INTRODUCTION OF VENEZUELA
A Spanish colony for more than 300 years, Venezuela became one of the first of Spain’s South American colonies to declare its independence in the early 19th century. Formerly known as the Republic of Venezuela, the country changed its official name to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 1999. The name is in reference to Símon Bólivar, the military leader who helped win independence for Venezuela and other South American countries. Since becoming a sovereign nation, Venezuela has undergone periodic episodes of civil conflict and dictatorship, with the military exerting a strong influence over politics. Since the late 1950s, democratically elected governments have ruled the nation.
The majority of Venezuelans are mestizos, people of mixed European and Native American ancestry. The country’s economy was dominated by agriculture until the discovery of vast quantities of petroleum in the early 1900s. Government-run agencies have coordinated oil production since the 1970s. Although the oil industry has generated great wealth, Venezuelan society remains sharply divided between rich and poor. An elite class of businessmen, oil-company technicians, and large landowners controls most of the country’s resources, while a large number of unskilled urban laborers and rural farmworkers live in relative poverty.
LAND AND RESOURCES OF VENEZUELA
Venezuela has a total area of 916,445 sq km (353,841 sq mi), which makes it just over twice the size of the state of California. Along the north the country’s coastline extends for about 2,800 km (about 1,700 mi). The numerous recesses along the coast include the gulfs of Venezuela and Paria. The coast is generally narrow and steep except in the west, which has expanses of low and occasionally marshy land. Of the 72 coastal islands that belong to Venezuela, Margarita is the largest and most important.
Venezuela is bounded by Colombia to the west, Brazil to the south, and Guyana to the east. The country has four distinct geographic regions: the northern mountains, the Maracaibo lowlands, the Llanos (plains) of the north central region, and the Guiana Highlands to the south.
Northern Mountains in Venezuela
The northernmost ranges of the Andes extend into western Venezuela. The largely uninhabited Sierra de Perijá range forms the Colombia-Venezuela border. Peaks in these mountains reach elevations above 3,400 m (11,000 ft), with average crest heights about 2,400 m (8,000 ft). Heavily forested slopes descend from the highest peaks in a series of lesser ridges to the humid lowlands of Lake Maracaibo.
The highest Andean range in Venezuela is the Cordillera de Mérida, which extends northeastward from the border with Colombia. Many of the peaks in this range have snow year round. The Cordillera de Mérida contain the country’s highest point, Pico Bolívar (5,007 m/16,427 ft). A series of lower mountains runs parallel to Venezuela’s Caribbean coast for about two-thirds of its east-west length. Most of Venezuela’s people live along the coast or in the coastal mountains.
Maracaibo Lowlands of Venezuela
The Maracaibo lowlands are situated in the northwest corner of Venezuela and nearly enclosed by the mountains and highlands. Although they make up the smallest natural region of the country, they contain Venezuela’s second largest city, Maracaibo and the rich petroleum fields nearby.
Lake Maracaibo, an inland extension of the Gulf of Venezuela, dominates the Maracaibo lowlands. Lake Maracaibo is one of the largest lakes in South America, extending about 195 km (120 mi) in length. A narrow channel connects the northern end of the lake to the Gulf of Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea. In 1956 this channel was dredged so that oil tankers could pass through it.
Oil fields are located along the shores of Lake Maracaibo. The southern lakeshore has a luxuriant tropical forest rising above swampy, insect-infested lagoons. Widely scattered sugarcane and cacao plantations occupy the better-drained soils in this area.
The Llanos, a region of vast tropical grassland, lie south of the coastal mountains and occupy the north central region of Venezuela. These plains cover about one-third of the country and extend to the Orinoco River delta on the northeastern coast. Elevations rarely exceed 215 m (700 ft). Savanna grasses, widely scattered clumps of brush, and palm groves cover the land. Ranchers raise cattle on these hot plains.
The climate of the Llanos is tropical. During the wet season from May to November, heavy tropical rains fall, rivers overflow their banks, and vast areas of the Llanos are flooded. During the dry season that follows, grasses become parched, trees drop their leaves, and ranchers drive their cattle to water in wet lowland pastures near the Orinoco.
More than half of Venezuela lies south of the Orinoco River in a remote region known as the Guiana Highlands. This rugged region takes its name from the ancient Guiana bedrock that underlies it. The highlands consist of rolling hills, low mountains, and plateau. Tropical forests cover much of the land, interspersed with open grasslands. The chief mountain ranges are the Sierra Parima, from which the Orinoco headwaters flow, and the Sierra Paracaima, along the borders with Brazil and Guyana. The Guiana Highlands are sparsely settled but have attracted attention owing to discoveries of valuable ores such as iron, manganese, and bauxite.
Huge flat-topped mountains called tepuys rise in a part of the highlands near the Brazilian border known as the Gran Sabana. Waterfalls tumble over the edges of many tepuys. The highest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls, is located in the Gran Sabana. This impressive waterfall plunges a distance of 979 m (3,212 ft).
The Orinoco Delta is situated at the northern end of the Guiana Highlands, where the Orinoco River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. The delta consists of numerous islands and mangrove swamps.
Rivers of Venezuela
Venezuela has six navigable rivers. Of the thousand or more streams in the country, the majority flow into the Orinoco. The Orinoco flows east across central Venezuela and drains approximately four-fifths of the total area of the country. With the tributaries—the Apure, Meta, and Negro rivers—it forms the outlet into the Atlantic Ocean for the waters of much of the interior of Colombia, as well as of inland Venezuela.
Climate of Venezuela
The climate of Venezuela is tropical on the Llanos and along the coast and temperate in the mountainous regions. The coastal areas are extremely hot and humid. More comfortable conditions occur in highland regions, and nearly all the principal cities in Venezuela are between 600 and 1,800 m (about 2,000 to 6,000 ft) above sea level. The average daily temperature range in January is 15° to 26°C (59° to 78°F) in Caracas and 23° to 32°C (73° to 90°F) in Maracaibo; in July the range is 17° to 26°C (63° to 80°F) in Caracas and 24° to 34°C (76° to 94°F) in Maracaibo. Most precipitation falls from May through November, with the northern mountain slopes receiving less rain than those on the south. The dry season is from December to April.
