Rebounding Venezuela again has most robust economy in Latin America

October 06, 1991|By New York Times News Service

CARACAS, Venezuela -- After a hiccup caused by low oil prices and a shift to free-market policies, Venezuela has reclaimed its position as the nation in the Americas with the highest economic growth rate.

The gross national product, which grew 5 percent in 1990, expanded by an annualized rate of 10 percent during the first half of this year, according to figures released here in late August.

Memories are now fading of 1989, the rough first year of President Carlos Andres Perez. That year, the economy shrank by 8 percent and a reduction of food and gas subsidies set off riots that killed 300 people.

"We are back to the fastest-growing economy in the region," said Andres Sosa Pietri, president of Petroleos de Venezuela, SA, the national oil company. "We lagged in the '80s, but now we are back on our feet."

Michael Skol, the U.S. ambassador here, predicted, "Venezuela is likely to have a sustained economic boom in the 1990s, with growth rates higher than Chile's."

Although annual inflation continues to hover around 37 percent, optimism is growing. American, European and Venezuelan companies are embarking on multibillion-dollar "megaprojects" involving Venezuela's highly profitable oil and minerals.

And Mr. Perez's determined commitment to free-market policies appears to be bearing fruit, as trade tariffs drop, investment rules ease and the government starts to sell money-losing state companies to investors.

In early August, the government accepted a $145 million bid by a consortium led by Iberia, the Spanish airline, to buy a 60 percent stake in the state-owned international airline, Viasa.

Since taking office in February 1989, Mr. Perez has reduced import tariffs to 10 percent, on average, from 34 percent. In April, Venezuela signed a framework agreement with the United States for trade and investment liberalization.

Leading a congressional delegation to Caracas in late August, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, said Mr. Perez had shown "great leadership in opening markets and in helping to develop trade between our two great countries."

Accounting for about half the growth forecast through 1996 is a five-year, $48 billion expansion program by the national oil company.

Venezuela ships two-thirds of its daily exports of 1.9 million barrels to the United States. With oil production plummeting in the Soviet Union and political uncertainty gripping the Middle East, Venezuela likes to portray itself as a "safe source."

To meet growing demand from the United States, the oil company plans to increase production capacity by 20 percent, to 3.5 million barrels a day, by 1996.

Foreign companies are entering new areas of the petroleum industry. About 20 American and foreign companies are expected to submit bids to reactivate marginal fields that have been abandoned in eastern Venezuela. Total predicted production of these fields is expected to be 150,000 barrels a day.

In another project, government approval is expected later this year for a $3 billion natural gas processing plant to be built with multinational control. Called Cristobal Colon, the project involves Mitsubishi, Shell Oil and Exxon.

"It will be the first time since the nationalization of the oil industry in 1975 that foreigners will have majority equities," Mr. Skol said.

The national oil company is also negotiating with U.S. and European companies on multibillion-dollar joint ventures to exploit Venezuela's vast coal and bitumen reserves.

After the privatization of three banks in 2 1/2 years, efforts to sell state companies appear to have accelerated with the sale of Viasa in August.

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