Venezuela has launched a campaign to attract foreign investment, but business officials here are not optimistic about its chances for success.
Venezuelan President Jaime Lusinchi traveled to the United States in April to extol business opportunities here. In June, his administration issued long-awaited rules relaxing controls on foreign investment.
Lusinchi, who took office in February 1984, hopes foreign investment will return to the levels of the 1960s and 1970s, when funds were attracted here by political stability and a rapidly growing economy fueled by gushing oil revenue.
Increased foreign investment would boost growth and diversify the oil-dependent economy. Oil provides two-thirds of government revenue, accounts for 25 percent of gross national product and brings in 90 percent of export earnings.
Lusinchi's effort reverses years of government policies hostile to investment by foreigners. Venezuela had enacted a series of policies that kept out foreign investment in some industries and strictly regulated it in others.
But the government has decided, as Finance Minister Manuel Azpurua says, that "foreign investment is better than foreign debt." Venezuela has a $35 billion combined public- and private-sector foreign debt.
However, businessmen remain wary of Venezuela's new interest in luring investment.
"The foreign investment climate is at rock bottom," said R. Foster Perry, president of U.S.-based Teledyne Corp.'s Venezuelan subsidiary. "I don't see any new investment coming here."
Foreign investors blame their lack of enthusiasm on Venezuela's economic slump and the debt crisis.
Falling oil prices in the early 1980s caused confidence in the country to plummet, leading nervous investors to send billions of dollars abroad. This forced the government to devalue the nation's currency, the bolivar, in February 1983.
Economic growth has fallen sharply since 1983. Unemployment has climbed to an estimated 20 percent and living standards have fallen to 1973 levels.
Businessmen have applauded the government's pro-investment rhetoric and the thrust of the June rules changes.
They also praised Lusinchi for cutting government spending and "Burned once by the regional debt crisis, foreign investors lump Venezuela with the other Latin American debtors, even though we're in better shape than the other nations are." -- Farid Antakly, Caracas lawyer refusing to support the demands of organized labor, which gave him strong support in the election, for an across-the-board wage hike.
But businessmen say the country's dismal economic numbers overwhelm the government's efforts.
"The government's new stance is helpful, but the key to increased foreign investment is the expectation of higher profits," said John Pate, a Caracas lawyer specializing in foreign investment.
Few are optimistic about future economic growth. Venezuela's economy will remain flat as long as the international oil market stays weak, analysts say, adding that oil prices are unlikely to rise in the next few years.
"Foreign investors' confidence in the economy is still low," said Paul Bosch, president of Paul Bosch Associates, a Caracas consulting firm.
By adhering to the price levels of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, of which it is a founding member, Venezuela has lost markets recently to competitors. Exports of heavy crude oil are 300,000 barrels per day lower today than in March, a decrease that has cost the government $600 million.
Venezuela, however, still is in better shape than its neighbors. The country has $13 billion in foreign reserves and should sign an accord this year with foreign banks to reschedule its $21 billion public-sector debt.
The pact will be the first a Latin American debtor has signed without intervention of the International Monetary Fund.
Although the agreement is expected to revive bank loans to Venezuela, it doesn't seem to have impressed foreign investors.
"Burned once by the regional debt crisis, foreign investors lump Venezuela with the other Latin American debtors, even though we're in better shape than the other nations are," said Farid Antakly, a Caracas lawyer whose clients include multinational corporations.
Venezuela is not alone in wooing foreign investors. Canada, Colombia, India and a number of other countries have liberalized their treatment of foreign investment recently.
Venezuela is trying to encourage foreign investment in agriculture. The rules adopted in June that loosen foreign investment controls make agriculture and agro-industry exempt from a 7 percent limit on reinvestment of profits and a requirement that majority ownership be transferred to local investors within 15 years.
"All agriculture has lacked is capital and technology," said William Teeter, finance director of Oscar Mayer Co.'s Venezuelan subsidiary.