Natural Resources of Venezuela
Venezuela is rich in mineral resources. The country’s most important resource is petroleum. Other resources include natural gas, bauxite, gold, iron ore, copper, zinc, lead, and diamonds. Forests, too, are an important resource.
Plants and Animals in Venezuela
Forests of varied species including palms, coral trees, mangoes, and brazilwoods cover 52.3 percent of Venezuela. Plant life common to the Temperate Zone (the region north of the tropic of Cancer) thrives above about 900 m (about 3,000 ft). Long grass grows on the Llanos, and mangrove swamps cover much of the Orinoco River delta.
Among the animals of Venezuela are jaguars, monkeys, sloths, anteaters, ocelots, bears, deer, and armadillos. Birdlife is abundant and includes flamingos, herons, ibis, guacharos (also called oilbirds), and numerous other species. Reptiles, including crocodiles and large snakes, such as anacondas and boa constrictors, are also found in Venezuela.
Venezuela protects more than a third of its land area—the highest percentage of any country in North and South America. Yet despite these protective measures, Venezuela continues to lose some of its valuable tropical forests each year. In addition, soil degradation in the grasslands of the Llanos, resulting from years of overgrazing, has become a major problem.
Occasional oil spills have killed fish and shut down shoreline resorts on Lake Maracaibo. Industrial pollution also plagues the Caribbean Sea coast where most of the country’s population lives. Insufficient sewage treatment facilities contribute to the pollution of the Caribbean Sea coast as well. In rural areas many people lack access to proper sanitation. Air pollution is an additional concern in urban centers such as Caracas, Maracaibo, and Valencia. Venezuela is party to international treaties concerning biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, marine life conservation, ship pollution, tropical timber, and wetlands.
PEOPLE OF VENEZUELA
About 67 percent of the population of Venezuela is made up of mestizos (people of mixed European and Native American ancestry), and 21 percent is of European descent. The remainder is predominantly black, and about 2 percent of the total population is unmixed Native American. The society is 88 percent urban. Spanish is the official language of the country. The principal religion is Roman Catholicism.
Venezuelan society is marked by a striking contrast between rich and poor. In Caracas government-distributed oil wealth has created impressive buildings and a class of millionaires and highly paid technicians whose standard of living is on a par with that of the wealthy in any Western country. But in the hills surrounding Caracas, unskilled laborers live in squalor in shantytowns. Similarly, in the countryside a small number of landowners live in mansions, while undernourished farmworkers live in rudimentary dwellings.
The Venezuelan population is 26,814,843 (2009 estimate), giving the country an overall population density of 30 persons per sq km (79 per sq mi). The overwhelming majority of the population lives in the northern highlands or coastal regions. Only a small percentage inhabits the huge area (nearly 50 percent of the total land area) south of the Orinoco River.
Principal Cities of Venezuela
Venezuela is highly urbanized. Caracas (population, 2007, 2,085,488) is the capital as well as the financial, cultural, and commercial center of Venezuela. Located in a beautiful valley in the coastal highlands, Caracas is a city in which modern skyscrapers and apartment houses contrast sharply with elegant old colonial buildings and with the slum dwellings of recent migrants from the countryside who have come to the city seeking employment. The nearby town of La Guaira serves as the seaport for Caracas.
Maracaibo (population, 2008 estimate, 1,450,665), the country’s second largest city, is located on the shores of Lake Maracaibo. Once a collection of crude huts built on stilts over water, Maracaibo developed into a modern city during the 20th century, largely because of its role as a major center of the petroleum industry. Valencia (population, 2008, 839,926), in the coastal highlands, is one of the country’s main manufacturing centers. Barquisimeto (1,085,483), in the Andes, is the hub of several important highways as well as a major railroad terminal.
Education in Venezuela
Education in Venezuela is free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 15. The adult literacy rate in 2005 was 94 percent. The country’s 15,984 primary and preprimary schools had a total enrollment of 3.5 million pupils and were staffed by 184,409 teachers; secondary schools had an enrollment of 2,174,600 students.
In 2006 about 1,377,000 students were enrolled in institutions of higher education, which included the Central University of Venezuela (1721) and Andrés Bello Catholic University (1953), in Caracas; Carabobo University (1852), in Valencia; the University of the Andes (1785), in Mérida; the University of Zulia (1891), in Maracaibo; and the Polytechnical Institute (1962), in Barquisimeto.
Culture of Venezuela
The dominant influence on the culture of Venezuela was that of the Spanish conquerors. The Native Americans of the country, lacking any political or cultural unity of their own, were assimilated into the immigrant groups and had only a slight influence on the national culture.
The distinct Venezuelan contribution to folk legend is the llanero, or South American cowboy. The national dance, the joropo, and popular instruments such as the maraca, a type of rattle, and the cuatro, an instrument with four strings that resembles a small guitar, are all associated with the llanero.
Venezuelan literature gained momentum in the early 19th century with the appearance of writers such as Simón Rodríguez, Andrés Bello, and Simón Bolívar. Outstanding among later writers of the 19th century was Juan Antonio Pérez Bonalde, known principally for his translations of German poet Heinrich Heine and American writer Edgar Allan Poe. Pérez Bonalde is considered a precursor of romanticism in Latin American literature. In the early 20th century, novelist Teresa de la Parra became one of the most popular women novelists of Latin America, and Rufino Blanco Fombana produced works about life in Venezuela in the late 19th century.
