|VENEZUELA COAT OF ARMS|
Location of Venezuela within the Geographic Region of South America
Map of Venezuela
Flag description of Venezuela: three equal horizontal bands of yellow (top), blue, and red with the coat of arms on the hoist side of the yellow band and an arc of eight white five-pointed stars centered in the blue band; the flag retains the three equal horizontal bands and three main colors of the banner of Gran Colombia, the South American republic that broke up in 1830; yellow is interpreted as standing for the riches of the land, blue for the courage of its people, and red for the blood shed in attaining independence; the seven stars on the original flag represented the seven provinces in Venezuela that united in the war of independence; in 2006, then President Hugo CHAVEZ ordered an eighth star added to the star arc - a decision that sparked much controversy - to conform with the flag proclaimed by Simon Bolivar in 1827 and to represent the province of Guayana
Official name República Bolivariana de Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela)
Form of government federal multiparty republic with a unicameral legislature (National Assembly )
Head of state and government President: Nicolás Maduro
Official language Spanish2
Official religion none
Monetary unit bolívar3 (plural bolívares; VEF)
Population (2013 est.) 30,135,000COLLAPSE
Total area (sq mi) 353,841
Total area (sq km) 916,445
- Urban: (2012) 93.7%
- Rural: (2012) 6.3%
Life expectancy at birth
- Male: (2012) 71.8 years
- Female: (2012) 77.7 years
Literacy: percentage of population age 15 and over literate
- Male: not available
- Female: not available
GNI per capita (U.S.$) (2013) 12,550
1Includes 3 seats reserved for indigenous residents.
2Indigenous Indian languages are also official.
3The bolívar was redenominated on Jan. 1, 2008; as of this date 1,000 (old) bolívares (VEB) = 1 (new) bolívar or “bolívar fuerte” (VEF).
Background of Venezuela
Venezuela was one of three countries that emerged from the collapse of Gran Colombia in 1830 (the others being Ecuador and New Granada, which became Colombia). For most of the first half of the 20th century, Venezuela was ruled by generally benevolent military strongmen, who promoted the oil industry and allowed for some social reforms. Democratically elected governments have held sway since 1959. Hugo CHAVEZ, president from 1999 to 2013, sought to implement his "21st Century Socialism," which purported to alleviate social ills while at the same time attacking capitalist globalization and existing democratic institutions. Current concerns include: a weakening of democratic institutions, political polarization, a politicized military, rampant violent crime, overdependence on the petroleum industry with its price fluctuations, and irresponsible mining operations that are endangering the rain forest and indigenous peoples.
It is a 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.
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 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...>>>read more<<<
Demography of Venezuela
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.
Economy of Venezuela
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.
"TRADE 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.
Government and Society of Venezuela
The Venezuelan president is elected by vote, with direct and universal suffrage, and functions as both head of state and head of government. The term of office is six years, and a president may be re-elected to a single consecutive term. The president appoints the vice-president and decides the size and composition of the cabinet and makes appointments to it with the involvement of the legislature. The president can ask the legislature to reconsider portions of laws he finds objectionable, but a simple parliamentary majority can override these objections.
The unicameral Venezuelan parliament is the National Assembly or Asamblea Nacional. Its 167 deputies, of which three are reserved for indigenous people, serve five-year terms and may be re-elected for a maximum of two additional terms. They are elected by popular vote through a combination of party lists and single member constituencies. The highest judicial body is the Supreme Tribunal of Justice or Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, whose magistrates are elected by parliament for a single twelve-year term. The National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, or CNE) is in charge of electoral processes; it is formed by five main directors elected by the National Assembly.
There are currently two major blocs of political parties: the leftist Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) and its major allies For Social Democracy (PODEMOS), Fatherland for All (PPT), the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV); and A New Era (UNT) together with its allied parties Project Venezuela, Justice First, and others. Independent parties include the Movement for Socialism (Venezuela), while Venezuela's major civil political NGO organization is Súmate. Following the fall of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958, Venezuelan politics was dominated by the center-right Christian democratic COPEI and the center-left social democratic Democratic Action (AD) parties. However, this system was sidelined following the initial 1998 election of Hugo Chávez as president.
