Around the government ministries and executive suites of this city, where life is nearly choked by sprawling suburbs and superhighways, a curious attitude has developed toward the oil that has made Venezuela Latin America's richest country.
The great '70s boom of petroleum-induced affluence has, at least for now, abruptly ended here. And after almost three years of no economic growth, continuing state industrial losses and soaring inflation, political leaders are talking about not only what all those petrodollars have done for the nation, but what they have done to it.
"Some people who care very much for the country feel that the oil wealth is damaging some of the qualities of the country," is the way Information Vice Minister Joaquin Perez Rodriguez puts it. And the problem, Venezuelans say, is not just the oil glut on the world market this year, although the drop in production and leveling of prices has forced a rewriting of Venezuela's new economic plan.
More importantly, Venezuelan leaders are saying that, after trying for two and a half years to gain a measure of control over the vast expansions of state, industry and product demand wrought by oil exports, they have found that the riches of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries can ensnarl as well as electrify a developing nation's economy.
"Oil gave us the resources to make the change" from "the archetype of a banana republic," said Finance Minister Luis Ugueto. But "it also imposed a number of conditions on the country that have not been clearly perceived."
While bringing in about $110 a year for each of the 16 million people in Venezuela, oil exports have created a huge demand for expensive imported goods, caused a mass migration to cities that crippled agricultural production, and forced the state -- which because of its control of petroleum has assumed almost complete dominance over the economy -- to shove more jobs onto industries created with oil profits than the capital-intensive enterprises could possibly bear.
Now, the long-term cost of those developments is beginning to be felt by the people of this stategic democracy, which sends 36 percent of its 1.8 million barrels of daily oil exports to the United States and is a key supporter of U.S. policy in Central America and the Caribbean.
As President Luis Herrera Campins has tried to ease Venezuela's dependence on wage and price subsidies, restructure its public and state debt of $30 billion, and stem massive losses in state industries created from scratch in the 1970s, the economy has settled into a stagflation that some economic analysts say could continue for years.
Inflation, which stood at 7 percent in 1978, jumped to 12 percent in 1979 and to a record 21 percent in 1980 before declining so far this year to around 15 percent. Unemployment rose from 5.4 percent in 1979 to 6.6 percent in 1980 and now is said to be close to 7 percent, and private investment has dropped precipitously -- more than 30 percent last year. Because of an expected decline in oil revenues, next year's national budget is being cut by 10 percent.
In Caracas these days, Venzuelans whose per-capita income is about $3,000 a year are paying $3 for a kilo of tomatoes and more for distilled water than for gasoline, which has been kept at about 30 cents a gallon. Housing is short, and people are finding that credit, once plentiful, is all of a sudden tough to find.
"We have put the country under a severe adjustment," said Ugueto. And, he said, "We have had to pay a high political price for the policies that we have pursued."
Indeed, Herrera's Christian Democratic government is now felt to be so unpopular that the major opposition party, Democratic Action, is considered likely to regain the presidency in the 1983 elections, bringing with it an economic philosophy more oriented toward state management and a foreign policy more opposed to U.S. interests. For example, Democratic Action leaders have criticized Venezuela's strong support for the U.S.-backed civilian-military government in El Salvador.
The discontent here stems not only from the worsening conditions -- the Venezuelan, economy, after all, remains in better overall condition than any other in South America -- but also from a widespread feeling that rising prices and shrinking credit are not supposed to happen in a nation that exported $18 billion worth of oil last year.
"With all of our resources and all that we've had available to us, why aren't things any better for the average person?" asks Freddy Munoz, a leader of the Socialist Party.
Venezuelan politicians agree on only part of the answer to that question. Much of the trouble, they say, is that the economy was loaded up with new industries and high technology before it had the managers to run them properly. In addition, the government came under pressure to create jobs for the new urban population at the same time it was investing in industries that simply were not meant to create large numbers of jobs.
As a result, said Ugueto, "we have some prime examples of inefficiency in the state economy."
Of all the state industries, only the oil companies, whose managers were well trained before U.S. companies were nationalized in 1976, have been successful in recent years.
The state steel company lost $232 million last year and is now estimated by U.S. officials to be losing as much as $1 million a day, and almost no other state enterprise is in the black.
The state international airline, VIACA, reportedly employs as many as 27 pilots per airplane, and the company lost some $20 million last year.
At the major state aluminum plant in the eastern industrial city of Ciudad Guyana, about one-third of the pots used for manufacturing aluminum from Venezuela's bounteous supplies of bauxite were ruined in the past year when the electrical current that heats them was turned off, allowing molten metal to congeal inside the pots. It will cost from $30 million to $75 million to get the plant operating at full capacity again, U.S. analysts say.
The Venezuelans are so concerned about managerial talent that they have started a new government ministry of intelligence that is engaged in an experiment to raise the mental ability of students. "It was considered a joke at first," said Carlos Sequera Yepes, a leader of Venezuela's largest business association. But now, he said, business takes it seriously because "we don't have enough ambition to move ahead -- to overcome -- in the future."
Ugueto and other government ministers also believe that the enormous growth of the Venezuelan state as a result of oil revenues -- the state now holds 40 percent of the means of production and produces half of the gross national product -- has overburdened the rest of the economy. As a result, Herrera's government has tried to scale back government involvement in all but the large industries. It is developing plans to sell off dozens of companies that have come into the state's hands without real reason, while at the same time easing out the combination of price controls and government subsidies that have propped up many private markets for years.
Even the Christian Democrats do not agree on this controversial policy, however -- with the result that Herrera's government has allowed several of its own major measures to be undercut.
After price controls were removed from many products at the beginning of Herrera's term in 1979, for example, national labor unions demanded -- and received from a Congress Herrera could not control -- a wage increase of as much as 40 percent for some workers. This contributed to the rise in inflation.
And last month, while decontrolling what had been an interest rate effectively fixed at 15 percent by the Central Bank -- a move necessitated by the daily departure of an estimated $100 million in Venezuelan currency for higher yields at foreign banks -- the government, apparently to placate its statist faction, decreed that businesses would have to inform the government of all price increases a month in advance. This is seen thwarting business in obtaining needed growth capital at the higher interest rates.
These apparent vacillations explain in part why the economic recovery predicted by both the government and foreign analysts for this year never materialized. The expected growth rate for 1981 is between 0 and 1 percent. Venezuelan officials and U.S. analysts seem to agree that Venezuela is likely to spend several more years, at least, adjusting to its oil-transformed economic structure.
"We have had a very difficult experience," said Haydee Castillo de Lopez, a leader of the Christian Democrats. "We face very serious economic and social problems, many of which are common to the rest of the world. We are paying the cost -- above all, the political cost -- of facing the problem and the damage."