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Venezuela - SOCIETY

Venezuela - The Society


THROUGHOUT MOST OF ITS HISTORY, Venezuela remained a poor country with a rigidly stratified, largely rural population. The political system in the long era of caudillismo (rule by local strongmen, or caudillos) was one in which shifting factions, loosely organized around competing caudillos, vied for dominance over disenfranchised masses. A minuscule upper class of wealthy hacendados, whose income derived from cocoa abd coffee plantations, controlled the economy. This group based their superior status on their light skin and on Hispanic cultural and social norms established during the colonial period. Despite its power, prestige, and wealth, however, the upper stratum never formed the sort of cohesive, entrenched oligarchy so common throughout most of the rest of the continent. Venezuela's comparative poverty--its lack of gold or precious stones--limited the attention it received from Spain; fewer Spaniards ventured to Venezuela than to nearby Colombia or more distant Peru. The colonial period, therefore, did not produce an opulent upper class, either Spanish or native born.

Below this small, modestly rich, and fragmented upper class was a somewhat larger, but still limited, middle stratum. This group consisted of soldiers, artisans, craftsmen, bureaucrats, and small traders. Farther down the social ladder was the vast bulk of the population. Persons in this stratum, who were considered and considered themselves lower class, consisted largely of peasants of mixed descent. They had different values, life-styles, family patterns, and religious practices from those of the upper class. These Venezuelans played only a marginal role in the country's affairs. They occupied a subordinate and dependent position in the socioeconomic structure and exercised political influence only by joining the ranks of the local caudillo's personal militia.

Independence effected few changes in the relative position and sizes of these three classes. Indeed, until the discovery and exploitation of large quantities of oil in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Venezuela's economy and society exhibited a traditional agrarian pattern dominated by the production of export crops, such as cocoa and coffee, and some cattle raising. The shift to oil and the subsequent expansion of manufacturing eradicated the old order. In less than a generation, Venezuela became a far more modern, urban-based society. By 1960 some 60 percent of the population lived in cities of over 5,000 inhabitants, and the population of metropolitan Caracas numbered over a million.

Middle-class Venezuelans became a highly mobile people, moving regularly from place to place and job to job. Traditional values changed in ways that made the society more open and class boundaries more flexible. The ongoing process of value modification contributed to changes that accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s, as more women entered the universities and the labor force and more citizens participated in the liberalized political system. In the 1990s, a Venezuelan society still exhibited enormous differences between its upper and its lowest strata. But the social system had become more permeable, and the urban middle class had become probably the most effective group involved in the country's vigorous partisan politics. Many Venezuelans therefore felt that the greatest challenge to their sociopolitical system lay not in further involvement of the middle class, but in responding to the concerns of the still large group at the base of the societal pyramid.

The Elite
<>The Middle Class
<>Workers and the Urban Lower Class
<>Health and Social Security


Venezuela - Population


Three races contributed significantly to the composition of the Venezuelan population: whites, Africans, and Indians. The Indians of the region belonged to a number of distinct tribes. Those who devoted themselves to agriculture and fishing belonged mainly to the Arawak, Ajaguan, Cumanagoto, Ayaman, and other Carib tribes. The Guajiro lived, as they still do today, in the area that became the state of Zulia. The Timoto-Cuica lived in the states of Táchira, Mérida, Trujillo, and Lara. The Caquetío, who prevailed in the area of present-day Falcón state, developed probably the highest cultural state of civilization of all the indigenous groups. A number of tribes also lived, as the Guajiro still do, in the Amazon jungle. Compared with other Latin American countries, however, Venezuela never had a large Indian population. After discovery by Spain, this population diminished still further, mainly because the natives lacked immunity to the many diseases brought to the New World from Europe. In addition, Indians and Spanish intermarried; the product of this union, the mestizo, often opted for or was forced into assuming Spanish customs and religion. Fewer than 150,000 Indians were counted in the 1981 census, and, of these, over a third were made up by the Guajiro, who, though distinctive, were mostly Roman Catholic, wore their own version of Western-style clothing, and traded openly with other Venezuelans and Colombians.