Two of the best-known Venezuelan novelists of the 20th century were former president Rómulo Gallegos and Arturo Uslar Pietri, who ran for president in 1968. Gallegos’s works reflect the interaction of humankind and nature. Uslar Pietri’s novel Un Retrato en la geografia (1962, Portrayal in Geography) is an original look at Venezuelan society in which a recently released political prisoner describes the new social landscape that he encounters.
Venezuelan artists of the 20th century who developed international reputations include sculptor Marisol (Escobar) and painter and sculptor Jesús Rafael Soto. Both artists moved between Venezuela, New York, and Paris. A museum dedicated to Soto’s work is in Ciudad Bolívar.
Venezuela, which was regarded as one of the less profitable colonies of Spain, lacks the splendors of Spanish architecture that are found in other South American countries. Nevertheless, in the second half of the 20th century, the combination of the wealth produced from oil discoveries and strong ties with the United States helped foster the development of modern architecture. Carlos Raúl Villanueva, who explored the structural and expressive possibilities of reinforced concrete, is the best-known Venezuelan architect of the 20th century. He designed the campus of the Central University in Caracas.
See also Latin American Architecture; Latin American Literature; Latin American Music; Latin American Painting; Latin American Sculpture.
Museums of Venezuela
Some of Venezuela’s leading museums are located in Caracas. These include the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Colonial Art, the Natural Sciences Museum, and the Bolívar Museum, with displays on the life and times of Simón Bolívar. Also of interest are the Talavera Museum, in Ciudad Bolívar, and history museums in Maracaibo and Trujillo.
ECONOMY OF VENEZUELA
The economy of Venezuela is built upon the nation’s rich petroleum and mineral resources. However, its reliance on petroleum leaves the nation vulnerable to fluctuations in world markets. The government has made numerous efforts to diversify the economy but without success. At the beginning of the 21st century, the economy suffered from inflation and high unemployment and underemployment. In addition political instability had a negative effect on the economy. Opposition to President Hugo Chávez led to a general strike in late 2002 and early 2003 that worsened the country’s already weak economy.
Despite the strike that slowed oil production in the early 2000s, oil revenues rose as a result of an increase in oil prices. Chávez pledged to spend the money on social welfare, including health and education. With the increase in oil revenues beginning in 2004, Venezuela’s economy improved. However, critics said government spending was out of control.
The national budget in 2005 included revenues of $36.5 billion and expenditures of $41.1 billion. The gross domestic product (GDP), the total of all goods and services produced within a country, in 2007 was $228.1 billion.
Agriculture of Venezuela
Agriculture plays a much smaller role in Venezuela’s economy than in the economies of other South American countries. Before the discovery of oil, agriculture provided the country’s major exports, including coffee, cacao, cattle, and hides. Oil production, however, led to years of neglect of the agricultural sector, and by the 1950s the country was importing more than one-third of its food. In 1960 the government passed the Agrarian Reform Law, which was aimed at expanding and diversifying agricultural production. For a time food production grew rapidly, but by the mid-1970s rapid population growth outpaced the growth in agricultural production. In addition, much of the best farmland remained in the hands of large landowners and often lay idle, while those who need to earn a living from the land worked the poorer farmland. Today, Venezuela still must import much of its food. The United States is a major supplier.
Much of the best farmland in Venezuela is concentrated in the hands of a few large landowners, while those who need to earn a living from the land are left with poorer land. The lack of arable land for the poor has led to heavy migration from rural areas to the cities. In 2005 Venezuela’s president initiated plans to increase food production by breaking up the large estates. The first step was to review land use. Ranchers objected to inspections of their estates and declared the measures unconstitutional.
Agriculture, including forestry and fishing, employed 11 percent of the workforce; in 2003 it contributed 5 percent of the GDP. The principal crops include sugarcane; fruits such as bananas, plantains, and oranges; maize; rice; and cassava. Livestock raising is carried on chiefly on the Llanos and east of Lake Maracaibo.
Forestry and Fishing in Venezuela
In 2005, 52 percent of Venezuela was forested. However, the country’s timber industry is underdeveloped largely because of the inaccessibility of the forest areas. Timber is used mainly as fuel and by the building, furniture manufacturing, and paper industries.
The rich fishery resources of Venezuela include a wide variety of marine life. The fish catch in 2007 was 482,210 metric tons. The country’s fish catch includes tuna, sardines, herrings, shrimp, and shellfish. Important pearl fisheries are located off Margarita Island.
Mining in Venezuela
Petroleum, located in the Maracaibo Basin and in the eastern part of the country, dominates the Venezuelan economy. Crude and refined oil are the main source of government revenue and account for about one-third of the GDP. In 2004 Venezuela produced almost 1 billion barrels. Much of its oil is exported to the Netherlands Antilles for refining. Venezuela is a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
The Venezuelan government nationalized the petroleum industry in 1976, although private investment and foreign participation has been permitted since 1992. In 2007 the country had petroleum reserves estimated at 80 billion barrels.
Venezuela also is a major producer of natural gas; output in 2003 was 29.7 billion cubic meters (1.05 trillion cubic feet). Venezuela has tapped its vast reserves of bitumen to produce liquid coal, an emulsion of bitumen and water principally for use in power plants.
Other minerals commercially exploited in Venezuela include iron ore, bauxite, diamonds, gold, silver, platinum, coal, salt, copper, tin, asbestos, phosphates, titanium, and mica. In 2000 the country adopted new mining regulations intended to encourage greater private-sector and foreign investment in the mining sector. But growth failed to follow, largely because of labor unrest.
Manufacturing in Venezuela
The government of Venezuela has given high priority to the development of heavy industry since the 1960s. It established a significant steel industry and began the production of aluminum and petrochemicals, especially nitrogen-based fertilizers. In the late 1970s, a significant portion of the country’s oil revenue was invested in these state-owned industries. Ciudad Guayana, a city founded in an area rich in natural resources, became a major industrial center. But petroleum revenues dropped in the 1980s, as did investment in industry. By the late 1990s, the manufacturing sector was contracting, smaller firms shut down, and jobs were lost. Political instability in the early 2000s added to the problems of the manufacturing sector.
