s, the government overborrowed against assumed future oil revenues and then squandered much of the money. However, after the 1979 oil shock, oil prices declined and then leveled off while interest rates stayed high, increasing Venezuela's national debt. The result has been a national economic crisis accompanied by high inflation, increasing unemployment, and currency devaluations. Many things that middle-class Venezuelans had taken for granted have become impossibly expensive luxuries.

After President Carlos Andres Perez was elected to a second term of office in 1988 (his first term was 1973-1978), the public became increasingly disenchanted with Perez's hardship-bringing free-market economic policies and perceived widespread corruption in the government. This reached a peak with an attempted military coup in February, 1992 which was supported by a large percentage of the population, despite Venezuela's nearly 35 year tradition of democratic rule. After another coup attempt and further allegations of corruption, Andres was forced to resign in May, 1993 and an interim president named.

The December, 1993 elections were a curious affair in which a 78 year-old former president was elected as an outsider. Rafael Caldera has been a fixture in Venezuelan politics since the 1930s and was the principal founder of COPEI, one of Venezuela's two main political parties. Caldera had run unsuccessfully for president four times before winning in 1968. Venezuelans consider Caldera to be totally honest and his 1968-1973 term to have been without corruption.

After the February, 1992 coup, Caldera was one of the few political leaders to not only denounce the coup leaders, but to also denounce the government for creating conditions which made public support for the coup possible. This rejuvenated political support for the aging politician, and he pursued the COPEI presidential nomination for the upcoming elections, but was soundly rejected by the party leadership. Undaunted, Caldera put together a coalition of several smaller parties with himself at the head. In a very divided election, Caldera won with just thirty percent of the vote. The Congressional elections were similarly factious, with minor parties increasing their numbers dramatically. While Caldera's vote total may seem small, it is not necessarily unusual. In fact, in 1968 he won with only twenty-eight percent.

Caldera's policies have been somewhat of a mixed bag. He has continued some of Andres Perez's programs of lower government subsidies and privatizing government-owned firms, but has been careful to avoid anything that would cause a great deal of hardship among the populace. For example, gasoline continues to cost just four cents (U.S.) a liter, although there is talk of doubling that to eight cents. He has also placed more control on particular elements of the economy, such as banks. All of this has earned a certain amount of wrath from the international business community. For example, in the fall of 1994 Forbes magazine published a rather venomous anti-Caldera editorial. National Review was only slightly kinder at about the same time. The Economist, on the other hand, has taken more of a wait-and- see approach.


In contrast to the state of crisis of 1992, which Jeff White very vividly portrays in his 1992 media study of Venezuela, I found a Venezuela which seems to have resigned itself to its economic troubles. I heard complaints about corruption and about the economic situation. But I did not see, hear, nor read any strong opposition to Caldera and his government. I saw no signs of support for a military coup. It is possible that the Andean region, which I visited, is less politicized than the Caracas area, where Jeff White wrote about and where most of the troubles of 1992 took place. On the other hand, Andean Venezuela is traditionally the most conservative part of the country and it should not be forgotten that a string of five military dictators from Tachira state ruled the country for all but three years from 1899 to 1958.

I suspect that Venezuelans have realized that times are going to be tough for a few years and are giving Caldera's government a fair chance to do what it can. The Bolivar has been falling steadily for several years, but the drop from 112 to 170 from March to December, 1994 was the steepest yet. By comparison, the Bolivar was at 13.40 in March, 1985 and 45 in March, 1990. Predictions are that the Bolivar will gradually drop to around 250 by the end of 1995. Although this will bring accompanying inflation and further deteriorate the Venezuelan standard of living, the certainty of continued devaluations seems to be generally accepted as long as it is done slowly.

One positive sign of public acceptance of the economic situation was in early January when the government announced that it would raise the price of electricity by three to four percent every month for the rest of the year, rather than ignore the problem until the price had to be raised by fifty or sixty percent later in the year. Although no one liked the price increase, everyone I spoke to and the newspaper editorials that I read all agreed that this was a sensible approach. I suspect if the price of gasoline is to be raised, it will be by the same gradual approach.

An interesting sign of Venezuela's economic preoccupation is that the Mexican economic crisis was the number one international news story during my visit. Indeed, the only national stories that even came close were Venezuela's own economic problems and the on-going national baseball championship. Venezuelans seemed to want to avoid the sudden economic shock as happened in Mexico, and this may strengthen support for Caldera's slow but consistent policy.


As mentioned above, my visit took me to Venezuela's western Andean region. Specifically I visited a major and a minor city in each of three states, for a total of six cities. I also saw much of the countryside in-between and paid brief visits to several small towns. The cities visited were:

MERIDA. The city of Merida is the capital and only large city in the state of the same name. The population is somewhat over 200,000. Merida is the site of Venezuela's second largest university, the Universidad de Los Andes, a very well-respected institution with around 35,000 students from all over Latin America, as well as exchange students from North America and Europe.

Merida's second claim-to-fame is its well-developed tourism industry. Merida is beautifully situated among the Andes with numerous picturesque colonial villages just an hour or two away. The city itself has dozens of green parks, many colonial buildings and a huge handicraft market. Nearby are three historical theme-parks and several national parks. The capstone of Merida's tourism industry is the teleferico, the world's longest and highest cable car ride to the top of one of the snow-covered peaks. It, however, has been closed for repairs for a year-and-a-half, although the necessary parts to fix it had just arrived in the city and work was expected to be started by February.

