Petroleum dominated the economy throughout the twentieth century. In 1989 the petroleum industry provided almost 13 percent of the GDP, 51 percent of government revenues, and 81 percent of exports. Before the sharp drop in international oil prices in the 1980s, these ratios were considerably higher. From 1929 to 1970, the year of the country's peak production, Venezuela was the world's largest exporter of petroleum. In 1990 the country ranked as the third leading oil exporter, after Saudi Arabia and Iran, and contained at least 7 percent of proven world oil reserves.

The country's national petroleum company, the Venezuelan Petroleum Corporation (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.--PDVSA), the third largest international oil conglomerate, owned refineries and service stations in North America and Europe. Although Venezuela was only the third largest petroleum producer in the Western Hemisphere, behind the United States and Mexico, its proven reserves, at 58.5 billion barrels in 1989, exceeded those of both countries. Venezuela exported 54 percent of its petroleum to the United States in 1988, representing about 8 percent of American petroleum imports.

The first commercial drilling of petroleum in Venezuela took place in 1917. After World War I, British and American multinational oil companies rushed to Lago de Maracaibo to tap the country's huge petroleum reserves. Oil jumped from 31 percent of exports to 91 percent from 1924 to 1934. The industry proved extremely lucrative to the scores of foreign companies that drilled Venezuelan crude because of the country's low wages and nominal taxes, policies supported by corrupt relations between foreign oil companies and various military dictatorships.

In the forty-year period after the death of Juan Vicente Gómez in 1935, the government and foreign oil companies engaged in a tug-of-war over taxation, regulation, and, ultimately, ownership. Although Venezuela reaped substantially greater benefits from its generous oil endowment after 1943, corruption and deceit on the part of the foreign companies and avaricious caudillos such as Pérez Jiménez still limited the national benefits of the industry. By the early 1970s, the possible nationalization of the oil industry became the focus of debate among labor, businesses, professionals, government, and the public at large. Aware of the conflicts and subsequent difficulties of Mexico's sudden, dramatic nationalization of the entire oil industry in the 1930s, Venezuela pursued its acquisition of the petroleum sector cautiously and deliberately. In December 1974, a national commission created by President Pérez delivered a proposal for nationalization. This proposal formed the core of the 1975 law that nationalized the oil industry. The most controversial element of the new law was Article 5, which gave the government the authority to contract out to multinational firms for various technical services and marketing. Despite the controversy, Article 5 provided technical expertise that proved crucial to the industry's smooth transition to state control beginning on January 1, 1976.

In 1977 the government created a holding company, PDVSA, to serve as the umbrella organization for four major petroleum- producing affiliates. This process consolidated the holdings of fourteen foreign companies and one national company, the Venezuelan Petroleum Corporation (Corporación Venezolana de Petróleos--CVP), into four competing and largely autonomous subsidiaries. Industry analysts have credited the competitive structure of the subsidiaries with increasing overall efficiency to levels well above those of most nationalized companies. The largest subsidiary of PDVSA was Lagoven, which was composed mainly of the facilities previously operated by the United States oil company Exxon. Lagoven accounted for 40 percent of national output in 1976. From the holdings of British and Dutch Shell, PDVSA created a subsidiary called Maraven. Four smaller United States companies became Meneven. Finally, PDVSA consolidated six smaller foreign firms and the state oil company into Corpoven.

A slump in world oil prices beginning in 1981 rolled back the substantial revenues acquired, and largely squandered, during the 1970s. The symbolic end of PDVSA's prosperity came in 1982, when the Central Bank of Venezuela seized US$6 billion of the oil company's earnings to help offset the country's growing external debt problems. This action effectively eliminated PDVSA's autonomy. After oil prices dropped nearly 50 percent in 1986, the government accelerated industrial diversification programs in specialized petroleum refining, natural gas, petrochemicals, and mining, and also stepped up oil exploration efforts.

