What’s the Population of Venezuela?

Asdrúbal Baptista, guardian angel of historical data on the Venezuelan economy, died last month at the age of 73. Here's why his work is essential to understanding Venezuela today

Photo: Andrés Kerese

Imagine that you need to know how the population of Venezuela has changed since the days of Bolívar. Perhaps you’re studying the evolution of GDP per capita, which you can’t do without a count of capitas. Perhaps you want to enumerate every rare and sinister moment of population decline. Perhaps you’re just curious.

In any case, this is a difficult task. Venezuela didn’t conduct a proper census until 1873, far too late: by then, Bolívar had been dead for almost as long as he was alive.

There are earlier, pre-census sources, but they’re inexact at best. Consider, for example, the 1838 population figure attributed to Juan Manuel Cajigal y Odoardo, an orphaned Barcelonés polymath who studied in Paris, repatriated to found Venezuela’s first astronomical observatory, taught literature at UCV, and, before an early death from “persecution delirium,” gallivanted around the country with Augustín Codazzi, counting people along the way. Codazzi referred to their expedition as the fulfillment of a “childhood dream” of “the infinite.”

Do you trust this count?

At least one demographer didn’t trust it. Indeed, this demographer would die on the hill of Cajigal having overestimated the Venezuelan population in 1838. Worse, according to the incensed demographer, Cajigal’s overestimate distorted population counts for the rest of the 19th century. To believe Cajigal and his unwitting acolytes, the demographer argues, is to swallow the improbable conclusion that the Venezuelan population grew faster in the 19th century than in the early 20th century. An unlikely story, he says.

Eulogies for Professor Baptista have extolled his accomplishments as an economist, economic historian, intellectual historian, teacher, colleague, and all-around “high-level thinker.”

The demographer proposed a correction. The correction isn’t trivial: without it, Venezuela held close to 2.5 million inhabitants at the turn of the 20th century; with it, a mere 2 million. Those five hundred thousand souls will make a big difference in your study of the evolution of GDP per capita. 

But wait. Another demographer—this one Venezuelan, Julio Páez Célis—disagrees. Projecting backward from the much sounder censuses of the mid-20th century, using interpolation together with data on births and deaths and migration, produces a figure close to 2.5 million. You check his work, do your own calculations, and find that perhaps the 19th century adventurers weren’t so wrong after all: you estimate 2,475,251 inhabitants for 1900. 

This task has taken ages, and you’re only up to the Cipriano Castro administration.

Fortunately for all students of Venezuelan political economy, somebody else already did this work, along with dozens of similar yet even harder tasks: Asdrúbal Baptista, who died last month at the age of 73.

Eulogies for Professor Baptista have extolled his accomplishments as an economist, economic historian, intellectual historian, teacher, colleague, and all-around “high-level thinker.” We’ve heard of his pithy synthesis of economic thought from Adam Smith through John Maynard Keynes and of his “visionary” views on what to do with Venezuelan oil.

But I’ve missed a celebration of his equally vital work as collator and curator of historical data on the Venezuelan economy. Baptista’s essential tome of tables, Bases cuantitativas de la economía venezolana, tells us not only how the Venezuelan population changed—that’s merely Table 1—but also how the labor force grew, how the economy expanded and contracted, how each economic sector rose and fell, how prices inflated, and how income was distributed, to name just a few of the book’s many gems. Each of those tables required wrangling with sources at least as slippery and contradictory as Cajigal and Codazzi and Páez Célis. And for the reader who wishes to retrace his steps, Baptista meticulously lists his sources and recounts relevant debates. Our sister site, Cinco8, reported that assembling Bases cuantitativas left Baptista with a detached retina, from so many hours in front of the computer.

It’s not surprising that Baptista’s shiny theoretical contributions have garnered more obituarial praise than the diligent workmanship that produced Bases cuantitativas. In academia, the former is typically more prestigious. “Documenting the obvious is the first task of a primitive science,” wrote the great political scientist William Riker. By Riker’s lights, most of Bases cuantitativas would rank as primitive science. 

Yet it has never been more essential. Today, in mid-summer of 2020, as Venezuelan oil production stoops to its lowest level in one hundred years, as COVID-19 victims further swell a grotesque excess mortality rate, as forced disappearances reach Cold-War-terror proportions, as politicians from Caracas to Miami to Washington weaponize the disputed magnitude of the Venezuelan diaspora, more than ever we need Bases cuantitativas: data for understanding how we got here. More than ever, we need Asdrúbal Baptista.