Chávez's political opposition, alleging electoral fraud, withdrew from and boycotted the 2005 parliamentary election; consequently, the MVR-led bloc secured all 167 seats in the National Assembly. Furthermore, the MVR voted to dissolve itself in favor of joining the proposed United Socialist Party of Venezuela, while Chávez requested that MVR-allied parties merge themselves into it as well. The National Assembly has twice voted to grant Chávez the ability to rule by decree in several broadly defined areas, once in 2000 and again in 2007.
Politicization of the judiciary, harassment of the media, and harassment of the political opposition continued to characterize the human rights situation in 2006. The following human rights problems were reported: Unlawful killings; disappearances reportedly involving security forces; torture and abuse of detainees; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; a corrupt, inefficient, and politicized judicial system characterized by trial delays, impunity, and violations of due process; illegal wiretapping and searches of private homes; official intimidation and attacks on the independent media; widespread corruption at all levels of government; violence against women; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers' right of association.
Venezuela is divided into twenty-three states, a capital district corresponding to the city of Caracas, the Federal Dependencies (a special territory), and Guayana Esequiba (claimed in a border dispute with Guyana).
Venezuela is further subdivided into 335 municipalities; these are subdivided into over one thousand parishes. The states are grouped into nine administrative regions, which were established by presidential decree. Historically, Venezuela has also claimed all Guyanese territory west of the Essequibo River.
Soil from Venezuela and four other countries liberated by Simón Bolívar is interred at the Parque de las Cinco Repúblicas in Mérida. Chávez promoted his "Bolivarian Revolution" as a model for other countries to follow. The policy calls for the establishment of a "multipolar" world devoid of U.S. influence and for greater integration among developing countries. Venezuela is currently advocating regional integration through its PetroCaribe and PetroSur petroleum initiatives, the creation of a South American Community of Nations, and the establishment of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (a social integration project proposed by President Chavez as an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas).
In April 2006, Chávez announced he was withdrawing Venezuela from the Andean Community trade bloc. In July 2006, Venezuela officially joined the Southern Common Market, MERCOSUR. Before it can become a full member of MERCOSUR, Venezuela must conform to the trade bloc's economic regulations. Congressional approval by Brazil and Paraguay is also still outstanding.
The Venezuelan government maintains very close relations—including close military and intelligence ties—with Cuba and advocates an end to Cuba's isolation.
After 2005, Chávez deepened relations with Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism, by signing multiple economic and social accords and publicly supporting Iran's controversial nuclear program. Chávez also reached out to North Korea, Belarus, and Syria. The Venezuelans have also embarked on a worldwide effort to increase their presence in embassies overseas in Africa and Asia.
Chávez also launched a major renovation of the Venezuelan armed forces by purchasing new advanced weaponry. In 2005-2006, Venezuela purchased 100,000 AK-103 rifles from Russia and signed an agreement to construct a rifle and ammunition complex. Venezuela also purchased dozens of Russian attack and transport helicopters and has begun receiving 24 Russian Sukhoi Su-30MK 2-seat fighters.
Venezuela has long-standing border disputes with Colombia—aggravated by the capture of a Colombian insurgent leader inside Venezuela—and Guyana, but seeks in general to resolve them peacefully. Bilateral commissions have been established by Venezuela and Colombia to address a range of pending issues, including resolution of the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Venezuela. Relations with Guyana are complicated by Venezuela's claim to roughly three-quarters of Guyana's territory. Since 1987, the two countries have held exchanges on the boundary under the "good offices" of the United Nations.
Venezuela's national armed forces include roughly 87,500 personnel spread through four service branches: the Ground Forces, the Navy (including the Marine Corps), the Air Force, and the Armed Forces of Cooperation (FAC), commonly known as the National Guard. As of 2005, a further 100,000 soldiers were incorporated into a new fifth branch, known as the Armed Reserve; these troops bear more semblance to a militia than the older branches. The president is the commander-in-chief of the national armed forces.
