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LOCATION: Venezuela
POPULATION: 27.3 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish (official); Amerindian languages
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; some Protestantism, Judaism, and native Amerindian religions


Spaniards discovered Venezuela during Christopher Columbus' third expeditions to the New World in 1498, and named the country "little Venice" because of the stilt-supported villages on its coast. During the 18th century the export market of cocoa and coffee fostered a small elite of European planters, which turned the country into the world's largest producer of coffee during the 1800s and produced Simon Bolivar, the father of independence. In addition to Venezuela, Bolivar helped to free Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia from Spanish rule. The decisive defeat of the Spanish forces in his home country took place at Carabobo in 1821, after which battle Bolivar was known as El Libertador, or The Liberator.

Following the discovery of petroleum resources at the end of the 19th century, oil overtook coffee as the main export commodity. The oil industry's windfall profits made power struggles the normal state of affairs. Until 1958 Venezuela had enjoyed only three years of civilian rule. After the overthrow of the last dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, political elites made the explicit decision to reduce inter-party tension and violence in order to prevent further instability. This new orientation took concrete form in the agreement signed between the two mass parties: the social democrat Acción Democrática(AD—Democratic Action) and the Christian-democrat Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI— Committee of Independent Electoral Political Organization).

In the Pact of Punto Fijo (1958) the parties committed to support a common program, a pledge that was reinforced by an agreement to participate in a coalition government regardless of the outcome of elections. In this way, all parties were devoted to the defense of the system, based upon a sustainable oil economy, through a power-sharing scheme. As part of the common project of the AD-COPEI coalition, the oil industry was gradually nationalized between 1974 and 1976 and the oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) was created to run it. The influx of petrodollars between 1973 and 1983 due to the oil price shocks provoked by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which Venezuela helped found, caused the oil price, and thus state revenues, to quadruple, and prompted the government to increase spending. However, after the price of oil began to plummet in 1983, the declining per-capita state oil revenue made poverty increase dramatically from 18% of the population in 1980 to 36% in 1984 and to over 55% in 1989.

In the midst of declining oil revenues and indebtedness due to the acquisition of international loans during times of high oil prices, second-time President Carlos Andrés Pérez implemented a package of neoliberal economic adjustments that he had negotiated with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) prior to becoming elected. The drastic 30% fuel hike ignited the Caracazo, a 19-city popular riot that lasted for a week. Unable to reverse the economic crisis and having created no meaningful differentiation between their projects, the ruling coalition began losing its base support, faced two coup attempts in 1992, and finally lost the presidency to Hugo Chávez, a political outsider, in 1998.

Through his Bolivarian Revolution and the imposition of "21st-century socialism" in contradiction to the American-backed Washington Consensus, Chávez mobilized large segments of the lower classes, which felt excluded by established parties and did not possess institutionalized forms of political self-expression. After taking power, President Chávez called for a National Assembly to write a new constitution, which became official in 1999. A year later, he was reelected under the new electoral rules.

Even though the opposition has accused Chavez of authoritarianism and has tried to overthrow him, first by force in 2002 and then by calling a recall election a year later, Chavez's electoral majority coupled with the more than 1,000% increase in oil prices since he became president in 1999 have helped him stay in power.


Venezuela is the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. It shares a border with Colombia to the west, with Brazil to the south, and with Guyana to the east. In the north its Caribbean coastline is around 3,000 km (1,865 mi) long. The central part of Venezuela consists of vast, grassy plains; the south is partly jungle, and a range of the Andes Mountains crosses Venezuela from the Colombian border, running in a northeasterly direction. These features contribute to Venezuela's variety, from Andean peaks clad in eternal snow, to rain forests, beaches, and savannas. The greater part of the country has a warm climate.

While 67% of the population is Mestizo (European and Amerindian descent), roughly 21% of Venezuelans are largely un-mixed European, predominately of Spanish descent, but also Italian, Portuguese, and German. Another 10% of the population is black or mulatto, and 2% is Amerindian. There are at least 40 Amerindian groups, mainly in the Amazon basin, and the majority of them retain their native language.