During the colonial period, white Venezuelans immigrated mostly from Spain. Most blacks were brought from Africa as slaves to replace the large numbers of Indians who died from diseases and other consequences of the conquest. The African slaves labored in the hot, equatorial coastal plantations. Although miscegenation was widespread, it did not diminish the importance of color and social origin. In colonial society, peninsulares (those born in Spain) enjoyed the greatest prestige and power. Criollos (those born in America of Spanish parentage) occupied a subordinate position. Mestizos, blacks, and Indians made up the large lower end of the social hierarchy. Even at these lower levels, those who could somehow demonstrate a measure of white ancestry enhanced their chances of avoiding a life of penury.

Although the criollos resented the peninsulares, they did not identify or empathize with the lower strata. Instead, they remained deeply aware of the potential for trouble from the large mass below them and employed a variety of means to keep the nonwhite peoples at a safe distance. Despite their sometimes disreputable personal backgrounds, peninsulares boasted that they had pure white pedigrees. Circumstances rendered the ancestry of some criollos more questionable, and even the wealthiest were conscious of race mixture and anxious to dispel any doubts as to their parentage by remaining as separate from the nonwhite and mulatto population as possible. Perceptions of race, however, evolved somewhat over time in response to changing social, political, and even cultural interests.

Reforms in the eighteenth century affected race relations by enhancing the social mobility of the crown's nonwhite subjects. During this period, persons of mixed racial origin, or pardos, were allowed, for a price, to join the militia, to obtain an education, to hold public office, and to enter the priesthood. They could even purchase legal certification of their "whiteness." These changes eliminated most of the few distinctions that had set the criollos apart from the darker-skinned masses (pardos at that time represented more than 60 percent of the population). Feeling their already tenuous position in society threatened, most Venezuelan criollos rejected the social policy of the Bourbons and established themselves in the forefront of the revolutionary movement for independence.

Not all criollos, however, sought to preserve the system whereby pardos served as virtual vassals of the upper class. Twentieth-century Venezuelan history books proudly recount the late eighteen-century radical conspiracy of the retired army officer Manuel Gual and the hacienda owner José María España, who advocated a republic that would incorporate all races and peoples equally. Inspired by the rhetoric of the French Revolution, the small group led by Gual and España recruited pardos, poor whites, laborers, and small shopkeepers, calling for equality and liberty and for harmony among all classes. They also promised to abolish Indian tribute and black slavery and to institute free trade. Although Gual and España also invoked the example of the newly established United States, they received no encouragement from the young country. When the conspiracy surfaced in La Guaira in 1797, the Spanish authorities terminated the movement in its early stages. Not surprisingly, criollo property owners collaborated with the authorities to suppress the radical movement.

During the wars of independence, both criollo revolutionaries and Spanish loyalists sought to engage blacks and pardos in their cause. This competition opened up new paths for advancement, mainly by way of the battlefield. Many of the revolutionary armies depended heavily upon the pardos to fill their ranks; many also served as officers. Of greater significance for nineteenth-century Venezuelan society, the wars of independence brought to the fore a new class of leaders of mixed social and racial origins, perhaps best exemplified by José Antonio Páez, a fiery llanero (plainsman). Páez and leaders like him represented in almost every respect the antithesis to the cerebral, worldly wise, white, and refined Simón Bolívar Palacios and others of his class.

Páez governed Venezuela either directly as president or indirectly through his friends in the presidential office from 1830 to 1848. It was a period of slow but undeniable transformation of Venezuelan society. Although traditional exports such as cotton, cacao, tobacco, and beef expanded, coffee soon came to dominate agricultural production. The transition to coffee brought changes to Venezuelan society. Coffee growing was less labor intensive than most agricultural pursuits; even in colonial times it operated mostly under systems of sharecropping and seasonal labor, rather than slavery. During the nineteenth century, small farmers increased their share of national coffee production and, consequently, they moved upward on the social ladder.