Culture Life of Venezuela
History of Venezuela
Early History and the Colonial Era
The Arawaks and the Caribs were the earliest inhabitants of Venezuela, along with certain nomadic hunting and fishing tribes. Columbus discovered the mouths of the Orinoco in 1498. In 1499 the Venezuelan coast was explored by Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci. The latter, coming upon an island off the Paraguaná peninsula (probably Aruba), nicknamed it Venezuela (little Venice) because of native villages built above the water on stilts; the name held and was soon applied to the mainland. Spanish settlements were established on the coast at Cumaná (1520) and Santa Ana de Coro (1527).
The major task of the conquest was accomplished by German adventurers—Ambrosio de Alfinger, George de Speyer and especially Nikolaus Federmann—in the service of the Welsers, German bankers who had obtained rights in Venezuela from Emperor Charles V. During part of the colonial period the area was an adjunct of New Granada. Cocoa cultivation was the mainstay of the colonial economy. From the 16th to the 18th cent. the coastline was attacked by English buccaneers, and in the 18th cent. there was a brisk smuggling trade with the British islands of the West Indies.
- Independence and Civil Strife
In 1795 there was an uprising against Spanish control, but it was only after Napoleon had taken control of Spain that a real revolution began (1810) in Venezuela, under Francisco de Miranda. In 1811 complete independence was declared, but the revolution soon encountered difficulties. An earthquake in 1812 destroyed cities held by the patriots and helped to forward the cause of the royalists. Later, however, Simón Bolívar (born in Venezuela) and his lieutenants, working from Colombia, were able to liberate Venezuela despite setbacks administered by the royalist commander, Pablo Morillo. The victory of Carabobo (1821) secured independence from Spain.
Venezuela and other territories became part of the federal republic of Greater Colombia. Almost from the beginning, however, Venezuela was restive. José Antonio Páez, who had conquered the last Spanish garrison at Puerto Cabello in 1823, favored independence. He was a caudillo with a strong following among the hardy cattlemen, the llaneros. In 1830 the separatists gained the upper hand, and Venezuela became an independent state. Páez was the leading figure. Although conservative and liberal parties appeared, the actual control of Venezuela was held mainly by caudillos from the landholding class. After Páez, José Tadeo Monagas and his brother entrenched (1846) themselves in power, but not before a bitter struggle was waged to prevent the refractory Páez from keeping a large measure of political control.
The Monagas brothers were overthrown in 1858, and civil war among caudillos became chronic. A brief liberal regime under Juan Falcón created the decentralized United States of Venezuela in 1864. From 1870 to 1888, Guzmán Blanco dominated Venezuela. He improved education, communications, and finances, crushed the church, and enriched himself. He was overthrown in 1888, but dictatorship was resumed four years later under Joaquín Crespo. During Crespo's regime began the Venezuela Boundary Dispute with Great Britain over the border with British Guiana (now Guyana). Cipriano Castro, a new dictator, came to power in 1899. The financial corruption and incompetence of his administration helped to bring on a new international incident, that of the Venezuela Claims.
The year 1908 marked the beginning of the rule of one of the longest-lasting of all Latin American dictators, Juan Vicente Gómez, who stayed in power until his death in 1935. His regime was one of total and absolute tyranny, although he did force the state (with the help of foreign oil concessions) into national solvency and material prosperity. His death was followed by popular celebration. Eleazar López Contreras became president (1935–41) and increased Venezuela's share of the oil companies' profits; under his legally elected successor, Isaías Medina Angarita, Venezuela sympathized with the Allies and finally entered World War II on the Allied side in 1945.
- Postwar Venezuela
Later in 1945 a military junta committed to democracy and social reform gained control of the government, which was then headed by Rómulo Betancourt of the Democratic Action party. A new constitution promulgated in 1947 provided, for the first time in Venezuelan history, for the election of a president by direct popular vote. The first president elected under the new constitution was the eminent novelist Rómulo Gallegos. His administration, however, was short-lived.