The official language of Venezuela is Spanish. The country offers a variety of accents. There is a difference in the Andean region, where Spanish is spoken more slowly, as compared to the rest of Venezuela where the language is spoken more rapidly, a feature it shares with other Caribbean areas of Latin America.

The majority of Amerindian tribes continue to speak their own languages; among these are the Guajiros who live near Maracaibo, the Warao in the Orinoco River region, and the Makiratare and Yanomani in the Amazon region in the south.


The folklore in Venezuela has evolved from blending of Spanish, African, and Amerindian customs. Several colorful festivals are the result of this blending of cultures. Carnival, known simply as Carnaval, is a nationwide yearly event that lasts for several days and begins just before Ash Wednesday (in February). There is a dramatic Dance of the Devils where people parade and dance in costumes and masks in the streets of San Francisco de Yare on Corpus Christi. Black African music influences the Fiesta de San Juan, held in Miranda state in June.


Even though 85% of Venezuelans are Roman Catholic, there are also Protestants and Jewish communities that reside mainly in Caracas. In addition, the majority of native tribes, particularly in the Amazon region, continue to practice their own forms of religion, which share some features with other Amer-indian groups throughout the Americas, including a deep reverence for nature.

One of Venezuela's important religious events takes place in the town of Guanare. It is an annual feast day honoring the Virgin, known in Venezuela as Nuestra Señora de Comoroto, Venezuela's patron saint. It commemorates the occasion in 1652 when the Virgin is said to have appeared to an Amerindian chief on the shores of the Guanaguare River, encouraging him to accept baptism, and leaving him a tiny image of herself. The chief was frightened and ran away and later died of snake-bite. Just before his death, however, he asked to be baptized and advised his tribesmen to undergo the same ritual.


Aside from religious festivals and the national Carnival, the major holiday in Venezuela is Independence Day, celebrated on April 19. Other public holidays marking important historical events include Simón Bolívar's birthday on July 24, the victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Carabobo on July 5, and the discovery of America on October 12. Labor Day on May 1 is also a public holiday.


Since most of Venezuela is Roman Catholic, baptism and First Communion of children are important occasions. Most children will also bear the name of a saint, either exclusively or combined with another name, and many celebrate their saint's day as well as their actual birthday. When a person dies, prayers are held during nine days at the person's home, and relatives and close friends are usually in attendance.


Venezuelans are considered outgoing and friendly, and their spirit of gaiety is evident in their love of social gatherings and parties. In common with many other Latin Americans, they have a more easygoing attitude to time and are tolerant of late arrivals to meetings. Even business lunches can be lengthy affairs, lasting two or three hours.

Formal greetings include shaking hands, but women usually greet each other with a kiss on the cheek. In some other Latin American countries, the formal usted is used when addressing a person who is not well-known to the speaker, and this formality may continue for a long time. But Venezuelans tend to be more informal and they often use the more informal tu when addressing each other.


Even in the prosperous 1960s and 1970s, when the oil boom changed Caracas from a relatively quiet town to a busy center with shopping malls, numerous highways, many skyscrapers, and expanding residential areas, the contrast between prosperous and poor housing was vivid: lavish hotels and apartments blocks vied with shantytowns that were sometimes only a few streets away on the surrounding hillsides. Some of this housing was so precarious that it would slide down the mountainside in the wake of torrential rains. Although some of this poorer housing included dirt floors and corrugated iron roofs, Venezuelans living in these conditions nevertheless had electricity, refrigerators, and televisions, which was not the case in neighboring, less-prosperous South American countries.

This contrast also existed, but to a lesser extent, in other less-populated towns. Since then, the expansion of education and newer universities have contributed to the creation of a growing middle class, and this is reflected in the increased building of middle-class homes.

The rapid expansion of urban areas and the drift of people from the countryside to the cities in search of work put pressure on many urban services, including transport. To ease the traffic jams, which were particularly acute in Caracas, the government built a subway system.


