Thursday, March 07, 2013

Notes on Venezuela


The death yesterday of Hugo Chavez after a long battle with cancer leaves the Venezuela at a turning point. What will come of Venezuela?

Let's start by looking at the current state of the Venezuelan population.

The president of the National Statistics Institute (INE), Elias Eljuri, informed this Friday that the preliminary results of the 14th National Census of Population and Housing, carried out in the country by the end of last year, show that country's median is not anymore 18 years of age, but 26, which means that Venezuela is currently experiencing a "demographic transition era."

[. . .]

Results also showed a contraction of population's growth, which is 1.6%, according to preliminary data.

"We are living an interesting era of demographic transition ... Venezuela is now placed in the so-called third demographic group in which growth and mortality (currently, 5.1 deaths per 1,000 inhabitants)rates fell," he detailed.

Eljuri explained that such demographical ranking consists of four groups: the first group gathers countries with high birth and mortality rates (Haiti, for example); the second group is of countries with high birth rates and medium mortality rates (Nicaragua, Paraguay); third one consists of countries with low birth rates and low mortality rates (to which belongs Venezuela now, it was previously in the second); and the fourth and last group is that with a stagnation of population, very low birth rates, like those of developed countries.

In addition, he said that other characteristics of said trend are the increase of life expectancy (to an average of 74.3 years) and decrease of birth rates.

"As for fertility, the average of children per women has fallen to 2.3. Those elements are determined by each culture, (in Venezuela's case) women have started to work; therefore, the number of children has fallen," he said.

Other preliminary data announced by the INE is that current Venezuelan population is 27,150,095 inhabitants. Nonetheless, there is still about 5% of the data that has not been processed yet; that is to say, that Venezuelan population is about 28.8 million people.

Of the total processed so far 50.3% are women and the remaining 49.7% men; the role of women as chiefs of family rose from 24% to 39%; Venezuela's rates of marriages has fallen to 25% and couples living together without legalizing their union increased to 27.9%; there is a 36.4% of population that remains single.


Venezuela is a country that has seen rapid growth and transformation in the period since the Second World War. Going to the Penn World Table reveals that the country's populatiion grew from almost exactly five million people in 1950 to 27.2 million in 2010, significantly increasing its relative heft in terms of absolute numbers. (For comparison, Uruguay's population grew from 2.2 million to 3.3 million, a "mere" 50%, over the same time span.) This growth was the product of a high rate of natural increase supplemented by substantial immigration (more later). The Venezuelan economy has a history of substantially more mixed growth. The country's economic apogee came in 1957, when the country's oil boom allowed GDP per capita to reach 48% of the American level, making the country not only the richest country in Latin America but placing it on par with Italy and considerably in advance of Spain. Thereafter slow decline ensued, the oil boom in the 1970s briefly reversing the trend, with GDP per capita reaching a low point of 16% of the US level in 1999 before reversing and growing to a bit more than 25% by 2010. This particular economic history explains a few things about Venezuela's demographic history, especially its delayed demographic transition compared to other similarly prosperous Latin American countries in the immediate post-war era (Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba) and its recent history of substantial immigration.

As described in the INED-hosted review "The Demography of Latin America and the Caribbean since 1950" by Guzman et al, and also in Héctor Pérez-Brignoli's shorter overview, Latin American countries can be divided in three categories according to their relationship to the framework of the demographic transition. At one extreme are Argentina, Uruguay, and Cuba, three countries that had already experienced substantial declines in fertility before the Second World War after ongoing mortality declines, and which were beginning to trend towards low population growt and rapid aging. At the other are the least developed countries in the region (i.e. Bolivia in the Andes, Haiti in the Caribbean, Guatemala in Central America), countries where mortality has fallen sharply but fertility remains high. The remainder of Latin America--countries like Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, and yes, Venezuela--saw fertility only begin to fall in the 1960s.

Why was Venezuela an anomaly among the other high-income countries of Latin America in its late demographic transition? Venezuela's high-income status only came after the Second World War, transforming the country as completely as (for instance) Saudi Arabia later. Human development lagged behind economic growth. In a thesis available online ("Essays on Fertility and the Economy in Venezuela"), Octavio Maza Duerto details the demographic history of post-Second World War Venezuela, noting in Chapter 1 that the death rate fell by more than two-thirds in the 1948-1966 period, from 12.8 deaths per thousand to 4.2, while infant mortality also began falling. TFRs increased from 5.5 children per woman in 1950 to a peak of 6.5 in 1967 before falling to the current fertility level slightly above replacement levels.