Exploration remained a major focus of PDVSA activities in the 1980s. At the time of nationalization in 1976, exploration efforts had come to a near standstill. Little exploratory activity took place during the 1960s and 1970s because the Venezuelan government did not grant any new oil concessions after 1958 and most foreign oil companies anticipated eventual nationalization. Although financial constraints slowed the pace of exploratory drilling in the 1980s, major new finds of light, medium, and heavy crude by 1986 nearly doubled proven reserves.

The country's 1989 oil reserves were expected to last for at least ninety-three years at prevailing rates of extraction. The Orinoco heavy oil belt accounted for 45 percent of proven reserves in 1989, followed by the Maracaibo region with 32 percent, the eastern Venezuelan basin with 22 percent, and 1 percent in other areas. Only a small fraction of the Orinoco's total heavy oil deposits, however, were routinely included in estimates of total proven reserves because of the cost and difficulty of extraction. Some estimates of total recoverable heavy crude reserves ran as high as 190 to 200 billion barrels.

PDVSA's early exploration strategy emphasized heavy crude, but by the 1980s the company's efforts shifted toward more valuable light and medium grades. This approach proved successful, as major new discoveries were made in the Lago de Maracaibo area, the Apure-Barinas Basin in southwest Venezuela near the Colombian border, and in the eastern Venezuelan basin in the El Furrial/Musipán area in the state of Monagas. Encouraged by its finds in the mid-1980s, PDVSA launched further drilling operations in the late 1980s, with the goal of adding 14.4 billion barrels of light and medium crude to its proven reserves by 1993. In addition to its land-based drilling, PDVSA established an increasing number of offshore rigs. The Venezuelans also explored off the coast of Aruba and had discussed with the governments of Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Guatemala the prospects of exploratory drilling.

PDVSA not only extracted crude oil, but also refined and distributed a wide variety of petroleum products. In 1988 six active refineries in Venezuela boasted an installed refining capacity of approximately 1.2 million barrels of oil a day. These refineries produced a full range of oil products and specialty fuels, making Venezuela an international leader in petroleum refining. PDVSA increased the percentage of locally refined crude from 35 percent to 58 percent between 1979 and 1988. In 1988 the country for the first time exported more refined petroleum than crude. PDVSA diversified its production during the 1980s, increasing the share of petroleum products that fell outside OPEC quotas until the late 1980s, in an effort to enhance price stability and boost profits. Orinoco Asphalt (Bitúmenes del Orinoco), a PDVSA subsidiary, began preliminary shipments in the late 1980s of orimulsión, a uniquely Venezuelan synthetic fuel derived from Orinoco heavy crude, water, and chemical additives. PDVSA hoped to export increasing quantities of orimulsión, outside OPEC quotas, to Canada and Europe as a substitute for coal or fuel oils used by electric power stations.

From 1983 to 1989, PDVSA acquired overseas refining capacity from at least five multinational oil conglomerates, either through production contracts or outright purchases. For example, in 1983 PDVSA bought a 50 percent share of the West GermanApple LaserWriter Plus/IINT/IINTXAPLASPLU.PRSthe Swedish lubricant and asphalt producer, Nynas. Beginning in 1986, PDVSA entered the United States oil market by purchasing United States oil firms, refineries, and retail outlets previously held by Citgo, Champlin, and Unocal. PDVSA's overseas refining capacity exceeded 700,000 barrels per day by the close of the decade. By 1990, therefore, PDVSA had the capability to refine nearly all of its crude oil production, either at home or at Venezuelan-owned facilities overseas. Moreover, with PDVSA's purchase of Citgo in 1989, Venezuela became the first OPEC member to wholly own a major United States oil refinery.

The United States has consistently been Venezuela's leading oil export recipient. During the 1980s, however, PDVSA increased its exports to Central America and the Caribbean. In 1980 Venezuela and Mexico embarked on a joint program called the San José Accord, under which the two oil producers exported oil to many countries of the Caribbean Basin region at concessionary rates. The accord set up a system of compensatory finance and purchases of Venezuelan goods in exchange for crude that amounted to a 20 percent discount on the world market price.

Natural Gas and Petrochemicals

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