A military coup in Nov., 1948, overthrew the Gallegos government, and a repressive military dictatorship was established. By 1952, Col. Marcos Pérez Jiménez had become dictator, and he made wide use of police state techniques. A popular revolt, supported by liberal units of the armed forces, broke out early in 1958; Pérez Jiménez fled. Elections held that year restored democratic rule to Venezuela. Rómulo Betancourt adopted a moderate program of gradual economic reform and maintained friendly relations with the United States despite the association of U.S. interests with Pérez Jiménez. A new constitution (1961) was adopted.
The country, long out of debt because of the oil revenues, reached a peak of prosperity, but the new administration was nevertheless gravely challenged. Left-wing groups, particularly the Communists, bitterly opposed the administration, and their activities, combined with the restiveness of the poorer classes and the dissidence of leftist elements in the military, led to numerous uprisings. Extreme right-wing elements also plotted against the Betancourt regime. Betancourt was succeeded in 1964 by Raúl Leoni. In 1968 the Social Christian party came to power when Rafael Caldera Rodríguez won a close presidential election. The boundary dispute with Guyana flared up again in the 1960s, with Venezuela laying claim to some 60% of Guyana's territory.
The 1973 presidential election was won by Carlos Andrés Pérez Rodríguez of the Democratic Action party. That same year Venezuela joined the Andean Group (later the Andean Community), an economic association of Latin American nations. In 1976, Venezuela nationalized its foreign-owned oil and iron companies. Luis Herrera Campíns replaced Pérez in 1978. A decrease in world oil prices during the early 1980s shocked the Venezuelan economy and massively increased Venezuela's foreign debt.
Democratic Action candidate Jaime Lusinchi defeated Campíns in 1983. He renegotiated the national debt and introduced austerity budgets and cuts in social services, but inflation and unemployment continued to plague the country. Pérez was returned to office in 1989 amid demonstrations and riots sparked by deteriorating social conditions. In 1992 Pérez survived two attempted military coups, but the following year he was removed from office on corruption charges; he was later convicted and sentenced to jail for misuse of a secret security fund. In 1994 Rafael Caldera Rodríguez again became president, this time under the banner of the National Convergence party. He unveiled austerity measures in 1996 and privatized some state-run companies.
Venezuela's economy sagged and its budget deficit grew as oil prices fell again in the late 1990s. Relations with Colombia, long strained over control of offshore oil reserves and the illegal movement of many Colombians into Venezuela to work, deteriorated in the 1990s as Venezuela claimed that Colombian guerrillas were trafficking drugs and arms across the border. In 1999, Hugo Chávez Frías, a former army colonel who had participated in a failed coup attempt against Pérez, became president after running as an independent. He called for a halt to privatization of state assets and approved a law enabling him to rule by decree in economic matters for six months. He also cut Venezuela's oil production to force up prices, and pushed for other OPEC members to do the same.
A referendum in Apr., 1999, called for a national constituent assembly to draft a new constitution; the assembly was elected in July and convened a month later. The assembly and Chávez engaged in a contest for power with the congress and judiciary; the assembly declared a national emergency and stripped the congress of its powers. A constitution establishing a strong president with a six-year term in office and the ability to run for immediate reelection and a unicameral National Assembly was approved in referendum in December; the new constitution also reduced civilian control of the military and increased the government's control of the economy. In the same month Venezuela experienced its worst natural disaster of the century, as torrential rains caused huge, devastating mudslides along the Caribbean coast; perhaps as many as 5,000 people were killed.
The disaster slowed plans for new elections, but the congress was replaced with a 21-member interim council. In July, 2000, Chávez won election to the presidency under the new constitution; his coalition, the Political Pole, won 99 of the 165 seats in the assembly, short of the two-thirds majority needed to rule without constraints. Chávez won approval from the assembly to legislate by decree, and won passage of a Dec., 2000, referendum that ousted Venezuela's labor leaders, a move denounced by the International Labor Organization. Chávez also revived the dormant boundary dispute with Guyana, declaring that a satellite-launching facility being built by an American company in the territory claimed by Venezuela was a cover for a U.S. military presence.