Venezuela's economic growth in the decades immediately after the oil boom also explains why this country became a significant destination for immigration, not only from neighbouring Colombia and points elsewhere in Latin America but from southern Europe as well. As noted above, at its peak Venezuela was as rich as Italy and richer than Spain. For skilled migrants, moving to Venezuela could make sense. In a 2009 post, Noel Maurer outlined this migration, and the assimilation of these migrants and their descendants into their community.

In the 1950s, Europeans migrated because of the oil boom. Roughly 450,000 people acquired legal permanent residence during this wave. The new democratic government in 1958 restricted migration (not unsurprisingly) and net migration turned negative during the period. Then in 1973, with the second oil boom, immigration again spiked upwards. By 1976, Venezuela had 270,000 resident Spaniards, 223,000 Italians, and 107,000 Portuguese. Now, these numbers have to be interpreted carefully: they also include, for example, 79,672 Americans, most of whom did not settle down permanently. Nor are the figures comparable with the permanent residency figures also presented above. But they are what we have.

In 1976, at its peak, the various European nationalities (counting only those born overseas, not their Venezuelan-born children) made up about 3 percent of Venezuela’s then-population of 13.1 million. It was a large migration, but it wasn’t transformative. On the other hand, it did transform the nature of the country’s elites. The European migrants were remarkably successful, going on to found myriads of small businesses. In fact, it has been the descendents of those migrants, mostly Italian, who suffered the most from the government’s recent nationalization of the oil service companies. (More on that in another post, when I’m feeling better.)

One interesting question about immigration is: how quickly (if at all) do the children of immigrants lose the cultural predilections of their parents? Jewish-Americans, for example, continue to vote Democratic at far higher numbers than their income or occupational status would predict. Does this apply to Venezuelans?

Francisco Rodríguez of Wesleyan and Rodrigo Wagner, a grad student here at Harvard, have used the Maisanta list to ask just that question. Maisanta, you’ll recall, was a list published by the Venezuelan government containing the names of everyone who had signed a 2004 recall petition against Hugo Chávez. The list contained ID numbers, which can be cross-referenced against income data in the Venezuelan Social Security Institute database. They then used people’s surnames to trace them back to various Italian regions. They had to eliminate non-regionally-specific surnbames like Rossi, Russo, Ferrari, Esposito, Bianchi, Romano, and Colombo. So, given all the potential objections to the methodology, what did they find?

Nothing. There is no relationship between the political predilections of their parents’ region-of-origin in Italy and the predilections of Italian-Venezuelan voters today. Inasmuch as Italian-Venezuelans have overwhelmingly achieved middle and upper-class status in Venezuela, they have also assimilated to the political predilections of those groups.


Immigration fell sharply from the 1980s on, as the Venezuelan economy continued to deteriorate. Especially since the 1998 election of Hugo Chavez, the popular press has been filled with references to new emigration: see this 2002 New York Times article referring to southern European immigrants and their descendants returning; this 2007 Mercopress article citing a figure of 1.5 million Venezuelan emigrantsl this 2008 New York Times article talking about the formation of Venezuelan immigrant communities in Florida on the Cuban model; this 2012 article citing the figure of one million emigrants; and, two current articles, one from ABC-Univision and the other from the Miami Herald, reporting on the reactions of many of these emigrants to Chavez's death.

At the same time, though, Venezuela continues to host large immigrant populations. The World Bank's Migration and Remittances Factbook 2011 states that, in 2010, the stock of Venezuelan emigrants amounts to just over a half-million people while the stock of immigrants amounts to just over one million. In addition to the traditional immigrant populations from Colombia and southern Europe are smaller populations from elsewhere in the Caribbean basin and South America, with Syria ranking as a noteworthy source of immigrants. (Much of the current Cuban immigrant population is present in the country as a result of the close Cuban-Venezuelan alliance, which might be briefly summarized as an exchange of subsidized Venezuelan oil to Cuba in exchange for the supply of forty thousand Cuban professionals, mostly doctors, to Venezuela. This program, packaged as part of the Venezuelan government's "Bolivarian Missions" directed towards poor Venezuelans, has been fairly criticized on multiple grounds.) Venezuela, as Simon Romero described in a 2010 New York Times article, is a country that people leave and enter freely.

