by Heather D. Heckel, Edwin Lieuwen, John D. Martz, Jennifer L. McCoy

Venezuela, country located at the northern end of South America. It occupies a roughly triangular area that is larger than the combined areas of France and Germany. Venezuela is bounded by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to the north, Guyana to the east, Brazil to the south, and Colombia to the southwest and west. The national capital, Caracas, is Venezuela’s primary centre of industry, commerce, education, and tourism.The instrumental version of the national anthem of Venezuela.

Venezuela administers a number of Caribbean islands and archipelagos, among which are Margarita Island, La Blanquilla, La Tortuga, Los Roques, and Los Monjes. Since the early 19th century Venezuela has claimed jurisdiction over Guyanese territory west of the Essequibo River totaling some 53,000 square miles (137,000 square km)—nearly two-thirds of the land area of Guyana. Venezuela also has had a long dispute with Colombia over the delimitation of maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Venezuela and around the archipelago of Los Monjes.

A physiographically diverse country, Venezuela incorporates the northern Andean mountain chains and interior highlands, the main portions of the Orinoco River basin with its expansive Llanos (plains), Lake Maracaibo, which is the largest lake in South America, and the spectacular Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall. The republic’s development pattern has been unique among Latin American countries in terms of the speed, sequence, and timing of economic and demographic growth. In the 20th century Venezuela was transformed from a relatively poor agrarian society to a rapidly urbanizing one, a condition made possible by exploiting huge petroleum reserves. These changes, however, have been accompanied by imbalances among the country’s regions and socioeconomic groups, and Venezuela’s cities have swelled because of a massive and largely uncontrolled migration from rural areas, as well as mass immigration, much of it illegal, from Colombia and other neighbours.

Venezuela, like many Latin American countries, has a high percentage of urban poverty, a massive foreign debt, and widespread governmental patronage and corruption. Venezuela’s social and political ills have been compounded by natural disasters such as the floods that devastated sections of Caracas, La Guaira, and other coastal areas in late 1999. On the other hand, the republic since 1958 has been more democratic and politically stable than most other Latin American nations, and its economic prospects remain strong, particularly in regard to the petroleum industry.

The land

The Venezuelan landscape includes towering mountains, tropical jungles, broad river plains, and arid coastal plains, all of which provide a diversity of natural habitats and a range of challenges to social integration and economic development.


Venezuela’s topography can be divided into three broad elevational divisions: the lowland plains, which rise from sea level to about 1,650 feet (500 metres), the mountains, which reach elevations of some 16,400 feet (5,000 metres), and the interior forested uplands, with scattered peaks above 6,550 feet (2,000 metres). Within these broad divisions, seven physiographic regions can be distinguished: the islands and coastal plains, including the Orinoco delta; the Lake Maracaibo Lowlands; the Mérida and Perijá ranges of the Andes Mountains; the coastal mountain system (with its Coastal and Interior ranges); the northwestern valleys and hill ranges, also called the Segovia Highlands; the Llanos; and the Guiana Highlands.

The islands and coastal plains are located in the north. They include the Caribbean “Islands to the Leeward,” such as Margarita and La Tortuga, and several peninsulas, including the head-shaped Paraguaná in the northwest and, in the northeast, Araya and Paria, the latter a finger of land pointing at Trinidad. The coastal plains extend from the Colombian border and the Gulf of Venezuela eastward to the foothills of the coastal mountains, which are broken in the east by the Unare River basin. Farther east is the Orinoco delta, which opens onto the Atlantic Ocean through a number of distributaries (caños); an early gateway to the settlement of the interior, it is a low, dank, and swampy area heavily dissected by streams.

The two branches of the Andes that traverse northwestern Venezuela, including the country’s highest peaks, are northeastward extensions of the Colombian Andes’ Cordillera Oriental. The western branch, known as the Perijá Mountains (Sierra de Perijá, or Serranía de los Motilones), runs along the border with Colombia, whereas the eastern branch, the Cordillera de Mérida, extends from the border to Lara state and divides the Lake Maracaibo basin from that of the Orinoco River. Physiographically, the Segovia Highlands, northwest of Barquisimeto, and the coastal ranges may also be considered parts of the Andes chain. The highest point in the Venezuelan Andes is La Columna (Bolívar Peak), which rises to 16,427 feet (5,007 metres) in the Cordillera de Mérida. Between the high Andean ranges are Lake Maracaibo and its associated lowlands; this basin is one of the main oil-producing regions of the country.

The coastal mountain system, in effect two parallel ranges—the Coastal Range and the Interior Range—contains Venezuela’s greatest concentration of population, although it covers only a tiny fraction of the national territory. In the intermontane valleys are the major cities of Caracas, Valencia, and Maracay, and all but the steepest slopes are populated. Naiguatá Peak, at 9,072 feet (2,765 metres), is the highest point in the coastal system.

The valleys and hill ranges of the northwest lie east of Lake Maracaibo and form, in part, a transitional upland zone between the Coastal and Andean mountains. Elevations there range from 1,600 to 5,500 feet (490 to 1,680 metres). Within this region is the only desert in Venezuela—the sand dunes around the city of Coro.

Along the course of the Orinoco River lie the Llanos, a relatively level region of savannas and tropical rainforests, where the land undulates only between low mesalike interfluves and shallow, meandering, braided river courses. Cattle raising and oil exploration predominate in this sparsely populated region, which experiences river flooding in summer and drought in winter. From the Andean foothills to the Orinoco delta, the Llanos extend for some 800 miles (1,300 km), varying in width from about 100 miles (160 km) in the east to 300 miles (500 km) in the west.

From the Orinoco through the southernmost (Amazonas) territory bordering Colombia, Brazil, and Guyana are the vast Guiana Highlands, or Guayana, largely an upland surface of rounded hills and narrow valleys formed from ancient crystalline rocks. Occupying more than two-fifths of the country’s land area, it is the most remote and least explored part of Venezuela. Along the southern border with Brazil are groups of massive plateaus and steep-sided mesas, known as tepuis (tepuyes), capped with erosion-resistant sandstone and covered with intermingled savanna and semideciduous forest. Among the larger tepuis in the southeast are Camón, Chimanta, and the famous Mount Roraima, which rises to 9,094 feet (2,772 metres) along the Guyanese border. Like the lowland savannas of the Llanos, the tepuis experience extreme rainy and dry seasons.

Along the southeastern Guiana Highlands, in the region called La Gran Sabana, are Angel Falls (Parecupá Merú), the highest waterfall in the world, measuring 3,212 feet (979 metres) from the cliffs of the massive Auyán tepui (Auyantepui) to the valley floor below. Other major waterfalls in the region are Torón, Karuay, and Yuri. The highlands are sparsely settled but have tremendous resources; they abound in deposits of iron ore, gold, and diamonds, and they possess considerable hydroelectric potential, as well as hardwood forest resources. The Venezuelan military has long been concerned with the highlands because of the long-standing territorial dispute with Guyana, as well as illegal crossings of people, cattle, and narcotics over the Colombian and Brazilian borders.


The Venezuelan drainage network consists almost entirely of two watersheds, the largest emptying into the Atlantic Ocean and the other into the Caribbean Sea.

The Orinoco River and its main tributary, the Caroní, carry approximately four-fifths of the country’s surface runoff and occupy a basin of some 366,000 square miles (948,000 square km). The Orinoco’s source is in the southern Guiana Highlands; it first flows northwestward, then north, and finally eastward to its delta, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean across some 275 miles (440 km) of coastline. In the Orinoco’s middle course, where it flows eastward through the wide Llanos, it is joined by tributaries from the Llanos interior, such as the Apure and Meta, and by other tributaries originating in the Guiana Highlands to the south, such as the Caroní. One unusual configuration occurs near the river’s source, where, because of the almost level gradient, the Orinoco channel divides: one branch discharges southwest into the Casiquiare River, which joins the Negro, a tributary of the Amazon, whereas the other branch continues its northward flow through Venezuela.

The intermontane basins and valleys of the Andes and coastal mountains are drained mainly by other tributaries of the Orinoco. The Caracas valley is an exception, however; there the Tuy River runs eastward to the Caribbean. Landlocked Lake Valencia is Venezuela’s only example of interior drainage.

Lake Maracaibo is the most extensive lake in South America, covering an area of 5,130 square miles (13,280 square km) in northwestern Venezuela. It is approximately 75 miles (120 km) wide from east to west and 100 miles (160 km) long from north to south, excluding a channel 25 miles (40 km) long that connects the northern end of the lake to the Gulf of Venezuela, an inlet of the Caribbean; because of this connection to the sea and the resulting brackish water in the northern part of the lake, Maracaibo is sometimes described as a gulf or lagoon. Its southern waters are fresh, however. Maracaibo is fed by some 10 large rivers, including the Catatumbo, Chama, Escalante, and Santa Ana, as well as by dozens of small rivers and streams. Thousands of oil derricks and pumps jut from a vast area of the lake’s surface. (See Researcher’s Note: Lake Titicaca versus Lake Maracaibo.)