Venezuelans value family ties, and the bonds between the extended family—which includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—are very important. Occasions for larger family gatherings include major events such as birthdays, baptisms, First Communions, weddings, and major holidays. The extended family is regarded as a close source of support, particularly when there are young children, and also as a source of help in obtaining jobs in a society where personal contacts are important even to secure introductions that may lead to work opportunities. Extended families also gather on weekends or on short holiday visits to sites such as beaches. In smaller towns, the extended family gathers often for family meals and celebrations. The family offers a secure network in the absence of some state services and benefits that are taken for granted in wealthier societies.

Women have made considerable progress in gaining access to what were traditionally male professions, including medicine, dentistry, economics, and the legal profession. In middle-class households, the workingwoman relies on servants to help in the home; in poorer households, older relatives or older children provide help wherever possible.


In cities, men wear lightweight suits or shirts and trousers that suit Venezuela's climate. Women are generally very fashion-conscious and take considerable care grooming themselves, taking as much care of their hair and nails as of their clothes, which are frequently washed and carefully pressed. A woman is expected always to look her best, and the Venezuelan woman often succeeds, even when wearing informal clothing such as a blouse, simple trousers, and sandals, or a simple shirt and skirt. She will choose accessories and makeup carefully.


A typical Venezuelan dish, which is in fact a hearty meal derived from the cattle-ranching areas of Los Llanos, consists of shredded beef, called carne mechada, served with fried plan-tains, black beans, cornmeal pancakes called arepas, rice, and sometimes white cheese.

Another type of corn pancake, called cachapa, is often served for breakfast with jam. A staple, tasty snack is the empanada, a fried cornmeal turnover sometimes stuffed with cheese, meat, or chicken.

In many poor households, tropical fruits such as coconuts, mangoes, watermelons, pineapples, and papayas enrich the basic diet of beans, rice, and plantains. In coastal areas the diet includes fish, which is often served fried or in a stew called a sancocho, with vegetables.


Formal schooling begins in Venezuela at the age of six and is compulsory for the first six years. The four-year high school leads to a one-year preparation for college, which usually lasts four years but can be longer if the chosen university career is medicine or engineering. Many poorer households cannot afford schooling, and young people who are unable to complete high school often have to go out to work to supplement the family income. They might find work as street vendors or messengers, or in the building trade. In rural areas they will work in the fields.

Greater numbers of Venezuelans are nevertheless finding their way to universities and colleges, a few of which offer completely free tuition. There are about 30 universities, located in several towns. The largest is Universidad Central in Caracas with about 70,000 students, and another well-known university, Universidad de los Andes in the Andean town of Merida, has over 30,000 students.

Women have made great progress in university education, and about half of the student body at university level is now female.


Venezuela has produced fine writers, painters, poets, musicians, and, more recently, playwrights. The work of expressionist painter Armando Reverón is admired throughout the American continent, and he has been succeeded by others who have become known internationally, such as Hector Poleo, Alejandro Otero, Marisol, and the sculptor Jesús Soto. One of Venezuela's first poets was Andrés Rello, who knew Simón Bolívar. Venezuela's best-known poet is Andrés Eloy Blanco, who died in 1955. One of his poems, "Angelitos Negros," became world-famous when it was made into a popular song and sung by artists everywhere.

Venezuela's most famous novelist is Rómulo Gallegos. In one of his novels, Doňa Bárbara, he created a strong-willed, unforgettable character of the same name. His novel Canaima is a dramatic account of humans' struggle to survive, psychologically and physically, in the jungle. A contemporary of Rómulo Gallegos was Miguel Otero Silva, who died in 1985. His novel Casas Muertas is widely admired. Another internationally known writer was Mariano Picón-Salas, born in Merida. Also worthy of mention is Arturo Uslar Pietri, who greatly enriched the modern Venezuelan cultural scene as both a novelist and a historian. He also became well-known as a journalist, continuing a Latin American tradition in which literary figures also engage in high-quality journalistic writing.

The joropo is Venezuela's national dance, and the music is played with a small harp, rattles, and a four-string guitar called the cuatro.