In 2001, Chávez became somewhat more unpopular with the increasingly polarized Venezuelan people, although he still retained significant support among the lower classes. His attempts to assert control over the state oil company led to strikes and demonstrations in early 2002, and in April he was briefly ousted in a coup attempt. Latin American nations refused, however, to recognize a self-proclaimed interim government under business executive Pedro Carmona Estanga, and poorer Venezuelans mounted counter-demonstrations in his support. Chávez was restored to office and called for reconciliation; a subsequent cabinet shakeup gave his government a less ideological cast.
The ongoing political turmoil, which led to a prolonged, polarizing antigovernment strike in the vital oil industry (Dec., 2002–Feb., 2003), sent the country into recession and reduced oil exports. Although Chávez outlasted his striking opponents, the crisis further eroded public support for his government. An agreement between the two sides, negotiated by the Organization of American States in May, 2003, called for an end to violence and a referendum on Chávez's presidency later in the year. An opposition petition calling for a referendum on Chávez was rejected in September, however, because of procedural errors.
A new petition for a recall referendum was presented in December, but so many of the signatures were rejected by the electoral commission that the petition was unsuccessful. Negotiations ultimately led to a compromise in which the opposition was allowed three days in May, 2004, to reaffirm disputed signatures, and the petition was validated. Also in May, a number of civilians and military officers were arrested on charges of plotting a coup against Chávez. In the referendum, held in August, 58% voted to retain Chávez, and despite opposition denunciations of the result, foreign observers strongly endorsed it. Several opposition leaders were later charged (July, 2005) with conspiring to undermine Venezuela's government because their organization, Súmate, which played a major role in the petition drive, had received U.S. funds that were alleged to have been used to fund the referendum effort.
In Jan., 2005, the president signed a decree establishing a national land commission that would begin the process of breaking up the country's large estates and redistributing the land. During the same month relations with Colombia were tense after a Colombian rebel in Venezuela was kidnapped (Dec., 2004) by bounty hunters and turned over to Colombia authorities, but the dispute was resolved by the time both nations' presidents met in Caracas in February. National assembly elections in Dec., 2005, resulted in a sweep for parties supporting the president, but only a quarter of the electorate voted. Most opposition candidates withdrew from the contest before the vote in protest against what they said were biases and flaws in the electoral process, ceding complete control of the legislature to Chávez.
Chávez has used Venezuela's increased oil revenues to fund social programs, to create a large military reserve and expanded militia, and to establish programs designed to reduce the effects of high energy prices on Caribbean nations. Chávez also has publicly accused the United States of planning an invasion to overthrow him, while U.S. officials have accused him of supporting antidemocratic forces in Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador. His public support, in 2006, for one candidate in the Peruvian presidential race and criticisms of the ultimate winner, Alan García, led Peru to recall its ambassador. Venezuela was admitted to full membership in Mercosur in mid-2006 (ratifed in 2012); at the same time it withdrew from the Andean Community, whose members included Peru and Colombia.
Chávez was handily reelected in Dec., 2006, benefiting from an economic boom due to high petroleum prices and from the social programs he had instituted for the poor, but the strong win masked the continuing polarization of Venezuelan society along class lines, with the poorer classes overwhelmingly favoring the president. At the same time, however, inflation was increasing, and it continued to grow thoughout 2007 and 2008. Proclaiming "socialism or death" at his inauguration (Jan., 2007), Chávez moved to nationalize all energy and power companies and the country's largest telecommunications firm. He also moved to consolidate some two dozen parties supporting him into a unified socialist party, which was only partially successful, and secured the right to rule by decree for 18 months. Chávez subsequently won passage of constitutional amendments that would have ended presidential term limits, increased the length of the president's term, and enhanced the president's powers generally, but the changes failed (Dec., 2007) to win the voters' approval.