Relatively infertile, reddish latosols are common in Venezuela’s Llanos and in the Guiana Highlands. Abundant moisture leaches some soils of all but the most insoluble minerals, including iron and aluminum sesquioxides, which are collectively known as laterite. The country’s most fertile soils are formed by such well-drained, transported material as river alluvium or recent volcanic deposits. Alluvial soils are found in the southern Maracaibo Lowlands, along the fringes of the Llanos, and in broad valley bottoms in the northern mountains. The Orinoco delta and adjacent plains are also rich in alluvium, although poor drainage in these low areas impedes agricultural development and discourages settlement. Volcanic soils cover the slopes of many of the northern mountains, but these fertile soils are often severely eroded because of deforestation associated with logging and the practice of shifting agriculture.


Venezuela lies well within the tropics, and the country’s temperatures are relatively uniform with little seasonal variation. Elevation, however, produces significant local differences in temperature, precipitation, and vegetation. More than nine-tenths of Venezuela has a mean annual temperature above 75 °F (24 °C). The average mean temperature for Caracas, lying in a high valley, is about 72 °F (22 °C), whereas the nearby port of La Guaira averages some 81 °F (27 °C). Mérida, at more than 4,900 feet (1,500 metres), averages 66 °F (19 °C), while low-lying Maracaibo, at sea level, averages 82 °F (28 °C). A considerable part of the mountain region has temperate conditions, but the cold (arctic) zone of higher elevations is much smaller than in other Andean countries. Diurnal temperature ranges are more pronounced than month-to-month variations, a characteristic trait of the tropics.

Venezuela’s climatic year is divided into two seasons: the wet season, which lasts from May to October and even continues sporadically through November; and the dry season, which begins in December and continues until the end of March. Regional variations in precipitation are marked, however. Only the northeastern coastal areas receive appreciable rainfall in the summer. The northwestern coast is more arid, with some places receiving less than 20 inches (500 mm) of precipitation annually. La Guaira, for example, receives an average of only 11 inches (280 mm). Rain shadow areas behind coastal and upland ranges are also quite dry, while their corresponding windward slopes are generally well watered. Inland the Llanos and the southern interior of the country generally receive sufficient rainfall to support tropical savanna, lush tropical rainforest (selva), and cropland and pastures. Seasonal cycles of flood and drought are common in the Llanos region, and tropical conditions occasionally bring heavy downpours to other areas, such as the northern coast, which experienced deadly floods and mud slides in December 1999.

Plant and animal life


Most of Venezuela’s vegetation is tropical and evergreen or semideciduous. Forests cover some two-fifths of the land, and savanna grasses cover about half. Variations in elevation and rainfall create differences in vegetation. True tropical species generally do not flourish above 1,500 feet (460 metres), although the selva intermingles with tall savanna grasslands in transitional zones in the interior; mangrove swamps are found in the Orinoco delta. The selva gives way to semitropical vegetation that reaches up to about 5,000 feet (1,500 metres) and characteristically includes tree ferns and epiphytes such as orchids. Higher up the Andean slopes, fern forests give way to mountain vegetation, culminating above 9,800 feet (3,000 metres) in páramo vegetation, which has few trees but a variety of small alpine shrubs and lichens. The southern Maracaibo basin is covered by dense tropical rainforest, but closer to the Caribbean the basin is characterized by xerophytic scrub woodland and grasses; this type of plant life formerly covered the entire northwestern region, but since the mid-20th century much of that land has been cleared, denuded, and overcultivated. Except in the remoter interior areas, indigenous and introduced species coexist on the forested slopes and around the settled lowland plains and valleys.


Venezuela’s wildlife exhibits considerable variety. Seven species of the cat family inhabit the forested interior, including jaguars, ocelots, jaguarundis, pumas, and margays. Several types of monkeys also live in forested territories, among them howler and spider monkeys, long-tailed capuchins, and nocturnal douroucoulis. Other forest animals include bears, peccaries, deer, opossums, wild dogs, agoutis, and skunks. Among the more unusual species are tapir, which are large, cloven-hoofed quadrupeds with prominent snouts. Herbivorous manatees are aquatic mammals that survive in the coastal estuaries.

A wide range of reptiles inhabit the remoter rivers, coastal lagoons, and swamps, including caimans, alligators, lizards, and several species of turtles. Many types of snakes, too, are found in the forested interior, including such venomous species as coral snakes, striped rattlesnakes, and bushmasters and such nonvenomous varieties as boa constrictors and anacondas.

Birds, both migratory and nonmigratory, are plentiful and diverse. The coastal swamps are the tropical venue for migratory cranes, herons, storks, and ducks. There are vast ibis colonies in the Orinoco mangrove delta, and bellbirds are prevalent in the Orinoco basin’s forests. Birds of prey are found throughout the country.

Pelagic and coral reef fish are plentiful off the Caribbean coast and along the delta of the Orinoco River, and the deltaic channels foster mollusks and shrimps. Swarming freshwater species in the interior rivers include electric eels and piranhas. A wide array of catfishes are caught for food.


Venezuela has numerous national parks and other protected areas. Canaima National Park (1962), encompassing some 11,600 square miles (30,000 square km) in La Gran Sabana of southeastern Venezuela, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994; the park’s numerous rivers and tepuis support a wide range of plant and animal life. Parks within the Llanos region include Aguaro-Guariquito (1974) and Cinaruco y Capanaparo (1988), each of which has an area greater than 2,250 square miles (5,800 square km). Los Roques archipelago, famous for its bird and marine species, was made a national park in 1972. El Avila National Park (1958) is popular among hikers and campers from the Caracas area; including Naiguatá Peak and other formations in the Coastal Range, the park supports a variety of wildlife at elevations ranging from about 400 to more than 9,000 feet (120 to 2,750 metres).

Settlement patterns

Sprawling metropolitan centres, densely populated mountain valleys, aboriginal log houses along riverbanks, and open, sparsely settled plains are among the diverse developmental patterns in Venezuela, and the nation’s network of towns and cities reflects a hierarchy of social and economic ties.

Regional disparities

Agricultural development stimulated the settlement and unification of Venezuela during the Spanish colonial period, when towns grew up as centres for markets and transportation. Short-lived gold rushes in the mountainous interior also prompted boomtowns to develop. Rural populations were, however, always small and dispersed because of the limited amount of arable and pasture land. Insect-borne diseases severely hindered European settlement in the Orinoco region and in other low-lying river basins. As a result, population densities were greater in the mountain valleys, where the climate and threat of disease were moderated by elevation. Andean towns prospered and grew on the profits of exported hides, cacao, and indigo.

During the first century of independence, the nation consolidated its system of coastal ports and the hinterland administrative cities, and Caracas grew dominant as the hub of power, authority, and national wealth. The rural sector stagnated, while the northern urban network served as a conduit for the export of bulky raw materials and the import of manufactured goods and foodstuffs. Modern technologies, including the telegraph and telephone, tramways, and railroads, were selectively adopted in Caracas and La Guaira. Populations grew slowly in both rural and urban sectors, in part because of the prevalence of endemic diseases and the occurrence of natural disasters, but also because the sluggish economy attracted few immigrants.


A major urbanized corridor formed in the northern highlands of Venezuela during the period 1920–40. The oil boom in the Maracaibo Lowlands during the 1930s and ’40s attracted some population from the Andean highlands, while elsewhere migrants concentrated in such flourishing agricultural and commercial centres as Barquisimeto, San Cristóbal, and Barcelona. Greater Caracas, however, was the primary focus of urban migration and of foreign immigration, both legal and illegal. The pace of urbanization between 1940 and 1970 was the most rapid in Latin America. In the early oil-producing years of the 1940s, this phenomenon caused mass rural depopulation in some regions. Some sparsely settled areas such as the southern interior grew rapidly after the eradication of many diseases, but most rural communities in the densely settled highlands suffered sharp population declines. These latter regions became marginally productive agricultural zones, their stagnating communities offering few if any opportunities to the rural youth, who chose the apparent prosperity of city life over the hardships of rural life. Paramount among these hardships were the persistent inequalities of land ownership—large estates (latifundios) were owned by a wealthy few who underutilized their lands, while small farms (minifundios) were overcultivated yet barely sufficed for a family’s basic needs.

The urban population doubled during the period 1940–49 and continued to grow rapidly in the 1950s. The government responded by spending vast sums on public housing, although only a fraction of the demand for urban shelter could be met. The majority of the poor typically created ramshackle quarters in hillside ranchos (shantytowns). These burgeoning illegal settlements were initially viewed with alarm by the upper and middle classes, but the ranchos have become accepted, if not promoted, as an inevitable consequence of rapid urban growth. Many ranchos have acquired more permanent housing structures, and services, neighbourhood facilities, and political representation have improved; however, others continue to suffer from high population densities, low-quality housing, deficient services, crime, and malnutrition and disease. In addition, rancho communities on steep hillsides are especially vulnerable to natural disasters; the floods and accompanying mudslides that swept through Venezuelan coastal settlements in 1999 killed a disproportionately large number of rancho dwellers.

Although Venezuela’s overall population density is about average for Latin America, it has one of the region’s more metropolitan societies. More than nine-tenths of its population is classified as urban, with about one-third concentrated around the four largest cities (all of which are located in the north and northwest). About one-seventh of the population lives in Greater Caracas. The second largest city is Maracaibo, followed by Valencia and Barquisimeto. Ciudad Guayana is in the eastern interior and is the largest industrial centre on the Orinoco.