The leading manufactured goods of Venezuela include refined petroleum and petroleum products, steel, aluminum, fertilizer, cement, tires, motor vehicles, processed food, beverages, clothing, and wood items.
Tourism of Venezuela
Venezuela has a number of tourist attractions, including its long Caribbean coastline, the Andes Mountains, and the world’s highest waterfall (Angel Falls). However, its tourism industry remains largely undeveloped. Most of the country’s tourists visit the beaches on Margarita Island. More adventurous visitors seek out the wildlife and natural beauty of the Orinoco Delta and the interior highlands and tropical rainforests.
Energy in Venezuela
In 2006, 75 percent of Venezuela’s electricity was produced in hydroelectric facilities, particularly at the Guri Dam, a major installation on the Caroní River. Venezuela generated 108 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2006.
Currency and Banking of Venezuela
The basic unit of currency is the bolivar, consisting of 100 centimos (2 bolivars equal U.S.$1; 2007 average). The Banco Central de Venezuela, founded in 1940, is the government banking agent, the sole bank of issue, and the clearinghouse for commercial banks. The country’s principal stock exchange is in Caracas.
Foreign Trade in Venezuela
The principal exports of Venezuela are petroleum and petroleum products, which together account for 93 percent of foreign sales. Other exports include bauxite and aluminum, steel, chemicals, agricultural products, and basic manufactures. Total exports were estimated at $69.2 billion in 2007.
Main imports include raw materials, machinery, transportation equipment, chemicals, foodstuffs, and basic manufactures. Imports were estimated at $45.5 billion in 2007.
Principal trading partners for exports are the United States, The Netherlands (primarily petroleum to the Netherlands Antilles for refining), Brazil, and Colombia. Chief sources of imports are the United States, Colombia, Brazil, Japan, and Mexico.
Venezuela is a member of five international trade organizations, the Andean Community, Latin American Integration Association (LAIA), Mercosur, Group of Three, and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). These organizations work toward improving conditions within member countries by increasing economic integration and international trade.
Transportation in Venezuela
Roads are the principal means of transport for goods and people in Venezuela, and the country has an extensive road network. In 1999 Venezuela had 96,155 km (59,748 mi) of roads, of which 34 percent were paved. Highway density is greatest in the north central area.
The railway network, by contrast, is poorly developed. In 2007 the country had only 336 km (209 mi) of operated railroad track, principally a line from Puerto Cabello to Barquisimeto. The leading seaports of Venezuela include La Guaira, Puerto Cabello, and Maracaibo. Transport on interior waterways, particularly the Orinoco River, also is important.
The main international airport is located in Caracas with others located in major cities such as Maracaibo and Barcelona. Venezuela has a number of passenger airlines based in the country.
Communications in Venezuela
In 2005 Venezuela had some 136 telephone lines for every 1,000 people. The number of mobile cellular phones in use increased substantially during the 1990s because of dissatisfaction with the country’s phone system. An estimated 189 television sets and 301 radios were in use for every 1,000 residents. Influential daily newspapers included Últimas Noticias, El Mundo, El Universal, and El Nacional, all published in Caracas.
Labor in Venezuela
In 2007 the employed labor force of Venezuela was 12.7 million people. Some 11 percent of the workforce was employed in agriculture, 69 percent in services, and 20 percent in industry, including manufacturing, mining, and construction. However, Venezuela suffers from high unemployment and underemployment; in 2007, 8 percent of the labor force was unemployed. Organized labor in Venezuela consists of trade unions and peasant leagues. The largest and most powerful organization is the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, with a membership of about 2.5 million.
GOVERNMENT OF VENEZUELA
Venezuela is a federal republic. It is governed under a constitution adopted in 1999. All citizens may vote beginning at age 18.
Executive of Venezuela
The chief executive of Venezuela is a president, who is popularly elected to a six-year term. A council of ministers assists the president. The president has the authority to dissolve the legislature under certain conditions.
Legislature of Venezuela
As a result of the 1999 constitution, Venezuela’s bicameral National Congress, which consisted of a Senate and Chamber of Deputies, was replaced by a unicameral National Assembly in 2000. Legislators are popularly elected to a five-year term.
Political Parties of Venezuela
The leading political parties in Venezuela are the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV), led by President Hugo Chávez; the Democratic Action Party (Accíon Democrática, AD); Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo, MAS); Project Venezuela (Proyecto Venezuela); and Social Christian Party of Venezuela (Partido Social Cristiano de Venezuela, COPEI).
Local Government of Venezuela
Venezuela is divided into 23 states; federal dependencies, made up of 72 islands in the Caribbean; and the Federal District, site of Caracas, the national capital. Each of Venezuela’s 23 states and its federal district has a popularly elected governor and legislature.
Judiciary in Venezuela
The highest court in Venezuela is the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, made up of 32 judges appointed to 12-year terms by the National Assembly. Each of the states has a superior court as well as several lesser tribunals.
Defense in Venezuela
All Venezuelan males between the ages of 18 and 45 are liable for 30 months of military service. In 2006 Venezuela maintained combined armed forces, made up of the army, navy, air force, and national guard, of 82,300 people.
Health and Welfare in Venezuela
The Venezuelan government sponsors a limited program of health, accident, and retirement insurance. The average life expectancy at birth in 2009 was 77 years for women and 71 for men.+
HISTORY OF VENEZUELA
Christopher Columbus first sighted the coast of Venezuela in 1498. In 1499 Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda followed the coast to Lake Maracaibo. He named the region Venezuela, or Little Venice, because the Native American buildings constructed on stilts along the lake’s edge reminded him of the Italian city of Venice, which was built on a series of islands in a lagoon.