After a Colombian raid (Mar., 2008) against rebels based in Ecuador there were several days of tensions between Colombia and neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela, who mobilized forces to their borders. Colombia said computer files seized in the raid had evidence of ties between the rebels and Chávez's government. Though Venezuela denied that, Chávez, who had succeeded in winning the release of several hostages held by the rebels, expressed public sympathy for the Colombian rebel leader killed in the raid. (The head of the Organization of American States said the following month that no government had presented it with evidence of ties between Venezuela and any terrorist group.) From mid-2009 relations with Colombia were again strained by Colombian accusations of Venezuela support for Colombian rebels, prompted in part by the capture from the rebels of weapons purchased by Venezuela from Sweden; Venezuela alleged that Colombia's allowing U.S. forces to use Colombian bases against drug traffickers was a belligerent move by the United States. In Nov., 2009, Chávez ordered 15,000 troops to the Colombian border; the following month he accused the United States of violating Venezuelan airspace from the Netherlands Antilles, where U.S. antidrug operations are based.
In Apr., 2008, Chávez ordered the nationalization of the cement industry and of Venezuela's largest steelmaker; additional companies and industries, perhaps most notably financial institutions, were nationalized into 2010. As his right to rule by decree expired at the end of July, 2008, Chávez signed a number of decrees that mirrored many of the constitutional amendments that voters had rejected at the end of 2007, and in Jan., 2009, he secured legislative passage of a constitutional amendment that would end term limits for all elected officials. A referendum approved the amendment in Feb., 2009.
Meanwhile, in Nov., 2008, Chávez's allies again won a majority of the posts in local and regional elections, but the opposition increased the number of posts it held and won the Caracas mayorlty. Subsequent government moves stripped significant powers from posts that opposition candidates won, further concentrating power in central government hands, and the government launched corruption investigations or other cases against a number of leading opposition figures and critics. By late 2009, drought and increasing energy demands had led to such low water levels behind the Guri Dam (which supplies nearly three fourths of the country's electricity) that industrial cutbacks and other rationing measures, including rolling blackouts in 2010, were instituted. In Feb., 2010, the government declared an electricity emergency and imposed stricter rationing.
The National Assembly elections in September were won by Chávez's party, but the opposition, which did not boycott the elections, made significant gains, winning 47% of the vote and nearly 40% of the seats and denying the ruling party a constitutionally significant two-thirds majority. In Dec., 2010, there was significant flooding in states along the central and W Caribbean coast, and flood recovery and reconstruction was the pretext for Chávez's seeking legislation to rule by decree. Decried by his critics as an attempt to circumvent the incoming National Assembly, the law gave him decree powers for 18 months in many areas, such as banking and defense, not related to reconstruction. In Mar., 2011, the government adopted rules authorizing the military to arm the nation's militias, a progovernment force made up of militant Chávez supporters; they had previously not been issued firearms.
Chávez was again reelected in Oct., 2012, after having been treated for cancer and declaring himself fully recovered; his margin of victory was much less than in 2006. Subsequently, however, the president was again treated for cancer. This time, complications kept him in a Cuban hospital and led to the postponing of his Jan., 2013, inauguration. In Dec., 2012, Chávez's party made gains in the governors elections. Chávez died in Mar., 2013, after returning to Venezuela; Nicolás Maduro Moros, his vice president, became interim president.
In the April presidential election Maduro was elected, but he only narrowly defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor who had lost to Chávez in 2012 by more than 10%. Capriles called for a recount, but a more limited audit was conducted. There was some post-election violence, and Maduro accused Capriles of attempting a coup. In June, 2013, the Venezuela government said it had foiled a Colombian-based attempt to assassinate Maduro; Maduro had previously accused former Colombian president Uribe of plotting to kill him.
A couple significant power blackouts affected Venezuela's electrical grid in late 2013. The government blamed the blackouts on sabotage, and in October expelled several U.S. diplomats it accused of being involved in one blackout, but no concrete evidence of sabotage was presented by the government. Maduro received the power to rule by decree for 12 months in November, which he said was necessary to fight corruption and regulate the economy; inflation rate meanwhile increased to above 50% in 2013 despite government price controls.
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