The spatial arrangement of population and production in Venezuela has changed profoundly since the 1950s. During that decade modern road building began, and the main Andean axis of population was extended from San Cristóbal and Caracas to Lake Maracaibo in the west and through Valencia to the lower Orinoco River valley in the east. The Caracas-Valencia corridor’s centrality was further entrenched by the building of express highways (autopistas) from Caracas to La Guaira and Maracay. Paved highways also linked this northern axis to other coastal regions and to the interior.

In the 1960s Venezuela embarked on an ambitious program to promote economic diversification and decentralization outside the Caracas-Valencia core region. The government created a unique heavy industrial complex and residential centre, known as an urban growth pole, on the southern bank of the Orinoco River at its confluence with the Caroní. That complex, centred on Ciudad Guayana, included steel and aluminum mills in proximity to mining sites. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans subsequently moved to the city, but few of them came from Caracas. The area is now linked via pipeline to oil and natural gas refineries on the coast. National parks, forest reserves, and ecotourism have also been promoted in the region.

Progress has been made in creating a national electric power grid, and bridges and tunnels have been built to improve contact between regions. Domestic airports have also helped to open up the interior and improve trade, but in spite of these efforts, the vastness and complexity of the Venezuelan landscape have caused regional imbalances to persist.

The people

This section discusses migration, ethnic groups, population growth, and the languages and religions of Venezuela. For treatment of the lifestyles and artistic achievements of the Venezuelan people, see Cultural life.

Immigration and ethnic composition

Venezuela is a country of immigrants. About two-thirds of the population is mestizo (of mixed European and Indian ancestry) or mulatto-mestizo (African, European, and Indian); about one-fifth of Venezuelans are of European lineage, and one-tenth have mainly African ancestry. The native Indian population is statistically small.

Prior to 1948 Venezuela had never openly encouraged non-Hispanic immigration, except for selective influxes of merchants, sailors, and entrepreneurs from neighbouring West Indian islands. As the petroleum industry grew, however, the government attempted to attract a wider range of people. During a 10-year period of open immigration (1948–58), Venezuela recruited agricultural and skilled workers from Spain, Italy, and Portugal; at the same time migration from Colombia to Venezuela also increased. Approximately one million immigrants entered the country during that time, although many of them eventually returned home. After 1958 the government tightened immigration controls to favour foreigners with high-level skills, yet during the 1960s Colombian labourers continued to move into the rural sector as replacements for Venezuelans who were leaving farms for the cities.

The government again shifted immigration policies in response to the mid-1970s petroleum boom, because there was a large demand for semiskilled and skilled labour in all sectors of the economy. At the same time, professional and technical workers and their families were leaving Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay because of political instability and persecution there, and many of them relocated to Venezuela. After 1976 the government again tightened its controls on immigration from other South American countries, instead favouring professionals from the United States, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Throughout that period of relative prosperity and economic expansion, the volume of illegal immigration (mainly unskilled workers and their families) matched that of legal entry. Most illegal immigrants came from Colombia, with smaller numbers arriving from Brazil and other neighbouring countries. Prior to the extended economic downturn of the 1980s, as many as 1.5 million undocumented Colombians resided in Venezuela, and more than a decade later hundreds of thousands remained. The influx of foreigners generated xenophobic sentiments in the late 1980s.

Ethnic groups are commonly identified with particular regions. Venezuelans of largely European and mestizo ancestry are concentrated in the major cities of the north. Peoples of African ancestry and mulatto-mestizo groups predominate along the Caribbean coast. Many mestizos from the highlands are physically distinct from those of the lowlands because of the different levels of intermarriage between Hispanic and Indian populations in the two regions. The Indian minorities survive mainly in the sparsely inhabited interior—three-fifths live in Zulia state (primarily in the forests near Lake Maracaibo), one-seventh inhabit Amazonas state in the far south, and smaller numbers live in such remote areas as the Guiana Highlands and the Orinoco delta region in the east. According to government estimates, there are some 38 distinct Indian peoples within Venezuelan territory. The Goajiro (Wayuu) are the largest indigenous group, followed by the Warao (Warrau).

Demographic trends

Venezuela’s 20th-century population growth was among the most rapid in Latin America, averaging nearly 3 percent annually during the period 1970–95. This increase was prompted by high birth rates, declines in mortality rates, and successive waves of immigration. The population growth rate has declined significantly, however, since the early 1990s. After World War II Venezuela’s mortality rate began to drop as advances in medicine and technology combated malaria, yellow fever, and other ailments; in addition, hygiene and diet were improved, and housing conditions were upgraded. While birth rates remained at high levels, mortality rates, which had been as high as 30 per thousand before 1920, dropped below 10 per thousand by the 1960s. Since that time the mortality rate has stabilized, and demographic changes have been mostly influenced by immigration rates and by reductions in fertility levels, which nevertheless have remained relatively high. About three-fifths of the population is under 30 years of age. Life expectancy rates have also been rising, a trend contributing to rapid population growth.


The Indian groups speak more than 25 different languages, most of which belong to three linguistic families—Cariban, Arawak, and Chibcha. Spanish is the national language of the majority. Local idioms, colloquial phrases, and simplified verb usage distinguish Venezuelan Spanish from other Latin American and Iberian variants. In Caracas and other major commercial centres, English is often favoured in business communications, and private schools in Caracas encourage bilingualism. The presence of English-speaking professionals in the oil centres and in the major cities has made English the country’s most popular second language.


Freedom of religion in Venezuela is guaranteed by the constitution, although the vast majority of the people are at least nominally adherents of Roman Catholicism. Religious tolerance is generally observed. Various Protestant sects form the largest minority group, and there are small groups of Jews and Muslims. Some Indian peoples continue to practice their traditional religions, but many have converted to Catholicism, especially those in settlements clustered around riverside mission stations. The Roman Catholic church is officially apolitical, but many priests and bishops have become involved in political events, some by espousing liberation theology and agitating for socioeconomic reforms, and others by reacting against liberal or radical government policies.

The economy

The Venezuelan economy is based primarily on the production and exploitation of petroleum. From the late 1940s to 1970 the country was the world’s largest petroleum exporter; it remains one of the principal exporters of oil to the United States. Venezuela’s economy has relied on earnings from the petroleum sector to modernize and diversify other economic sectors; thus “sembrando el petróleo” (“sowing the oil”) has been a national slogan since the 1940s. The development of rich deposits of iron ore, nickel, coal, and bauxite (the ore of aluminum), as well as of hydroelectric power, have further expanded the economy.

During the 1960s Venezuelan governments stressed import-substitution policies, using protective tariffs to limit imports of manufactured goods and subsidies to promote the growth of domestic manufacturing. As a result, export-oriented enterprises expanded. In the mid-1970s the government nationalized Venezuelan iron ore, oil, and gas industries, and it then used earnings from fossil fuel exports to fund major infrastructure improvements and other public works. By the end of the 20th century, Venezuelan industries had diversified, and the country had developed additional natural resources.

Nevertheless, Venezuela’s “sowing the oil” was considerably slowed because of fluctuations in international petroleum prices and global economic recessions in the 1980s and ’90s, as well as domestic problems such as inflation, inefficient management, corruption, and a lack of skilled personnel. The economy was pressured by a massive foreign debt, high unemployment, rapid population growth, and illegal immigration; however, early in the 21st century the economy recovered enough that by 2007 the country had paid off its foreign debt. Pres. Hugo Chávez, first elected in 1998, forged a socialist economic and political agenda that included a program of increasing nationalization, which was introduced after his landslide victory in the 2006 election. Determined to reduce U.S. economic influence in Venezuela and the rest of Latin America, he also drew upon the country’s oil wealth to grant generous loans to its neighbours.



Venezuela’s most economically significant natural resources are petroleum and natural gas, the mining of which accounts for about one-fifth of the gross domestic product (GDP) but less than 1 percent of the workforce. Coal is also important, and there are largely unexploited deposits of iron ore, bauxite, and other minerals. Some of the largest proven petroleum reserves in the world exist in the Orinoco delta and offshore, as well as in the eastern Llanos, in Guarico, Anzoategui, and Monagas states, in the Lake Maracaibo Lowlands (mainly Zulia state), and in the western Llanos, particularly in the states of Barinas and Apure. Before the government nationalized the industry, multinational firms accounted for more than four-fifths of production. Refining was primarily accomplished offshore in Aruba, Curaçao, and elsewhere in the Caribbean. After nationalization a state-owned company, Petróleos de Venezuela, SA (PDVSA), assumed responsibility for production, but PDVSA still depended heavily on foreign oil companies to refine, transport, and market the oil and natural gas and to provide technical assistance. The government, faced with economic difficulties, adopted reforms in the late 1980s and ’90s that included reopening the petroleum sector to foreign investment, notably to further explore and develop heavy crude oil deposits in the Orinoco basin, to upgrade refineries, and to streamline production through joint ventures. In a reversal of this trend, the oil industry became the focus of Chávez’s nationalization efforts in 2006, and in 2007 he completed the takeover of the sector by seizing operational control of the last privately run oil operation in the country—the Orinoco basin oil projects—from foreign-owned companies. Some of the heavy oil from the Orinoco basin is used to create bitumen-rich orimulsion, a boiler fuel that burns less cleanly than many other fuel sources.

Venezuela also has abundant natural gas deposits, again among the world’s largest proven reserves, and PDVSA has formed joint ventures for its exploration and production. In addition, a PDVSA subsidiary, Carbozulia, has developed major coal reserves in the Guasaré River basin.