Spanish Colony in Venezuela
The Spanish began settling Venezuela in 1520. In 1528 Charles V of Spain granted to the Welsers, Bavarian bankers to whom he was in debt, the part of Venezuela lying between Cape Vela and Maracapana. As part of the arrangement, the Welsers were to develop the region and establish settlements. Instead, their representatives enslaved the Native Americans and so demoralized the European settlers that in 1546 the Spanish government revoked the grant and reassumed control. The city of Caracas was founded in 1567.
Economic activities in the colonial period centered on agriculture, particularly cacao and tobacco farming and some livestock raising. Venezuela became a center of piracy and smuggling, activities in which the English and the Dutch were the most notorious participants.
During the colonial period, Venezuela operated under a number of administrative jurisdictions. Originally, the Spanish authorities divided what is now Venezuelan territory between the Viceroyalty of Peru and the Audiencia of Santo Domingo (located in what is now the Dominican Republic). The Superintendency of Venezuela, more or less the present territory, was created in 1783.
In 1728 the Spanish government chartered the Guipuzcoana Company and gave it a monopoly of trade in Venezuela, with the additional duties of patrolling the coast to prevent smuggling. The company was very unpopular and did much to stir up political discontent in the colony. In addition, the Spanish policy of appointing peninsulares (individuals born in Spain) to the major administrative positions in their American colonies caused much resentment among Creoles (Spaniards born in the colonies), who were excluded from positions of power.
Independence of Venezuela
The first decisive attempt by a Spanish American colony to gain independence from Spain was made by Venezuela. In 1808 the armies of French emperor Napoleon I overran Spain and Portugal. They deposed Ferdinand VII of Spain. In 1810 the Creoles in the cabildo, or town council, of Caracas overthrew the Spanish authorities and formed a junta, or governing body, to rule in the name of the king. However, the junta soon threw aside all pretense of loyalty to the Spanish crown and issued a formal declaration of independence on July 5, 1811.
This first attempt to gain independence faltered after 1812, when Spanish troops began reconquering the colony. Francisco de Miranda, the commander in chief of the revolutionary forces, tried to negotiate peace with the Spanish commander but was taken to Spain, where he died in prison. Leadership in the movement for independence passed to one of his lieutenants, Simón Bolívar, who recovered control of Caracas briefly in 1813, only to be driven out by the Spanish a year later.
Spanish rule was solidified in Venezuela after the arrival of a large force of Spanish troops in 1815. Bolívar, whose forces were too weak to oppose the Spanish army, withdrew to Haiti. In 1816, however, he returned to the mainland with a reinforced army and seized control of the lower Orinoco Valley. Over the next few years Bolívar gathered his forces. In 1819 Bolívar’s position was further strengthened when a congress, convened by him at Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar), proclaimed a union of New Granada (now Colombia and Panama), Venezuela, and Ecuador under the name of the Republic of Colombia (also known as Gran Colombia), with Bolívar as president. On June 24, 1821, the Spanish army was decisively beaten in Venezuela at the Battle of Carabobo, assuring the independence of the new nation.
Venezuela seceded from the union in 1829 and formed an independent republic with its capital at Caracas. José Antonio Páez, a hero of the revolution, served as president and remained the dominant political figure until 1846. He was tolerant toward the Roman Catholic Church and fostered a few measures for the stimulation of trade, agriculture, and education.
Series of Dictatorships of Venezuela
The political history of Venezuela was comparatively uneventful until the year 1846 ushered in an era of civil wars between supporters of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. Conflict between these two groups characterized the early history of many Latin American countries. Liberals generally supported voting rights for all adult males, the separation of church and state, and a weak central government that gave greater power to the states and provinces within a nation. Conservatives advocated the preservation of class and church privileges, close government cooperation with the church, and a powerful central government.
In 1870 Antonio Guzmán Blanco gained control of the country. Under his despotic rule the public debt was stabilized, the building of railroads begun, and efforts were made to improve communications facilities. His administration also introduced reforms at the University of Caracas, emphasizing technological education, and rebuilt parts of the capital. Guzmán Blanco stripped the Roman Catholic Church of much of its wealth and authority. He retired in 1888 as a result of popular demonstrations against him. Rival aspirants contended for the presidency until General Joaquín Crespo brought another interval of peace and order between 1892 and 1899.
On two separate occasions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Venezuela became embroiled in conflicts with European powers. The first incident took place in 1886 over a dispute with Britain concerning the border of British Guiana (now Guyana). The United States persuaded Britain to submit the case to an arbitration tribunal that subsequently awarded the larger share of the territory to Britain.
The second incident occurred during the rule of Cipriano Castro, from 1899 to 1908, when the government failed to pay its foreign debts. In 1902 Britain, France, Germany, and several other powers blockaded Venezuelan ports, demanding payment. On two occasions, European warships bombarded the ports. In 1904 an international tribunal asked to rule on the dispute decided in favor of the allies.
In 1908 General Juan Vicente Gómez deposed Castro. Gómez established a stable government and began to pay off the country’s vast debts. In 1917, when Gómez learned that Venezuela had large quantities of petroleum, he called foreign oil companies together and asked them to submit their suggestions for a partnership with the nation for the production of petroleum. With the aid of experts, he made an agreement with the petroleum companies that made Venezuela prosperous enough to pay off all of its public obligations; it was the only nation in the world at that time free from debt.
Internally, Gómez ruled tyrannically from 1908 until his death in 1935, with two interruptions, from 1915 to 1922 and from 1929 to 1931. On both of these occasions, handpicked candidates under the control of Gómez served as president. Gómez had many of his political opponents imprisoned, tortured, or assassinated, and he treated the national treasury as his own personal account. Gómez did little to improve education, housing, or health care, but he oversaw the modernization of Venezuela. The stable, oil-based economy supported major public works projects in the cities and ports, as well as construction of highways.