The result of all this is a well-balanced tourism industry that appeals both to those wanting a more restful vacation of visiting picturesque places and going shopping as well as to those who would go out into the mountains on long back-packing excursions. Merida is a prime destination spot for middle and upper class Venezuelans from elsewhere in the country, as well as large numbers of Europeans (particularly Germans, Italians, and Spanish). However, the domestic economic situation has caused a decrease in domestic tourism over the past two years, while the closure of the teleferico has lead to a lower number of international tourists. Overall, tourism is down by about twenty- five percent or more.

It is generally conceded that the university is the dominant force in politics and economics in Merida state, with the tourism industry getting most of the control that is left over. Merida is a very educated town (due to the university) and one with a heavy flow of outside income (from tourism and students). Large parts of the city consist of either row after row of attractive high-rise apartment buildings or upper-middle and upper class neighborhoods. There are poor neighborhoods, but they are not as widespread in Merida compared to elsewhere in Venezuela and, especially, to many other places in Latin America. Merida is very much a middle class city.

EL VIGIA: El Vigia is a business and agricultural trading center on the Panamerican Highway in the lowlands of Merida state, near the south end of Lake Maracaibo. The population is around 50,000 and the town has an airport. El Vigia was founded as a railway terminal just slightly over one hundred years ago and, from figures I have seen, the population has really grown over the past two or three decades. Perhaps for that reason, the town seemed particularly modern. The people seem very "small town" in their attitudes, and this was easily the most openly friendly place I visited in Venezuela. It is very much a working class town with mostly low-middle class housing.

VALERA: Valera is the major business and commerical center for Trujillo state. Merideños told me that Valera was a campo town ("hick" in US slang), and while this is somewhat the prejudice of the educated looking down on the less-educated, there is some truth in the statement. Valera is about the same size as Merida in population, but it very much feels like an overgrown small town. In fact, at one point during my visit I decided that Valera is Venezuela's version of Mason City, in reference to a town in rural north-central Iowa. Overall, Valera is a very working class city. Housing is mostly low-middle class and below. However, Valera's slums appeared more like the poor parts of rural towns in Latin America than like urban slums. Near the downtown, there was a small upscale shopping center that clearly was built for more wealthy patrons, but that was the only sign of upper-middle class or higher that I saw in Valera. Certainly there are wealthier Valerans, but that I saw so little sign of them I think shows that they are relatively few in number.

TRUJILLO: This is the state capital of Trujillo state and it is about an hour away from Valera on a wonderful four-lane paved highway built during the rule of an earlier president whose wife was from the city. The population is around 50,000. Trujillo is known as a center of colonial architecture, and that is true in the sense that there are many small colonial-style buildings and the streets are very picturesque. However, it is also a very poor, run-down, lower-class town. It is colonial in character because it is poor and whatever money there is in the state appears to end up in Valera. Nobody builds anything new in Trujillo. It is the only place I visited in Venezuela that I would describe as dirty.

There is a sizable small-townish business district, with the stores clearly marketed toward the low-end shoppers. Trujillo is also the site of the state's main university, which I rode by on the bus. It is a rather small run-down place with just a few buildings in the middle of a field. It is by no means in the same league as the university in Merida. I am certain what I saw was the main campus, as I later saw a picture of the same in a book about Trujillo state.

SAN CRISTOBAL: San Cristobal is the capital of Tachira state and the largest city in the Western Andes. Including the suburbs, the population is over half a million. Merideños told me that San Cristobal is very commercial, and indeed it is. There are two main avenues running through the center of town (5th and 7th) lined with large office buildings and shiny stores. These two wide avenues and the sidewalks beside them are constantly crowded with autos and pedestrians. Downtown San Cristobal very much belongs to the middle class and higher. It is obvious that business is king here. For example, the state legislature and a number of state agencies have their offices in the top seven floors of a magnificent twin-towered ten story building downtown. The bottom three floors and basement are leased out to up-scale shops, restaurants, hair-dressers, etc, with one area reserved for the state art museum.

However, San Cristobal is a very mixed city from an economic and class perspective. There are numerous modern high-rise apartment buildings and neighborhoods of beautiful walled upper-middle and upper class houses. There are also some large urban slums not far from the prosperous city center. In this sense, San Cristobal is a true Latin American city, unlike elite Merida or small-townish Valera. There is a state university in San Cristobal as well as a branch campus of Merida's Universidad de Los Andes, including a reportedly good journalism department.

SAN ANTONIO: San Antonio is a business and commercial center literally on the border with Colombia. The international boundary is only about twelve blocks from the main plaza. The population is about 50,000. The Colombian city of Cucuta (population 600,000) is eight miles away on the other side of the border. Local traffic moves freely between the two cities. In fact, in a morning visit to Cucuta, I walked across the busy international bridge without anyone even bothering me. There are, however, rigorous customs and migration checks just beyond San Antonio in Venezuela (and, I'm told, just beyond Cucuta in Colombia).

San Antonio's border location has been the mainstay of its economy. In the past, Colombians would flock here to buy imported products which were cheaper in Venezuela due to lower tariffs. When Venezuela's currency was stronger, Cucuteños would change their Pesos to Bolivares and bank in San Antonio. There has also been not a little smuggling of foreign goods into Colombia to avoid that country's higher tariffs. Presently, Venezuela's current economic hard-times and currency devaluations have made these all these transactions less profitable. However, the San Antonio-Cucuta road is the only main landlink between Colombia and Venezuela and recent free trade agreements between the two countries are expected to bring even greater prosperity to San Antonio in the future.

Because of San Antonio's past as a cross-border shopping center, it is a very commercial town. The business district would be appropriate for a city three times the size, except the stores are heavily oriented towards more expensive goods such as electronics, appliances, and watches and there are very few clothing and food stores. With so many stores, San Antonio seems very much a middle-class town. The housing I saw was mostly low-middle class and middle-class.

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