Modern iron-ore mining in Venezuela began in the mid-20th century in the region surrounding present-day Ciudad Guayana, based on deposits at Cerro Bolívar and El Pao. In 1975 the U.S.-owned mining operations were nationalized, and the government-owned Venezuelan Guayana Corporation assumed control. Production of iron ore has grown substantially since the mid-1980s.

In the mid-1970s large deposits of bauxite were discovered in the Guiana Highlands, much of it high-grade ore suitable for alumina smelting in the Ciudad Guayana complex. Other important nonferrous minerals include gold and diamonds in the Guiana Highlands, coal northwest of Lake Maracaibo, salt deposits in the Araya Peninsula, and scattered deposits of industrial-grade limestone. There are also economically important quantities of nickel, phosphates, copper, zinc, lead, titanium, and manganese, and surveys indicate the existence of substantial deposits of uranium and thorium.


Hydroelectricity is the source of about half the country’s electric power. The most important generating centre is the Guri Dam on the Caroní River, which supplies Ciudad Guayana and its nearby mining complexes. The Santo Domingo River and other shorter Andean rivers are additional power resources. Thermal generators fired by oil, gas, or coal account for the remainder of electrical generation. More than nine-tenths of Venezuelans have access to electricity in their homes, making the country one of the better-provisioned in this regard in Latin America. The national electrical grid requires costly repairs and upgrades, however, and power outages are frequent.


Agriculture, fishing and forestry

Prior to the 1950s and the initiation of large-scale oil exports, agriculture, fishing, and forestry were central to the Venezuelan economy, producing more than half the GDP. As the petrochemical industry rapidly expanded in the 1970s and ’80s, however, the proportion of the labour force in agriculture dropped from one-fifth to about one-tenth. Since the 1990s the government has supported the agricultural sector with subsidies and low-interest loans, but the overall contribution of agriculture, fishing, and forestry to the GDP has further decreased.

Venezuela’s main cash crop is coffee, and its staple food crops are corn (maize) and rice. Most of the cropland is in the northern mountains or in their foothills. Extensive cattle grazing is practiced in the Llanos and, in a more limited way, in the Maracaibo Lowlands. South of the Orinoco, the interior forests are farmed by shifting cultivation and in small, cleared riverine plots. Less than one-fourth of the national territory is used for grazing or crop production.

Agricultural landholdings in Venezuela include expansive latifundios and small, subsistence-based minifundios. Most farms can be organized broadly into three basic types. First are fincas comercializados (commercial crop farms), which usually cover more than 50 acres (20 hectares), employ wage labourers, have some farm machinery, and use fertilizers and pesticides. These modernized farms have benefited from government provisions of credit. In addition, they have had easy access to both local and export markets. The fincas produce sugarcane, cotton, and rice, often as plantation crops. The second type of holding is the conuco (family farm), which is typically leased by the farmer; it is usually small in size and includes a mixture of food crops such as corn and beans for local consumption and commercial crops such as coffee and cacao. The third type are the fincas granderas (large pastoral farms), which often encompass more than 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares). These are commonly found in the Llanos, where unenclosed land is used for grazing cattle on the low-quality grasses. The cattle are herded and traded in yearly meetings called rodeos (roundups).

Relics of the colonial encomienda system, which supported a type of feudal landholding, led to an uneven distribution of land that allowed some 2 percent of the owners to control roughly 80 percent of the land. Most rural workers could not own enough land to support their families. The government launched land reform programs in the late 1950s and early ’60s in an attempt to correct this imbalance, including distributing land to families, increasing the use of grazing lands (especially in the western Llanos), creating irrigation and drainage projects, and continuing government subsidies of agricultural production. However, the results have been mixed; Venezuela now imports more than half of the food it consumes.

Historically, Venezuelans have not eaten great amounts of fish, and they have only partly exploited inland and ocean fishing grounds. In the 1970s a government-sponsored enterprise attempted to develop the fishing industry and to increase the demand for fish, especially among lower-income groups, and there was a minor fishing boom in the 1980s. Venezuela was the world’s fourth largest producer of tuna during the early 1990s. Anchovies have become another major catch.

Although forests cover more than one-third of Venezuela’s land, forestry is poorly developed, mainly because the richest forestlands are so remote. Strict government conservation regulations and domestic environmental activism have further limited deforestation, which has been less serious in Venezuela than in other Latin American countries despite an increase in land exploitation. The timber industry was modernized in the 1980s, and foreign companies began to participate in joint ventures.


Until the 1950s Venezuela had little industrial capacity apart from food processing and petroleum extraction. Huge oil revenues, combined with low tariffs, permitted an array of items to be imported. Manufacturing has been transformed since that time, especially following the government’s increased efforts to diversify the economy in the 1960s. Among the factors contributing to the industrial base are an abundant supply of fossil fuels and hydroelectric power, a variety of raw materials, considerable available capital; and a relatively high purchasing power per capita. The consumer-goods and metalworking industries were established with the help of protective tariffs and import quotas. With the 1973–74 rise in world oil prices, revenues expanded, and the government directed its investment strategy toward large-scale resource-based projects such as iron and steel manufacturing, aluminum smelting, and the production of transport equipment and petrochemicals. Industrial growth slowed, however, when oil prices declined several years later.

Manufacturing now accounts for one-sixth of the GDP and about one-sixth of the workforce. Venezuela’s industries fall into three groups. The first and most important consists of oil storage, transportation, and refinery operations, as well as associated petrochemical plants. The oldest and most developed petrochemical region is in the northwest. A refining centre at the western end of Paraguaná Peninsula on the Gulf of Venezuela handles more than two-thirds of domestic oil refining. Pipelines supply the Paraguaná centre with oil and natural gas from Zulia state, notably from El Tablazo, on Lake Maracaibo. Morón, near Puerto Cabello, supports another major petrochemical complex. Smaller centres exist inland. The newest petrochemical region includes storage facilities and pipelines for heavy crude oil in the eastern Orinoco River basin and delta, as well as refining and port operations on the coast. Venezuela exports vast amounts of crude oil to PDVSA-owned refineries on the Gulf Coast of the United States, particularly to sites in Louisiana and Texas, and on the nearby island of Curaçao.

A second industrial group produces consumer goods, mainly for domestic use. It is concentrated in the Valencia-Maracay-Caracas area and to a lesser degree at Barquisimeto. Import-substitution items were the focus of this industry from the 1950s to the ’80s, including textiles, leather, paper, tires, tobacco, light engineering products, radios, television sets, washing machines, and automobiles. The free-trade agreement with the Andean Community (which Venezuela joined in 1973), economic reforms, and some efforts at privatization helped to increase manufacturing output during the 1990s. However, local industries have remained vulnerable to fluctuations in domestic demand and to competition from goods imported illegally—that is, without payment of import duties.

A third group comprises the complex of heavy industries at Ciudad Guayana in the Orinoco-Caroní region and a large integrated iron and steel works at Matanzas, near Puerto Ordaz, that serves domestic needs and the export market. Production of iron, steel, aluminum, and hydroelectric power has grown in this region since the 1980s.


The service sector accounts for about half of GDP and provides more than half of employment; finance and trade each produce about one-sixth of GDP. Tourism is a growing component of Venezuela’s economy and is focused on the country’s cultural sites, beaches, and natural wonders, such as the tepuis of the Guiana Highlands and the world-famous Angel Falls. Since the late 20th century, however, Venezuelan travelers have spent considerably more money abroad than has been collected from tourism within Venezuela.


Since 1958 the government has played a key role in the operation of Venezuela’s financial system, largely through its management of the Central Bank of Venezuela, which sets interest rates, regulates the money supply, issues currency (the bolívar fuerte), and grants loans to commercial banks. Other state banks include the Industrial Bank of Venezuela, the Workers’ Bank of Venezuela, and various regional banks. There are several privately owned commercial and investment banks, as well as insurance companies. Most of these institutions, as well as the national stock exchange, are based in Caracas.

Venezuela was a leader in founding the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and it signed the agreement in 1960 that led to the creation of the organization. When OPEC raised oil prices more than 400 percent in 1973–74, the country received windfall profits, and its oil income rose dramatically until the early 1980s. The huge oil revenues vastly increased Venezuelan influence in Latin America, and the country negotiated favourable trade agreements to supply its neighbours with oil and natural gas. Venezuela has also helped to finance international cartels in such other commodities as bananas and coffee.

Venezuela experienced severe economic problems following the Latin American debt crisis of 1982 and the collapse of world oil prices in 1986. Among its pressing concerns were a foreign-exchange crisis, the loss of international reserves, slowed economic growth, and rising inflation. In response to these issues, Venezuela in 1989 signed agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank that were designed to stabilize the economy. The balance of payments and other factors subsequently improved, and the state again increased its expenditures. However, many of the country’s financial problems returned during the 1990s, brought on by fluctuating oil prices, political instability, a banking crisis in 1994, and mismanagement and overborrowing from the Central Bank. The government subsequently sold off many financial institutions, and by the end of the 1990s foreign investors controlled more than half of Venezuela’s banks.