Minister of War Eleazar López Contreras succeeded Gómez as president. Contrary to precedent, López Contreras refused reelection, turning over his administration in 1941 to his duly elected successor, General Isaías Medina Angarita. However, Medina Angarita made no effort to train the people to govern themselves, and his limited program of land reform did not satisfy the liberal Democratic Action Party (AD), a political party founded in 1941 by young reformers.
World War II and Postwar Politics
Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations with the Axis powers at the end of 1941 and ultimately declared war on them in 1945 in order to qualify as a charter member of the United Nations.
In October 1945 a revolution broke out, and violent fighting took place in Caracas. A new government was set up under the presidency of a young AD leader, Rómulo Betancourt. Although foreign powers suspected he might be sympathetic toward communism, Betancourt allayed their fears by his declarations concerning the prompt holding of elections and a program of acceptable reform. He also promised the foreign oil interests that no radical action would be taken against them.
The Betancourt government brought a new approach to government. Seven of the 11 members of the cabinet had been educated in the United States, and all were young men. For the first time an agriculture expert occupied that ministry and directed his efforts toward proper and efficient use of the land. Many difficulties confronted the new government in this field. The high wages paid by the oil companies had drawn workers from farms. Importation of food had increased the cost of living to one of the highest in the world. Small farms had been taken by Gómez to create a few immense cattle ranches. The new administration announced that these ranches would be converted into small holdings whose owners would be trained to raise a balanced crop for the benefit of the nation as a whole.
A new constitution, adopted in 1947, provided for popular vote by means of a secret ballot. Later in the same year, after the first democratic election in Venezuela, Rómulo Gallegos Freire, novelist and founder of the AD, was elected president. He took office in February 1948. However, the AD’s extreme popularity among voters and its proposed reform program alienated important groups, including conservative elements in the church and the military.
In November 1948 the government was overthrown by an army revolt, the leaders of which immediately formed a provisional government headed by Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Delgado Chalbaud. The junta suppressed the opposition and employed other dictatorial methods, including censorship of news. In 1950 Delgado Chalbaud was assassinated. The junta appointed the diplomat Germán Suárez Flámerich as provisional president, but the main power behind the government was a military officer, Colonel Marcos Pérez Jiménez.
The junta made elaborate plans for an election to choose a constituent assembly that would in turn choose a president. Electoral boards were appointed to register and poll the voters. The public was, however, indifferent. Finally, after government threats of punishment for anyone who did not register and vote, an election was scheduled for 1952. When early returns showed that the opponents of the junta were clearly in the lead, the military government suspended the election and the junta-backed government party, the Independent Electoral Front (FEI), installed Pérez Jiménez as president. In 1953 the constituent assembly confirmed him for a five-year term. Leaders of the opposition left the country. Later that year the constituent assembly approved a new constitution. The country, known officially since 1864 as the United States of Venezuela, was proclaimed the Republic of Venezuela.
The Pérez Jiménez Regime
Venezuela’s enormous oil revenues allowed the Pérez Jiménez government to undertake construction of roads, bridges, railroads, and public buildings. One of the larger projects undertaken was the rebuilding of the center of Caracas. However, the government spent a great deal of money on military installations that became obsolete upon completion, and it made no efforts to improve agriculture, education, or standards of public health. Members of the administration embezzled vast sums of money, with Pérez Jiménez himself accumulating an enormous fortune.
The government maintained generally good contacts with other American countries, and the Tenth International Conference of American States was held in Caracas in 1954. Venezuela, however, broke off diplomatic relations with Argentina in 1957, after having rejected numerous Argentine complaints concerning the activities in Caracas of former Argentine dictator Juan Perón.
Jiménez ruthlessly suppressed all criticism of his regime. The government drove opponents into hiding or exile, and the secret police carried out mass jailings and tortured political prisoners. Until late 1957, however, the administration appeared stable. As the time for the 1957 national election approached, Pérez Jiménez jailed all known opposition leaders, including Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, leader of the Social Christian Party (COPEI). In December the government held a plebiscite, the results of which showed that 2,353,935 of a total of 2,900,543 voters approved of Pérez Jiménez and his regime.
The people, already resentful of the dictatorship, reacted violently to the official announcement of the referendum. On January 21, 1958, a general strike in Caracas signaled the start of a popular uprising. Rioting broke out in the streets of Caracas. The situation culminated in two days and nights of terror, during which police killed about 300 citizens. Pérez Jiménez fled the country and a group of military officers and civilians, known as the Patriotic Junta and led by Rear Admiral Wolfgang Larrazábal, seized control of the government.
Democratic Governments of Venezuela
In 1957 the Larrazábal government released leading political prisoners. Other opposition leaders returned from exile. In elections held in 1958, former president Betancourt of the AD was reelected.
The new administration restored the country’s credit, which was severely weakened by the Pérez Jiménez regime, expanded social welfare projects, provided increased educational opportunities, and encouraged foreign investment. The government also raised income taxes, primarily in the higher income brackets, to secure funds for development projects. A land reform bill aimed at giving 700,000 farmers land of their own was passed in 1960, and the government promoted diversification of the economy.
The five years of the Betancourt administration were marked by almost continuous efforts by extremists of both the right and the left to unseat the government. Both groups of extremists received support from outside Venezuela. In 1960 the Organization of American States (OAS) voted sanctions against the Dominican Republic, then under the control of the dictator Rafael Trujillo, for supporting right-wing efforts to assassinate Betancourt. Diplomatic relations with Cuba were severed in November, following charges by the Venezuelan government that the disorders had been orchestrated in large part on orders of Cuba’s Communist leader, Fidel Castro. During 1962 and 1963 leftist groups attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow the government.
President Betancourt promulgated a new constitution in January 1961. Despite constitutional provisions guaranteeing various rights to labor and expressing opposition to large landed estates, social unrest and rioting continued throughout 1961.