Toward the end of the century, after the years of the Federal War (1858-63), fissures once again appeared in Venezuelan society as new social elements arose, often regardless of class, place of origin, race, or education. As in so much of the country's social history, a personality, another caudillo, best exemplified the new social order. In this case, the caudillo was Juan Vicente Gómez, a semiliterate Andean who dominated the national political scene from 1908 to 1935. Although often pictured as a traditional caudillo, Gómez did more than merely advance his own interests and those of his clique; he presided over the transformation of Venezuela from a rural to an urban society, from an agrarian to an industrial economy.

The illegitimate son of an Indian mother and a Spanish immigrant, Gómez rose to prominence first as a local and later a national caudillo. Once in control of the national government, he brought prosperity to Venezuela through a regime of repression, austerity, and reform. Perhaps most important, Gómez opened the Venezuelan oil fields for exploration beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century; by 1928 Venezuela became the world's leading exporter of petroleum, second only to the United States in total petroleum production.

The impact of oil on Venezuelan society was enormous. Gómez used oil revenues to bolster his authoritarian regime. The highway system he built helped to centralize his control over the country. Agriculture rapidly lost its preeminence as petroleum became the country's leading export. Oil profits funded public works programs, industrialization, port expansions, urban modernization, and payment of the public debt. The new revenue also made Gómez and his cronies immensely rich. At the same time, Venezuela entered a new stage in its economic and social development. Traditionally self-sufficient in food, the country began to import even basic foodstuffs. The petroleum workers, never more than 3 percent of the labor force, formed an elite union that served as the nucleus of a new labor movement. The promise of jobs, prosperity, and social advancement drew Venezuelans from every corner of the country to the cities of Caracas and Maracaibo. In just a few short decades, rural agricultural Venezuelan society became urban and industrial; the middle class expanded; ethnic groups mixed more readily; and a once largely isolated society found itself involved with the rest of the world.

Population Profile

Sixth in size among the Latin American countries, Venezuela was one of the Western Hemisphere's least densely populated countries. But despite a low overall population density (21.4 persons per square kilometer in 1987), distribution was extremely uneven. Most of its nearly 20 million inhabitants (19,698,104, according to a mid-1990 estimate) were concentrated in the western Andean region and along the coast. Although nearly half of the land area lies south and east of the Río Orinoco, that area contained only about 4 percent of the population in the late 1980s. About 75 percent of the total population lived in only 20 percent of the national territory, mainly in the northern mountains (Caracas and surrounding areas) and the Maracaibo lowlands. In the 1990s, the north, the site of most of the country's first colonial cities, agricultural estates, and urban settlements, remained the administrative, economic, and social heartland of the country. Most of the population was concentrated along the coast and in the valleys of the coastal mountain ranges, and about one of every five Venezuelans lived in Caracas. Only three major inland urban centers existed in the early 1990s: Barquisimeto, Ciudad Guayana, and Valencia. This concentration of population persisted in spite of a number of government programs that provided incentives to relocate industry and tried to expand educational opportunities throughout the rest of the country.

Venezuela's population growth rate (2.5 percent in 1990) remained among the highest in the world, fed by both a high birth rate (28 births per 1,000 population in 1990) and a comparatively low death rate (4 deaths per 1,000 population in 1990)--mainly a result of improved health and sanitary conditions after World War II. The average annual population increase for the period 1950-86 was 3.4 percent. Only in the 1970s and 1980s did it begin to decline somewhat, dropping to 2.7 percent by 1986 and to 2.5 percent by 1990. This trend was all the more surprising in light of the widespread availability of contraceptives and Venezuelans' comparatively high education level and standard of living, social indicators that normally correlate with much lower rates of natural increase.