The government was forced to institute additional stabilization measures, including the Agenda Venezuela plan (1996) that removed some financial controls and privatized several industries. These measures were only partially successful: state expenditures remained high, and oil price fluctuations continued to have dramatic effects on the economy. Venezuela had the highest rate of inflation in Latin America at the beginning of the 21st century; in an attempt to control it and to simplify financial transactions, the country introduced a new currency, the bolívar fuerte, in 2008. On the other hand, in the early 2000s the economy had rebounded enough for Venezuela to have paid off its loans to the IMF and World Bank. Moreover, determined to assert its economic independence, the country withdrew from both organizations in 2007.


The main feature of Venezuela’s external trade continues to be oil, which represents more than three-fourths of export earnings. Venezuela has maintained a positive trade balance. The United States is Venezuela’s primary trading partner; other trading partners include Colombia, Curaçao, Brazil, and China. Venezuela is a member of Mercosur, formerly known as the Latin American Integration Association, though it withdrew from the Andean Community in 2006.


The country’s transportation system is well developed, especially in the densely populated northern and northwestern regions. Domestic travel depends largely on roads, while freight and bulk transport is largely served by coastal shipping routes, inland waterways, and oil and natural gas pipelines. Air services provide access to regions without other means of communication.

The country maintains approximately 22,400 miles (36,000 km) of paved roads. There are three major trunk roads—a section of the Pan-American Highway that runs southwestward from Caracas through Valencia and Barquisimeto to San Cristóbal and then into Colombia; the northwestern highway, which runs from Valencia to Coro and on to Lake Maracaibo; and the Llanos Highway, which extends eastward from Caracas to Barcelona, Cumaná, and beyond. A branch also runs from Barcelona across the Llanos to Ciudad Bolívar. Bus routes connect most Venezuelan towns and cities. Highways can be dangerous, particularly in the evening: drivers rarely use headlights, and unlighted repairwork, livestock on the road, and other hazards are common.

Railways, both for passenger and freight transport, are relatively unimportant. One public line runs northeastward from Barquisimeto to Puerto Cabello on the coast and on to Caracas. Private railways serve the iron and steel industry, connecting mines in the Guiana Highlands region to Ciudad Guayana.

Almost all the country’s foreign commerce is carried by sea. The most important ports are Maracaibo (a major shipment centre for crude oil), Puerto Cabello, and La Guaira (the port of Caracas). Many small ports serve fishing fleets or coastal trade. Inland waterways are utilized principally around Lake Maracaibo and on the Orinoco River. A dredged channel between the Gulf of Venezuela and Lake Maracaibo allows oceangoing vessels to dock at the ports of Maracaibo, Bobures, and La Salina. A dredged channel through the Orinoco delta permits vessels to sail upriver to Ciudad Guayana.

Transoceanic and intercontinental air routes use Venezuelan international airports as a stopover. Simón Bolívar Airport, located at Maiquetía 10 miles (16 km) by road from Caracas, is the busiest, servicing international and domestic flights.

Administration and social conditions


The Venezuelan constitution of 1999 prescribes a government based on republican, democratic, and federalist principles. Citizens age 21 and older are eligible to vote. All males have had this right since 1872, but universal suffrage was not instituted until 1946. The government is divided into executive, legislative, and judicial branches. During the period 1961–99, the constitution prescribed a government led by a directly elected president, who served a single five-year term, as well as a popularly elected bicameral legislature and a multitiered judicial branch headed by the Supreme Court. As economic difficulties mounted during the 1980s and ’90s, so, too, did criticism of political corruption. In 1999 Hugo Chávez Frías, the newly installed president, pushed for radical reforms, and a constituent assembly was soon elected to draft a new constitution; it was adopted by referendum in December of that year. The constitution was modeled on that of the Fifth French Republic. It fundamentally changed the executive and legislative branches by granting heightened powers to the president and reorganizing the legislature into a unicameral assembly; it also reformed the judiciary system, promised to expand personal liberties, formally acknowledged the rights of indigenous peoples, and changed the country’s name from Republic of Venezuela to Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

Executive power is vested in the president, who serves a six-year term and is eligible for reelection. As is typical among Latin American nations, the president wields a greater amount of power than either the judicial or legislative branches of government. In addition to acting as the head of state, the president is the commander in chief of the armed forces. The president appoints an executive vice president and a Council of State, the members of which act as advisers and ministers.

The unicameral National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional) consists of 165 members (deputies) who are popularly elected through a combination of proportional and direct representation, including three deputies elected by the nation’s indigenous peoples. Deputies serve five-year terms. The National Assembly creates laws, authorizes national expenditures, approves treaties, designates foreign ambassadors, and serves numerous other functions. Under certain circumstances the president may dissolve the assembly.

Civil and human rights are protected by an independent judiciary that is organized nationally, with no autonomous state courts. At the highest court level is the Supreme Court of Justice (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia), which adjudicates civil, criminal, and political cases. Its members are nominated by a civil commission and appointed to 12-year terms by the National Assembly. Venezuelans generally enjoy a high degree of individual liberty, but protests have grown over the lack of equal civil and human rights protection for the nation’s Indian population.

Presidential and legislative elections are contested by several political parties, whose existence is guaranteed by the constitution; two major parties dominated Venezuelan politics until 1993: Democratic Action (Acción Democrática) and the Social Christian Party (Partido Social Cristiano; COPEI). In the 1998 presidential elections, these parties virtually collapsed, and the main presidential contenders represented new political movements. Chávez headed the Movement of the Fifth Republic (Movimiento de la Quinta República; MVR) until 2007, when it was replaced by Chávez’s new political party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela; PSUV).

The country is divided into 23 states and the federal district, which includes Caracas. Each state is headed by a directly elected governor and has a legislative assembly. The assemblies are unicameral bodies composed of representatives from each of the state’s districts. The federal district is administered by a mayor, and the day-to-day administration of local affairs elsewhere in the country is the responsibility of municipal councils and directly elected mayors.


Basic education is free and compulsory between the ages of 6 and 15. Secondary education, which lasts for 2 years, is also free but not required. More than nine-tenths of Venezuelans age 15 and older are literate. The vast majority of Venezuelan children are enrolled in school, but nearly half the adults have no secondary education and a large number have no formal schooling. Most middle- and upper-class parents send their children to private elementary and secondary schools.

The number of institutions of higher education expanded rapidly in the latter part of the 20th century. Higher education is provided by private and public institutions, and approximately one-fourth of secondary school graduates attend them. Caracas is an educational centre with several notable universities, including the Central University of Venezuela (founded in 1721) and the National Open University (1977). Among the more prominent state schools are the University of Zulia (1946), the University of Carabobo (1852), and the University of the Andes (1810) in Mérida.

Modernization and urbanization in the 20th century brought considerable improvement in the educational system; however, the economic difficulties of the 1980s and ’90s and government mismanagement damaged the system. Although Venezuela greatly increased education spending in the latter part of the 20th century, nearly half the money allocated was spent on universities, while primary and secondary schools suffered from poorly trained teachers and high student dropout rates. In addition, students received on average only half the mandated days of instruction because of vacation days and time lost to strikes. In an attempt to remedy these problems, the government began to restructure the educational system in the late 1990s.

Health and welfare

The government greatly expanded health and welfare services during the 1970s, again particularly in the cities. Both public (free) and private medical assistance is available. The Ministry of Health is responsible for organizing and staffing the public hospitals and rural medical centres; it has dealt with numerous budgetary and management problems, including strikes by doctors and poorly maintained hospitals. The Venezuelan Institute of Social Security offers medical and welfare assistance to urban workers and employees. It, too, has experienced difficulties, including large deficits. In the area of housing, the metropolitan authorities have been unable to meet the needs of the urban poor. The problems of the ranchos persist, as public housing schemes meet mainly the needs of middle-income groups and poorer urbanites are left largely on their own to find employment and housing.

Cultural life

Daily life

As Venezuelans moved from the countryside to the cities, they developed a modern urban lifestyle; large middle-class neighbourhoods developed alongside burgeoning poor ranchos. Many middle- and upper-class Venezuelans acquired wealth from oil in the 1950s–70s, which enabled them to travel easily, especially to the United States, and to own cars and houses. The economic downturn since the 1980s has interrupted that easy lifestyle, however, and poverty has grown.

In Venezuela the admixture of African, European, and Indian cultural traditions is often called criollo (Creole), although that term in most Latin American contexts denotes people of European ancestry. Venezuelans boast criollo foods, dances, and, especially, music. National foods include arepa (a cornmeal bread) and hallaca (sweet cornmeal dough cooked in banana leaves). Other typical foods include passion fruit and tamarinds, tequeños (cheese pastries), pabellón (a stew of beef, rice, and black beans served over fried plantains), and pulpo (octopus) cooked in citrus juice. During the pre-Lenten Carnival more elaborate dishes are served, such as paella and talcari de chivo (“kid stew”). Locally produced beer and rum are popular, as is coffee served in many different styles, each with its own name reflecting the amount of milk added to the coffee.

Although North American music is popular and widespread in Venezuela, the Caribbean salsa and merengue forms are also commonly heard. The national Venezuelan folk dance and musical style is the joropa, but each region of the country has its own distinctive musical expression. (See also Native American arts: Northern South America.)

The arts

Since the 1920s the government has promoted artistic expression as a way to maintain cultural autonomy in the face of foreign influences. As greater freedom for writing and publishing was granted, a flourishing national literature emerged. Rómulo Gallegos, who became Venezuela’s best-known writer, was part of this nationalistic wave, gaining international recognition for his novel Doña Bárbara (1929). Such painters as Armando Reverón and Manuel Cabré also expressed nationalistic fervour. The architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva won international acclaim for his design of the Central University in Caracas, which featured asymmetrically arranged buildings complemented by freestanding murals and sculpture.

