Each year just before Christmas, Venezuela's major port of La Guaira is jammed with ships waiting to unload vast quantities of imports designed to bolster the Venezuelans' seasonal good cheer.
Each year just before Christmas, Venezuela's major port of La Guaira is jammed with ships waiting to unload vast quantities of imports designed to bolster the Venezuelans' seasonal good cheer. But the ships crowding into the port are a symptom of an increasingly serious economic problem facing the country's Government.
Venezuela is the world's fifth largest producer of petroleum and the third largest exporter of the fuel. But the oil on which the country's wealth is based is a non-renewable asset, and viewed in that light Venezuela is importing too much. It imports, not just luxury goods, but also most of its essential foodstuffs and manufactured goods.
The Central Bank says that Venezuela will import goods worth 6,000 million dollars (GBP3,000 million sterling) this year, and if the present rate of increase is maintained, 12,000 million dollars (GBP6,000 million sterling) by 1980. The Bank believes that a balance-of-payments crisis will be inevitable by 1977, unless exports can be diversified to reduce dependence on petroleum, and the increase in imports can be stopped.
The Government has begun to tackle the problem by cutting its budget for next year. There will also be a gradual reduction in oil production to preserve the country's diminishing supplies. This will mean a fall in real incomes, despite the great increase in world oil prices.
Experts in the Government consider it essential to broaden the country's industrial base in order to lessen unemployment and reduce the need to import essential materials.
In Caracas, the capital, the crowded bars and glittering shop windows are indications of the wealth that oil has brought to Venezuela. Paris-made dresses costing up to one thousand dollars (GBP500 sterling) are on display, and Venezuela is said to be the World's highest per capita consumer of Scotch Whisky and French Champagne.
But there is another side to Caracas that no visitor can fail to notice - the Squalid "ranchos" or shanty towns which start on the hills around the city, nestle under the motorway flyovers, or stand cheek by jowl beside elegant apartment blocks.
From the start of his rule in March 1974, President Carlos Andres Perez expressed his determination to use his country's oil wealth to improve the lot of the poor. He has said he wants the whole economic structure of the country to be altered to benefit, if not this generation, then their children and their children's children.