Elections in 1963 brought Raúl Leoni of the ruling AD to the presidency. For the first time in Venezuela’s history, there was a peaceful transfer of power from one constitutionally elected regime to another. Lacking a congressional majority, Leoni formed a coalition government. The Leoni government also tried to increase agricultural productivity and to expand industries, and it moved ahead with the agrarian reform program. For the next few years Venezuela enjoyed a large measure of political stability. In October 1966, however, a military uprising broke out, led by the national guard garrison near Caracas. It was crushed by the government, which had also been combating guerrilla activity (see Guerrilla Warfare) in the countryside and in the capital throughout the year.
Nationalization Measures in Venezuela
Toward the end of the decade, the political life of the nation gained some tranquility. In 1968 Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, leader of COPEI, won a narrow election victory, largely because of a split in the AD. Despite his narrow support, Caldera governed effectively and virtually eliminated the guerrilla and terrorist activities of the late 1960s. Economically, he pursued a policy of nationalizing foreign enterprises. In 1973 Venezuela joined the increasingly effective Andean Community, an organization of South American countries located along the Andes Mountains, whose aim is to facilitate development of member nations through economic and social cooperation.
Political activity was brisk in 1973 as the presidential elections neared. In May the congress ratified a constitutional amendment barring the candidacy of former president Pérez Jiménez. In the December elections, the winner was Carlos Andrés Pérez, the leader of the AD. He attempted to improve relations with Venezuela’s neighbors but took an increasingly independent line from the United States. He expressed open hostility to the military dictatorship that had gained control of Chile in 1973 and resumed diplomatic relations with the Communist government of Cuba. Pérez nationalized the iron and steel industry in 1975 and the oil industry in 1976.
The 1978 elections were won by COPEI and its presidential candidate, Luís Herrera Campíns. Under the Herrera government the economy entered a long recession, despite a near doubling of the country’s income from oil exports. Venezuela’s foreign indebtedness tripled, to more than $34 billion, and the cost of living nearly doubled. The 1983 elections resulted in a sweeping victory for the AD, and its candidate, Jaime Lusinchi, took office as president. Confronted by falling world oil prices and heavy obligations to pay interest and principal on the foreign debt, Lusinchi initially followed austerity policies that prolonged the recession. However, these policies enabled Venezuela, alone among Latin American countries, to pay its foreign creditors in full and on time. Nevertheless, the country was unable to get new loans from foreign bankers. When economic growth resumed in 1986, it was accompanied by domestic inflation, which doubled the cost of living within two years.
The AD also won the 1988 elections, resulting in a second presidency for Carlos Andrés Pérez, who faced a serious economic crisis. Venezuela’s national income per person was less than 75 percent of its 1977 level, and the international value of its currency had fallen by almost 90 percent in five years. In 1989 consumer price increases imposed as part of an austerity program triggered violent protests in Caracas that were suppressed by the authorities, causing at least several hundred deaths. Emergency loans from the United States and other countries helped ease the crisis, as did increased revenue from oil exports. However, continued popular discontent with government policies, including attempts at selling government-owned industries to private companies, led to defeats of the AD in local elections. In 1991 Venezuela and the other members of the Andean Community signed a treaty that would establish the Andean Common Market.
In 1992 two military coup attempts were crushed, one in February and another in November. Pérez was suspended from office in May 1993, after the Senate voted unanimously to have him stand trial on charges of embezzlement and misuse of public funds. Senator Ramón José Velásquez was elected interim president, pending elections in 1993. In December 1993 Rafael Caldera was again elected president.
In January 1994 the nation’s second largest bank, Banco Latino, collapsed, precipitating an economic crisis. The crisis affected several other banks, prompting a strong response from the central government. By August, 13 banks had been nationalized, including several of the largest in Venezuela. Citing immediate necessity and coup rumors, President Caldera announced the suspension of some civil and economic rights in order to help the government arrest those responsible for the banking collapse and to prevent speculation and inflation.
Privatization Measures in Venezuela
In September 1994 Caldera announced a new economic plan, designed to pull the country out of its economic slump. The standard of living of the country’s middle class had fallen. The percentage of the average household’s income spent on food had increased from 28 percent to nearly 70 percent in 25 years. Caldera’s new plan called for reducing inflation and the deficit, an increase in foreign investment and foreign currency holdings, a reduction in the dependence on oil tax revenues, improvements in tax collection, and a rise in the domestic price of oil. Public unrest over the government’s handling of the crisis continued periodically throughout 1994 as demonstrators protested price increases.
In 1995 the National Congress approved a bill that allowed foreign oil companies to carry out joint exploration and production ventures with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. Although the government decided to allow private investment in the oil industry, agreements with investors stipulated that the state would take close to 90 percent of the industry’s profits.
Foreign investment was also encouraged to exploit the gold deposits discovered near the country’s western border. Taxes on mining companies were cut, and the central bank’s monopoly on purchasing gold was ended.
Also in 1995 the government restored the civil liberties suspended the previous year and drastically reduced government subsidies for automobile fuel. In 1996 the sales tax was also raised from 12.5 percent to 16.5 percent. These measures were meant to slow inflation and foster balance and growth of the economy. However, Venezuelans saw the cost of living double in 1996, while wages remained steady. In 1997 the government gave in to public pressure and granted a 77 percent raise to government workers.
A crisis in Asian financial markets in 1997 and a slump in world oil prices in 1998 caused a downturn in the Venezuelan economy. In the 1998 presidential election, Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, a former military officer who had participated in two failed coup attempts in 1992, won the presidency. Chávez ran without support from Venezuela’s two major political parties. During the campaign he promised to end government corruption and to provide better economic conditions for the large number of Venezuelans living in poverty.
In April 1999 voters approved a referendum calling for the election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. The constituent assembly was elected in July, with candidates from Chávez’s Patriotic Pole coalition winning most of the 131 seats. When the constituent assembly convened in August, it assumed most of the National Congress’s duties, in addition to drafting a constitution.