The state-supported Venezuelan Symphony Orchestra is highly popular, and its repertoire also reflects a spirit of nationalism. Also of great pride is the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra in Caracas, which boasts some of the country’s best young musicians. Some of these musicians are recruited from a comprehensive orchestral training and music education program known in Venezuela as El Sistema (“The System”). The program, which was created in the 1970s, offers hundreds of thousands of children from underprivileged and at-risk communities the opportunity to play in youth orchestras throughout the country, and each state in Venezuela has at least one professional youth orchestra.

Cultural institutions

Most of Venezuela’s major cultural institutions are located in Caracas. The Museum of Fine Arts (founded in 1938) houses a large collection of paintings and sculptures by both Venezuelan and foreign artists. Other museums include the Museum of Colonial Art, housed in an 18th-century mansion, and the Science Museum Foundation (founded in 1875 as the National Museum), which contains exhibits on archaeology, anthropology, and other disciplines. Among the noteworthy museums outside Caracas are a museum of pre-Columbian artifacts in Ciudad Bolívar and the Museum of Military History in Maracaibo. The most important book collections are at the National Library (1883) in Caracas, which holds more than two million volumes, including many rare books. The modern Teresa Carreño Theatre provides a forum for international and national music and dance performances.

Sports and recreation

Venezuela continues to struggle against foreign influences to retain such traditional pastimes as the toros coleados, a form of bullfighting in which the bull is thrown by its tail. Nonetheless, there have been widescale adoptions of such North American pastimes as baseball, now a national sport along with association football (soccer). Venezuelan baseball players regularly compete abroad, and many of them have been recruited by Major League teams in North America. Among the wealthier adventure-seekers, rafters and kayakers are drawn to the white-water tributaries of the Orinoco River, and climbers frequent the various mountain ranges and tepuis. The Cordillera de Mérida is the site of a well-developed ski resort.

Carnival is the major holiday in Venezuela, particularly in Caracas. On those days business comes to a halt, as games, races, and street celebrations prevail. Other important holidays are the New Year and, in rural areas, the feast days of local saints.

Press and broadcasting

Caracas is the national press centre, and its newspapers are widely available throughout the interior. Leading newspapers include El Universal, El Nacional, Últimas Noticias, and Panorama. The majority of newspapers, including the two leading dailies, are independent and generally operate with little government interference. However, many television stations and newspapers are owned by large family conglomerates. Television broadcasting is available to more than four-fifths of Venezuelans. Telenovelas (soap operas) are the most popular genre, followed by variety programs. Venezuela imports some programming from North America, Europe, and other Latin American countries, but it produces several programs domestically. Throughout the country are more than 200 radio stations, most of which are privately owned.

Under the Chávez-controlled government, media-content laws were enacted and suppression became common. Many broadcasting licenses were cancelled or revoked, and international organizations complained about the lack of freedom of the press in Venezuela.


The following discussion focuses on Venezuelan history from the time of European settlement. For a treatment of the country in its regional context, see Latin America, history of.

The earliest inhabitants of Venezuela were food-gathering Indians who arrived in the Upper Paleolithic Period. Arawak and Carib Indians were prominent among the groups that arrived later. Nomadic hunting and fishing groups roamed the Lake Maracaibo basin, the Llanos, and the coast. The most technologically advanced Venezuelan Indians lived in farming communities in the Andes.

The colonial era

Christopher Columbus arrived in what is now Venezuela in 1498, during his third voyage to the New World. European explorers named the region Venezuela (“Little Venice”) after observing local Indian houses on stilts over water. During the first quarter-century of contact, the Europeans limited themselves to slave hunting and pearl fishing on the northeastern coast; the first permanent Spanish settlement, Cumaná, was not made until 1523. In the second quarter of the 16th century, the centre of activity shifted to the northwestern coast, where the Welser banking house of Augsburg, Germany, purchased exploration and colonization rights. The Germans failed to find precious metals and to occupy the area permanently, however, and Spain repossessed the zone in 1546. Legends of El Dorado (“The Golden One”) drove explorers into the Venezuelan interior, perhaps including the Spanish adventurer and renegade Lope de Aguirre, who is said to have attacked several villages there. The Englishman Sir Walter Raleigh sailed up the Orinoco River in search of the fabled city of gold reportedly ruled by El Dorado. Raleigh described his adventure in The Discoverie of Guiana (1596).

In the latter half of the 16th century, Spanish agriculturalists began to colonize the region by using encomiendas (semifeudal grants of land and Indian labourers). Caracas was founded in 1567, and by 1600 more than 20 settlements dotted the Venezuelan Andes and the Caribbean coast. During the 17th and 18th centuries, various Roman Catholic missionary orders gradually took over the Llanos and Maracaibo regions.

The colonial economy was based on agriculture and stock raising. Corn (maize), beans, and beef were the domestic food staples; sugar, cacao, tobacco, and hides were the principal exports. Spain’s European rivals (initially the French and English, followed by the Dutch) succeeded in taking over most of Venezuela’s commerce until the early 18th century, when Spain established a monopoly trading company. The interests of the latter, however, proved contrary to those of Venezuelan producers, who forced dissolution of the company during the 1780s.

Venezuelan society during the colonial era was headed by agents of the Spanish crown. Royal bureaucrats monopolized the top governing posts, and Spanish clergymen dominated the high church offices. However, Creoles (white descendents of Europeans born in the Americas) owned the land and other forms of wealth, and they used their power to hold the nonwhite races in bondage: mestizos (persons of mixed European and Indian ancestry) and mulattoes (of European and African ancestry) were generally without property, social status, or political influence; Indians performed forced labour on interior farms or were segregated on marginal lands; and black Africans were slaves on the coastal plantations. In theory, Venezuela was governed by the Spanish crown through the Audiencia of Santo Domingo in the 16th and 17th centuries and through the Viceroyalty of New Granada (at Bogotá) from its incorporation in 1717. In practice, however, the Venezuelans exercised some regional autonomy during the colonial era.

The independence movement

A group of Venezuelan Creoles boldly proclaimed their country an independent republic in 1797. Although their effort failed, it forewarned of the revolutionary movements that were soon to inflame Latin America.

In 1806 Francisco de Miranda—who had earlier fought under George Washington against the British, served as a general in the French Revolution, and fought with the French against Prussia and Russia—tried unsuccessfully to land on the Venezuelan coast with a group of mercenaries whom he had recruited in New York City. Revolutionary leaders recalled him to Gran Colombia four years later to take charge of a ruling junta, which drafted a constitution and established an independent nation. In the ensuing war with royalist forces, however, Miranda signed an armistice with Spain. Other revolutionary leaders viewed this action with contempt, and Miranda was subsequently turned over to the Spaniards, who sent him first to Puerto Rico and later to Spain, where he died in prison in 1816.

Early in 1813 the revolutionary junta appointed Simón Bolívar commander of the Venezuelan forces. Bolívar, a wealthy Creole landowner born in Caracas in 1783, had many reverses in his war against the Spanish. His forces were opposed by large royalist armies including a cavalry unit of llaneros (cowboys of the Llanos frontier), who were under the command of José Tomás Boves. In 1815 the Spanish general Pablo Morillo landed with an expeditionary force that spearheaded the reconquest of much of New Granada. Morillo administered the region in a heavy-handed fashion, however, and many of the Creole elites who had initially supported him soon conspired for his defeat. Llaneros and blacks also deserted the royalist cause and joined Bolívar, whose army was further augmented by a legion of British and Irish mercenaries; the new republican government of Haiti also sent aid. The Republic of Gran Colombia, with its capital at Bogotá, was proclaimed on December 17, 1819, with Bolívar as president. On June 24, 1821, Bolívar’s troops, reinforced by llanero cavalry under General José Antonio Páez, defeated the main royalist army at the Battle of Carabobo. The last of the royalist forces surrendered at Puerto Cabello on October 9, 1823. The following year Bolívar’s army marched south to liberate Peru, and in 1825 it freed Upper Peru (Bolivia) from Spanish rule. Venezuelans suffered greater casualties and endured more privations during the wars than did any other Latin American national group, because of the ferocity of battles on their own soil and the large number of Venezuelan troops who carried the struggle to other regions.

Regional rivalries broke out in Gran Colombia while Bolívar was off leading the final campaigns, and his prestige was not enough to hold the country together after his return. Venezuela broke away in 1829, and Ecuador soon after. Bolívar died in Santa Marta, Colombia, in 1830, penniless and disillusioned.

The caudillos (1830–1935)

After the destruction of the colonial system, Venezuela passed through an era of government-by-force that lasted more than a century, until the death of Juan Vicente Gómez in 1935. Backed by their personal armies, a series of warlordlike caudillos (leaders) assumed power, which they exercised for their personal benefit rather than for that of the nation.