On this booming continent, oil-rich Venezuela is the exception: South America’s only shrinking economy this year. Officials are rationing hard currency. Government takeovers of private businesses are increasing. One prominent financial analyst recently had just two words of advice for investors here: “Run away.”

Many middle-class and wealthy Venezuelans have done exactly that, creating a slow-burning exodus of scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs and engineers. But wander into the bazaar in the shadow of Santa Teresa Basilica in this city’s old center, and the opposite seems to be happening as well.

Merchants murmur in Arabic, Urdu and Hindi. Haitians pushing ice cream carts chatter in Creole. Street vendors selling DVDs call out in Colombian-accented Spanish. Sip coffee in Naji Hammoud’s clothing shop, where photos of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley grace the walls, and the outlook is downright bullish.

“There’s money in the street, whether the price of oil is $8 a barrel or $80,” said Mr. Hammoud, 36, who came here from Lebanon a decade ago and has no plans to leave. “I could have moved to Europe, Germany, someplace, and done fine, but I would have been someone’s employee. Here, I’m my own boss.”

Venezuela is in the throes of an immigration puzzle. While large numbers of the middle class head for the exits, hundreds of thousands of foreign merchants and laborers have put down stakes here in recent years, complicating the portrait of how a brain drain unfolds.

[. . .]

At the other end of the economic spectrum, many new immigrants continue to arrive on tourist visas and overstay their visits, drawn by incomes that are still higher than those in some of Venezuela’s neighbors and by a broad array of social welfare programs for the poor championed by Mr. Chávez’s government.

“One can live with a little bit of dignity here, at least enough to send money home now and again,” said Etienne Dieu-Seul, 35, a Haitian street vendor, who moved here a month before the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January. After the disaster, officials here said they would grant residence visas to the 15,000 Haitians believed to have been here illegally.

As many as four million immigrants have come here from Colombia, according to Juan Carlos Tanus, director of the Association of Colombians in Venezuela. And some continue to arrive, despite the protracted recession here and the recent strides Colombia has made in growing its economy and fighting the rebel groups that have plagued it for so long.

“There’s work in Venezuela for those who want it,” said Arturo Vargas, 39, a Colombian laborer who moved to Caracas last year, finding jobs as a watchman and at a chicken-processing plant. “This place isn’t perfect, but it’s better than what I left behind.”


Indeed, one Reuters article claimed that between 2007 and 2011, the number of Spaniards emigrating to Venezuela rose by 114 percent, scarcely less that the increase of Spaniards migrating to Chile or Mexico!

In a links roundup post I made at my blog yesterday, I linked to four different articles making claims about Venezuela. One of the more interesting was Bhaskar Sunkara's article in the left-leaning In These Times, "Postmodern Perón", which placed Chavez squarely in the revived tradition of Latin American populism exemplified by Peronism in Argentina.

[T]he processes unfolding in Venezuela are complicated: The Bolivarian Revolution is both authoritarian and democratic, demagogic and participatory.

[. . .]

Following what Chávez says means taking a meander across the political spectrum. He summons Keynes with reverence, but he’s not a Keynesian. His style evokes Perón, but he’s not another Caudillo. He makes outbursts against materialism and globalization, but the ex-military officer would stick out on the G20 protest circuit. Chávez’s background is marked by a disconnect from the organized working class and the historic institutions of the Venezuelan Left. It’s fitting then that bits and pieces of everyone from Bolivar to Keynes to Che flow from his largely improvised communiqués.


Chavez's Venezuela has more than its faults, as Human Rights Watch noted yesterday. It, however, has never been as closed off from the world as Cuba under the Castros, even now. Cuba, as we've noted here at Demography Matters, has become a country that people are from, a country that's overwhelmingly a source of migrants and set to experience rapid aging in the context of general impoverishment. Venezuela hasn't reached that point, and may not be especially likely to; it's still a place that people go to as well as depart.

1 comment:

Abu Daoud said...

Immigration from Columbia? I think you mean Colombia.