The prosperity of the 1960s and 1970s based on the oil boom was followed by a world drop in oil prices that affected Venezuela as a major oil-producing country. Besides the rampant poverty and inequality after the oil-price downfall in the 1980s, neoliberal reforms smashed the labor market, severing the networks between the Democratic Action (AD) Party and grassroots labor. The previously strongly unionized labor force, which accounted for more than a quarter of the total workforce in the 1980s, was cut nearly in half; people working in the informal market rose from 34.5% in 1980 to more than 53% in 1998, and unemployment reached 15.4% of the urban work force. The labor force in 2007 was 12.5 million and the unemployment rate was 9.1%.

Farming and cattle ranching are major sources of work in rural areas. In cities, people work in a wide range of commercial activities or find work in factories. During times of economic hardship, casual labor increases and many have to find a living as street vendors or in the building trades when work is available.

For university graduates, the prospects vary depending on the choice of career. Mining is an important activity and mining engineers usually find jobs, as do oil engineers. Economists find work in business or banking, and medical and legal careers are still popular. Newer careers include the media, and television is a growth industry in Venezuela.


Both baseball and soccer are national passions in Venezuela. In coastal areas, water sports such as swimming, boating, and fishing are very popular. Inland, in the grassy plains known as Los Llanos, riding is popular both for work and pleasure, and fine equestrians take part in colorful rodeos known as toros colcados, in which they compete to bring a bull down by grabbing its tail while riding at top speed.


Venezuelans enjoy visiting their beautiful national parks, and they are also fond of traveling and taking part in a variety of festivals around the country, which include singing, playing instruments, and dancing. In the major cities there are nightclubs and discos. Venezuelans also enjoy eating out.

Television is popular, and Venezuela produces a variety of soap operas known as telenovelas. Going to bullfights is also a popular pastime.


Anthropologists and local historians have played an important part in helping Venezuelans become acquainted with the arts and crafts of the various Amerindian tribes. Much of their handiwork is now more readily available and includes pottery, baskets, hammocks, and rugs.


Under the strong rule of Hugo Chávez, who managed to speak to the people's unfulfilled demands for social justice by castigating the oligarchy, Venezuela is faced with increasing political polarization. However, the sharp increase of oil prices—which represents a third of Venezuela's gross domestic product (GDP) and 80% of the country's exports—from $8 a barrel in 1999 to $117 in 2008, created an impressive average economic growth rate of 7.6% between 2003 and 2007. This has kept the country in relative peace.


Human rights groups, women's rights organizations, and feminists have praised the new Venezuelan Constitution of 1999 as one of the most advanced constitutions in the world in terms of its vision on gender, because it recognizes the rights of Venezuelan women as equals with their male counterparts, promotes affirmative action, and is against discrimination. In addition, it gives a pension to housewives and mandates the use of gender inclusive language.

However, in 2008 only 18 of the 165 National Assembly Deputies, about 11%, were women. Moreover, only 2 out of 23 governors and 20 out of a total of 335 mayors were women, which amounted to 8.7% and 5.9% respectively. In recognition of the contrast between law and practice, the National Electoral Council (CNE) passed a resolution on 1 April 2005 that legally obliges all political parties to run an equal number of men and women to any deliberating body. In addition, the newly created Unified Command of Women for Unity and Parity has the role of processing the complaints of excluded women and of taking their cases before the Supreme Court of Justice to ensure that their rights are upheld.


Arellano Moreno, A. Caracas, Su Evolución y Su Regimen Legal. Caracas: Ediciones Edime, 1972.

Dydynski, Drzystof. Venezuela. Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1994.

Ellner, Steve and Daniel Hellinger, eds. Venezuelan Politics in the Chavez Era: Class, Polarization, and Conflict. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004.

Galeano, Eduardo. Faces and Masks. London: Mandarin, 1989.

Skidmore, Thomas and Peter H. Smith. Modern Latin America. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. 16th ed. London: Europa Publications Ltd, 2008.

Uslar Pietri, J. Historia Politica de Venezuela. Madrid: Ediciones Edime, 1970.

—revised by C. Vergara

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