In a referendum in December 1999 more than 70 percent of those casting ballots voted in favor of the new constitution, which renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and gave the president more power. The presidential term was increased from five to six years, and presidents were no longer barred from serving consecutive terms in office. A unicameral National Assembly replaced the bicameral National Congress. The constitution gave the executive branch of the federal government many powers previously held by state and local governments and reduced civilian control of the military. Provisions promoted as anticorruption measures allowed voters to revoke legislation or recall elected officials, including the president, through referenda.
Also in December 1999, torrential rains caused devastating floods in the northern coastal states. Mudslides destroyed whole villages. It was estimated that more than 400,000 Venezuelans lost their homes and as many as 30,000 died.
While the nation dug out from the disastrous mudslides, the new constitution took effect. The constituent assembly resigned in January 2000, its work completed. Presidential and congressional elections were held in July 2000. Chávez easily won reelection, and his coalition won a simple majority in the new unicameral assembly.
In a development that further enhanced Chávez’s power, the National Assembly voted in November 2000 to grant the president authority for one year to rule by decree on topics ranging from public finance to land reform. The law passed despite complaints from opposition parties that the measure granted too much authority to Chávez.
Opposition to Chávez
As his presidency progressed, Chávez became increasingly unpopular among the upper and middle classes due to his economic reforms and disputes with business leaders. In April 2002 at least 17 people were killed in a march in Caracas to protest Chávez’s policies, and some people claimed that his supporters had killed the protestors. Military leaders then forced Chávez from power in a coup d’état. The next day tens of thousands of people, mainly the urban and rural poor, marched throughout the country to protest Chávez’s ouster. In response to the protests, the military returned Chávez to power less than three days after it had removed him.
Although Chávez regained the presidency, many people continued to oppose his policies. In December 2002 a loose coalition that included labor unions, business leaders, and the Democratic Action Party organized a general strike to protest Chávez’s leadership. During the nearly three-month strike, many businesses, banks, and schools closed, and employees of the state-owned oil company slowed oil production. The strike devastated Venezuela’s already weak economy, and the country faced severe economic problems including high unemployment and inflation.
Recall Vote and After
High oil prices in 2004, however, helped the economy recover, and Chávez funneled millions in government revenues to aid literacy and health programs for Venezuela’s slum dwellers. That aid helped Chávez solidify his base among the poor while his opposition mounted a petition drive to recall him from office. The Democratic Coordinator, an umbrella group of organizations opposing the president, succeeded in gathering enough signatures for a referendum in August 2004 to recall Chávez two years before his term was to expire.
Chávez easily defeated the recall attempt, however, winning 59 percent of the vote. The opposition charged the voting was fraudulent, but international monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center of Atlanta, Georgia, led by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, said the election was free and fair. Carter said the charges of fraud were “completely unwarranted.”
In legislative elections held in December 2005, politicians allied with Chávez captured all 167 seats in Venezuela’s National Assembly. A number of the major opposition parties boycotted the election, claiming the electoral system was biased, and only about 25 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
Opposition parties returned to the electoral process in the 2006 presidential elections, but they made little headway among voters. Chávez was reelected by a wide margin as most Venezuelans appeared to support his policies of redistributing the country’s oil revenues, especially to benefit the poor and working class. Chávez won 63 percent of the vote in an election that saw a relatively high turnout.
Following the presidential election, Chávez asked the National Assembly for the power to rule by decree for a period of 18 months. Critics charged that Chávez was trying to create an authoritarian regime with all powers concentrated in his hands. They said the move was unnecessary in view of the fact that Chávez’s supporters control the legislature, the Supreme Court, and all but two states. Supporters of the president said the ability to rule by decree would give Chávez the power to implement his program to move Venezuela toward socialism without delay. They noted that the National Assembly had passed a similar Enabling Law in 2000, under which Chávez issued more than 40 decrees. In late January 2007 the National Assembly unanimously approved four measures that gave Chávez the power to rule by decree in 11 broadly defined areas, such as the economy, energy, and defense, for a period of 18 months.
Following passage of the legislation, Chávez nationalized the telecommunications, electrical power, and oil industries. By July 2007 he had successfully negotiated agreements with most of the foreign oil companies operating in Venezuela to take control of at least 60 percent of their oil drilling and refining operations in the Orinoco region. Only ConocoPhillips and Exxon Mobil Corporation refused the terms of the takeover, though they continued to negotiate. More controversially, however, Chávez also moved to close down or take control of media outlets. His refusal in May to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) met with mass protests and denunciations by human rights groups. Chávez’s defenders pointed out that RCTV played a prominent role in supporting the 2002 coup attempt against Chávez. They said a number of influential media outlets, including two leading newspapers in Caracas, remained privately owned and were allowed to publish while being openly critical of Chávez. However, Chávez’s critics countered that the government was opening new state-run television and radio stations and that government advertising in pro-Chávez newspapers had increased 12 times.
Referendum on Constitutional Amendments
Chávez suffered the first major electoral defeat of his political career in December 2007 when voters narrowly rejected, by 51 to 49 percent, a referendum on 69 proposed amendments to the Venezuelan constitution. The amendment that drew the most attention and opposition was one that would have removed term limits on the president, allowing Chávez to seek another term in 2012 and beyond. Chávez argued that the measures were necessary to speed Venezuela’s transformation to a socialist society.
However, the term limit amendment, along with one that would have given Chávez the power to declare a state of emergency for an unlimited period, alienated some of his more moderate supporters, including the leader of a leftist political party and a prominent retired general who had supported Chávez against the 2002 coup attempt. The proposed amendments also cost him some support in poor neighborhoods, where voter turnout was not as high as during the 2006 presidential election.
Revisiting Term Limits
Chávez asked voters to revisit the term limit issue in a referendum in February 2009. This time the Venezuelan president proposed the removal of term limits not only for the president but also for other elected officials, and the referendum was successful, winning 54 percent of the vote. Without term limits, Chávez could run for reelection in 2012 and beyond.