Páez and the Conservatives

The first of the military dictators was General José Antonio Páez, who gave the country better government than it would see again for nearly a century. Bolívar had left Páez in charge of the armed forces of Venezuela, and he soon took full control of the country. He led the separation movement from Gran Colombia in 1829 and in 1830 convoked a constitutional convention for Venezuela. Páez dominated Venezuelan politics until 1848, both as president (1831–35 and 1839–43) and as a major political player. He subdued ambitious provincial caudillos and ruled in cooperation with the large landholders and leading merchants of the Conservative Party. The constitution that they enacted in 1830 reflected their social and political philosophy—a centralist state, property qualifications for voting, the death penalty for political crimes, guarantees for the freedom of trade and commerce, and the continuation of slavery. The church lost its tax immunity and its educational monopoly, and the army was shorn of its autonomy; thus, state supremacy was achieved. The government then began to reconstruct the war-torn economy by putting finances in order, establishing firm lines of foreign credit, and amortizing the national debt. It also constructed new roads to promote domestic commerce and facilitate coffee and cacao exports.

In contrast to the troubled times that preceded and followed it, the 1830–48 period of Conservative Party domination was an era of political stability, economic progress, and responsible administration. An opposition movement began to develop in 1840, however, when Antonio Leocadio Guzmán, the leading spokesman for dissident merchants and professional men, founded the Liberal Party. Guzmán’s new liberal newspaper, El Venezolano, demanded abolition of slavery, extension of voting rights, and protection for the debtor classes. During the 1840s the demand for Venezuela’s agricultural commodities declined on the world market; this produced economic difficulties, which in turn contributed to the increasing opposition to the Conservative oligarchy.

The Monagas and the civil wars

The growing political crisis was brought to a head in 1848 by General José Tadeo Monagas. Although elected president as a Conservative in 1846, he soon gravitated toward the Liberals. He intimidated the Conservative congress and appointed Liberal Party ministers. When Páez rebelled in 1848, Monagas defeated him and forced him into exile.

The decade 1848–58 was one of dictatorial rule by José Tadeo Monagas and his brother, General José Gregorio Monagas, who alternated as president during the period. The Liberal Party passed laws that abolished slavery, extended suffrage, outlawed capital punishment, and limited interest rates, but the laws were not implemented. Integrity in government waned, heavy deficit financing ruined the nation’s credit, and the economy began to stagnate and decay. In 1857 the Monagas brothers attempted to impose a new constitution extending the presidential term from four to six years and removing all restrictions on reelection. The Liberal leaders thereupon joined the Conservative opposition, and in March 1858 they brought the Monagas dynasty to an end. This first successful rebellion in Venezuela’s national history set off five years of revolutionary turmoil between the Liberals and Conservatives. The issues in these so-called Federalist Wars were, on the Liberal side, federalism, democracy, and social reform and, on the Conservative side, centralism and preservation of the political and social status quo. The conflicts were extremely bloody, and control of the central government changed hands several times. General Páez returned in 1861 to restore Conservative hegemony for two years, but in 1863 final victory went to the Liberals, led by the generals Juan Falcón and Antonio Guzmán Blanco.

A new constitution was enacted in 1864 to incorporate the federalist principles of the victors. Local freedoms quickly disappeared, however, at the hands of provincial caudillos. As president in 1864–68, Falcón appeared content to allow subordinates, many of them irresponsible, to rule at both the state and national levels. Liberal mismanagement and increasing political chaos provided an opportunity for the Conservatives, now led by José Tadeo Monagas, to return to power in 1868. But civil war followed. General Guzmán Blanco rallied the Liberals to his cause, overthrew the Conservatives, and assumed power in 1870.

The reigns of Guzmán Blanco and Crespo

Guzmán Blanco’s triumphal entry into Caracas in April 1870 halted the political chaos and economic stagnation that had plagued the nation since 1858. The new president took to the field himself and subjugated the country in less than two years; he thereupon launched a broad program of reform and development. A new constitution in 1872 proclaimed representative government, suffrage for all males, and direct election of the president. Economic reforms, such as restoration of the nation’s credit by means of new bond issues and generous concessions to foreign investors, gave further evidence of Guzmán Blanco’s apparent devotion to Liberal Party principles. He established a nationwide system of public primary education and promoted state support for secondary and higher education. In addition, he abolished ecclesiastical privileges, cut off state subsidies to the Roman Catholic church, proclaimed religious liberty, legalized civil marriage, and also confiscated church properties, exiled the archbishop, and closed the convents.

Guzmán Blanco was the popular choice for president in the 1873 election. He departed for Europe in 1877, leaving a puppet successor in charge, but when the opposition rebelled, he returned to crush it and resumed the presidency in 1878. The following year he returned to Europe, leaving General Joaquín Crespo in charge. Guzmán Blanco came back again in 1886 to serve a final two years in the face of growing popular opposition to his policies.

Guzmán Blanco’s regime had both positive and negative results for the nation. His admirers point to his political and military genius and to his administrative, economic, educational, and religious reforms. His detractors emphasize his tyrannical ruling methods, financial chicanery, monumental vanity, superficial educational reforms, and unwarranted attacks on the church. For four years after the end of his regime, Venezuela floundered in new political chaos as various civilian political groups tried unsuccessfully to establish responsible representative government. In October 1892 Crespo seized power. His six-year rule was troubled by continued political turmoil, growing economic difficulties, and the nation’s first serious diplomatic problem—a dispute with Great Britain over the boundary between eastern Venezuela and western British Guiana. This virtually uninhabited wilderness territory, in which gold was discovered in 1877, had been the object of alternating claims and counterclaims between Venezuela and Great Britain for more than half a century. Great Britain repeatedly refused Venezuela’s requests to refer the matter to arbitration, and in 1887 Venezuela suspended diplomatic relations. President Crespo appealed to the United States, and in 1895 U.S. president Grover Cleveland pressured Britain to arbitrate. An international tribunal handed down a decision in 1899 that failed to satisfy Venezuela’s demands.

The Andinos

The course of Venezuelan history changed markedly at the turn of the 20th century. In 1899 General Cipriano Castro, a caudillo from the Andean state of Táchira, descended on Caracas with his provincial army and seized the presidency. As a result, five successive military strongmen from Táchira, known as Andinos, controlled the nation for the next 59 years, except for an interlude in 1945–48. Castro ruled from 1899 to 1909. His regime was characterized by administrative tyranny, financial irresponsibility, almost constant domestic revolt, and frequent foreign intervention. The most serious internal uprising occurred in eastern Venezuela in 1902–03. This and subsequent revolts of the early 20th century were put down by General Juan Vicente Gómez. Castro’s cavalier treatment of foreign businessmen and diplomats was topped by his refusal to reimburse foreigners for properties that were damaged in domestic insurrections; consequently, Venezuelans suffered a British-German-Italian blockade of their coast in 1902–03 and a Dutch attack upon their navy in 1908. Ill health forced Castro to go to Europe for medical attention in 1908, whereupon Gómez usurped the presidential powers and did not relinquish them until his death 27 years later.

Gómez was an effective, if ruthless, dictator. By manipulating elections, abolishing all organized political activity, and monopolizing appointive powers, he established a completely subservient legislative and judicial structure. He muzzled the press and stifled the opposition with an elaborate spy service and used arbitrary arrests, exiles, long imprisonments, and assassinations to ensure his control. Efficient police and army organizations maintained his power through unrestricted use of force.

Political order attracted foreign petroleum investors, however, and Dutch and British petroleum companies were awarded generous contracts to enter Venezuela just before World War I; immediately after the war Standard Oil from the United States arrived to compete with the British and Dutch. By 1928 Venezuela had become the world’s leading exporter of oil and was second only to the United States in oil production. The oil industry brought the nation such benefits as high-paying jobs, subsidies to agriculture, expanded government revenues, and increased trade. The government oversaw construction of road networks, railroads, and port facilities. It also paid off the entire foreign debt and drastically reduced the large domestic debt. Yet the oil prosperity was unevenly distributed; most Venezuelans continued to live in poverty, and their health, housing, and education needs were ignored by the state. Meanwhile, Gómez and the top bureaucrats and army officers enriched themselves. The dictator became the nation’s wealthiest citizen, retaining power until his death, from natural causes, in 1935.

Venezuela since 1935

Technocrats and party politics

Eleazar López Conteras, who had been war minister under Gómez, succeeded him and served as president until 1941. López restored civil liberties, sanctioned political activity, and permitted labour to organize during 1936; but he restored the dictatorship in 1937, when the opposition became too threatening. In 1938 he inaugurated a three-year development plan that included construction of public schools and hospitals and support for agriculture and private industry.

Isaias Medina Angarita, a fellow Táchira general, was president in 1941–45. He continued López’s development program and also restored political liberties. Petroleum revenues declined sharply in 1941–42 because of a World War II transportation squeeze, and President Medina used a 1943 oil law to raise the nation’s share of profits from the petroleum industry. As the transportation shortage eased, his government granted new concessions and stimulated a petroleum boom.

In October 1945, at the height of the wartime prosperity, a coalition of military officers and civilian political leaders conspired to overthrow the Medina administration. This revolution marked the first assumption of power in Venezuela by a political party (Democratic Action) that had the support of a majority of the people. Party leader Rómulo Betancourt headed a civilian-military junta that ruled the nation for 28 months. In July 1947 the nation adopted a new constitution that reflected the labour-leftist philosophy of the party, and in December the novelist Rómulo Gallegos was elected to the presidency.

Democratic Action promptly launched a program of reform: it drafted a tax decree to assure the nation of at least half the profits of the petroleum industry; in addition, it encouraged labour unions to organize and bargain for their rights, and it supported health, housing, education, and agricultural and industrial development. These reforms provoked strong opposition from conservative forces that culminated in a November 1948 military coup. The new ruling junta was headed by Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Delgado Chalbaud and Major Marcos Pérez Jiménez; two years later the former was assassinated, and the latter took power.

Thus, from 1951 to 1957 the nation was again controlled by a Táchira military dictator. Pérez Jiménez outlawed political activity, crushed the labour movement, closed down the universities, and muzzled the press. Democratic Action’s nationwide reform programs were abandoned in favour of modernizing Caracas and enriching the dictator and his army associates. Finally, popular opposition grew so great that the navy and air force joined to overthrow Pérez Jiménez in January 1958. A civilian-military junta ran the country for one year, after which Rómulo Betancourt was elected president.

The second Betancourt administration (1959–64) was considerably more moderate than the first. This time Democratic Action, in contrast to its earlier exclusivism, cooperated with the next largest faction, the middle-of-the-road Christian Democrats (Social Christian Party), and set up a coalition government. This government launched programs designed to modernize agriculture, develop domestic industry, improve the nation’s health, and eliminate illiteracy. In 1960 it passed an agrarian reform law, and in 1962 it inaugurated a national steel industry.

Despite broad developmental progress, the Betancourt administration was troubled by political unrest and economic crisis. A guerrilla insurgency emerged in the early 1960s, stimulated by followers who believed Betancourt had abandoned his goals of social justice and change. To complicate matters, a sharp economic depression occurred in 1960–63. In foreign affairs Venezuela severed diplomatic relations with the Dominican Republic in 1960 (after Dominican agents attempted to assassinate Betancourt) and broke relations with Cuba in 1961 (following repeated Cuban attempts to aid the Venezuelan communists). It became a founding member of OPEC in 1960–61.

The 1963 presidential elections, held in an atmosphere of great political tension, were narrowly won by the Democratic Action candidate Raúl Leoni. The Christian Democrats thereupon withdrew from the governing coalition, but they were replaced by the labour-leftist Democratic Republican Union. The oil and iron ore industries began to boom once more, and a new petrochemical industry was launched. Although prosperity had returned, growing popular dissatisfaction strengthened the opposition Christian Democrats, whose presidential candidate, Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, won the 1968 elections.

Caldera’s inauguration in 1969 marked the first time in Venezuela’s history that an incumbent government peacefully surrendered power to an opposition electoral victor. The programs of the Christian Democrats were similar to those of Democratic Action. Caldera improved relations with Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the Latin American military dictatorships. In the early 1970s Venezuela established majority ownership of foreign banks, took control of the natural gas industry, and declared a moratorium on the granting of oil concessions.

Economic boom and bust

President Carlos Andrés Pérez, the Democratic Action victor in the 1973 elections, nationalized the iron ore industry in 1975 and the petroleum industry the next year. Following the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, Venezuela, as a founding member of OPEC, more than tripled the price of its oil. The resulting windfall triggered a wave of spending that attracted tens of thousands of South American immigrants, increased imports of food and luxury items, produced growing waste and corruption, and created a privileged economic elite, but did little to alleviate poverty. The economic boom did not last, however. An international recession and oil glut beginning in the late 1970s slashed world oil prices and plunged the country into economic stagnation. This condition, continuing into the late 1980s, was reflected in a downward trend in the gross domestic product and a steady increase in inflation; exports declined, and unemployment became a major concern. The accompanying loss of confidence in the economy caused an enormous increase in capital flight, as investors rapidly divested themselves of Venezuelan securities and shifted their capital to foreign markets. That problem and the government’s inability to repay foreign debt reached crisis proportions during the administrations of the Christian Democrat Luis Herrera Campins, elected in 1978, and Democratic Action’s Jaime Lusinchi, elected in 1983. Herrera Campins devalued the currency for the first time in two decades. Lusinchi adopted limited austerity measures trying to slow capital flight and began to reschedule foreign debt.

The Lusinchi government’s economic policies did little more than soften the impact of external forces. By 1988 another drastic decline in world oil prices had cut government income in half, and payment of the foreign debt—which Lusinchi had continued as scheduled—became increasingly difficult. In December of that year the electorate returned former president Carlos Andrés Pérez to office. The nation’s most popular politician and a leader of hemispheric democracy, Pérez pledged himself to develop a regionwide plan to deal with the foreign debt. Domestically, he sought to stimulate new growth within existing economic constraints. His succession of Lusinchi marked the first time in 25 years that the governing party had retained the presidency in an election. President Pérez’s popularity was short-lived, however, as riots broke out across the country in reaction to a rise in bus fares, which was part of a package of austerity measures that Pérez had announced in early 1989. Massive looting took place, and troops killed hundreds of people while attempting to put down the disturbances.

The next two years were filled with protests, labour strikes, and an increasingly heated political debate as Pérez attempted to reduce tariffs and decrease government intervention in the economy. In 1992 a small group of junior army officers, led by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías, attempted a coup against President Pérez, and later that same year air force officers staged a second coup attempt. Pérez survived these two incidents but subsequently was charged with misappropriating public funds; he was forced to leave office early, in mid-1993.

Following two brief interim presidencies, national elections were held in late 1993. Former President Rafael Caldera came back to office, this time running as an independent after breaking from the Social Christian party. The banking system was in crisis as Caldera took power in 1994, and his administration experimented with a series of populist economic plans before turning to negotiations with the International Monetary Fund. Caldera also released from prison the coup leader Hugo Chávez before his trial had ended, thus making Chávez eligible to run for public office.

The Hugo Chávez presidency

By the 1998 elections more than half the Venezuelan populace was below the poverty line, while annual inflation exceeded 30 percent and oil prices were in steep decline. The voters rejected the traditional political parties of Democratic Action and COPEI and elected Chávez as president. At the same time, his coalition became the largest voting bloc in the legislature. Chávez’s political platform promised to rid the country of corruption, help the poor, and reduce the power of elites. He pledged to write a new constitution and remake Venezuelan democracy. In mid-1999 Venezuelans elected a constituent assembly dominated by pro-Chávez delegates, and voters soon approved a new constitution by referendum.

In December 1999 Venezuelans suffered one of the deadliest events in their national history. A severe rainstorm brought on mud slides and flash floods that ravaged communities along the mountainous northern coast, including sections of the Caracas metropolitan area. Hundreds of thousands of structures were damaged or destroyed, and estimates of the dead ranged from a few thousand to tens of thousands. Following the cataclysm, the nation focused its efforts on reconstruction projects and emergency aid, including resettling thousands of homeless families.

Throughout his first term, Chávez’s plans to reform policies in keeping with his leftist ideology faltered. Although Chávez enjoyed the support of the working class for his spending on education, food coupons, and social services, other Venezuelans opposed his programs, and in 2001 the implementation of his economic reforms prompted massive protests and strikes.

In April 2002 a coup briefly ousted him from office, but within two days, after protests from his supporters and threats of rebellion by troops loyal to him, he was reinstated. In late 2002 Chávez’s opponents organized a general strike to force his resignation or early elections. The economy was severely damaged by the closure of shops and factories and especially by the strike in the oil sector. Nevertheless, Chávez was able to withstand the pressure, and in February 2003, after strike organizers decided to scale back their efforts, businesses reopened. The following year the opposition collected the more than 2.4 million signatures required to force a referendum on Chávez’s continued rule, but in August 2004 the president survived the recall effort, garnering the support of nearly three-fifths of voters. During this period, Chávez spent petroleum income to fund social programs. He continued his support for Cuban Pres. Fidel Castro, supplying petroleum to Cuba and other developing nations at cut-rate prices. Chávez remained determined to reduce U.S. economic influence in South America and promoted Mercosur, a South American regional economic organization.

In 2006 Chávez was elected to a six-year presidential term. Following that landslide victory, he initiated a program of nationalization that included the takeover of the petroleum sector, which was completed in 2007 when Venezuela assumed operational control of the oil industry in the Orinoco basin—the world’s single largest known oil deposit—from foreign-owned companies. Chávez announced his intention to secure at least 60 percent ownership of the operations for his country. Also that year Venezuela created its own time zone, setting its clocks back half an hour.

At the end of 2007, however, Venezuelan voters rejected a controversial constitutional referendum that included an amendment which would have allowed Chávez to run for reelection indefinitely. The referendum, which failed by a slim margin (51 to 49 percent), marked the first significant defeat at the polls for Chávez, whose left-of-centre ideology kept Venezuela in the focus of international politics through his prominent opposition to the United States. Undeterred, in 2008 Chávez nationalized Venezuela’s telecommunications, electricity, steel, and cement companies.

In July 2010, responding to Colombian accusations that Venezuela was sheltering FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia; Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) rebels, Chávez broke off relations with Colombia. Diplomatic relations were resumed relatively quickly, however, after a conciliatory meeting in August between Chávez and Colombian Pres. Juan Manuel Santos.

By this time Chávez had reversed his earlier defeat regarding term limits. In February 2009 a constitutional referendum calling for the elimination of term limits on all elected officials had been approved by more than 54 percent of voters, clearing the way for Chávez to run for president again in 2012. Legislative elections in September 2010 indicated Chávez’s continued popularity. Yet, although the president’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela; PSUV) won more than half the seats in the National Assembly, it failed to maintain a two-thirds majority. The coalition of opposition parties that took more than a third of the seats thus would be able to block certain legislation and executive appointments.

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