On average, postwar Venezuela roughly doubled its population every twenty years. The prevailing demographic patterns indicated that the population would more than double during the period 1990-2010. The number of births per woman, however, had begun to decline by 1990 (to 3.4), and this eventually should be reflected in lower growth figures. But any substantial reduction in the overall growth rate was not expected until sometime in the twenty-first century.

Although population figures based on census data were quite accurate for the decades after World War II, the same could not be said for the figures on mortality, particularly the figures generated at the state level. Deaths were undercounted, particularly those of infants and young children. Thus, one could not reliably compare mortality rates among individual states because a higher mortality rate in one state might not, in fact, reflect greater mortality, but simply better record keeping. Nationally, the infant mortality rate in 1990 was 27 deaths per 1,000 live births, and life expectancy was seventy-one years for males and seventy-seven years for females. Both of these figures ranked among the best in Latin America.

In the mid-1980s, about 40 percent of the population was under fifteen years of age; about 70 percent was under thirty. The last major influx of European immigrants took place in the early 1950s, when large numbers of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese immigrants arrived, attracted by massive government construction projects. The 1981 census showed that 94 percent of the people were native born. Of the foreign born, most came from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Africa, and Colombia. As of 1986, about 17,000 United States citizens also were living in Venezuela.


The most striking phenomenon in the distribution of the Venezuelan population has been the shift from a highly rural to an overwhelmingly urban population in response to the process of economic growth and modernization occasioned by the development of the oil industry. Venezuelan census figures defined urban localities as those having more than 2,500 inhabitants, rural areas as those with under 1,000 inhabitants, and areas with between 1,000 and 2,500 inhabitants as intermediate. Most demographers, however, categorized these intermediate areas as urban. The 1941 census indicated that about two-thirds of the population resided in rural areas. By 1950 a major shift had occurred, as the census showed that more than 53 percent of the population was urban. By 1975 the urban population was estimated at over 82 percent; the figure surpassed 85 percent in the late 1980s.

In the thirty-year period between 1941 and 1971, the absolute number of rural people remained almost constant at 2.3 million, while the number of persons in large cities mushroomed. The rural areas experiencing the most intense out-migration were located in the states of Táchira, Mérida, and Trujillo. In 1941 only two cities, Caracas and Maracaibo, had more than 20,000 inhabitants. By 1971 there were eight cities with over 100,000 persons. In 1981 there were nine such cities. In 1989 the estimated population of the four largest cities was: Caracas, 3,500,000; Maracaibo, 1,350,000; Valencia, 1,250,000; and Barquisimeto, nearly 1,000,000.

In addition to its high natural growth rate, Venezuela also received a considerable number of foreign immigrants during the twentieth century. Influenced by provisions encouraging the immigration of skilled workers under the 1936 Law on Immigration and Settlement, a wave of immigrants arrived during the first years after World War II. The period of the Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship (1948-58) saw over a million people enter the country. Many of them came to help build major government public works projects; these workers effectively undermined the role of domestic labor and weakened the position of the then-underground labor unions. Many saw the government's 1959 suspension of Pérez's immigration policy as a reflection of the bitterness felt by some groups toward these immigrant workers.

Immigrants to Venezuela tended to come from a fairly small number of countries. About 30 percent of the foreign-born were Colombians. Spaniards accounted for about 25 percent of the total, Italians and Portuguese about 15 percent each. The balance of immigrants came from the Middle East, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, or Cuba. Many of these were political or economic refugees who found both economic opportunity and a democratic haven in Venezuela.

In addition to the officially recognized immigrants entering the country, many Colombians (and a far smaller number of Brazilians) have entered illegally. Although the actual number was unknown, it probably ranged between 500,000 and 1,000,000 indocumentados (undocumented or illegal aliens). These indocumentados suffered exploitation and discrimination; many Venezuelans considered them criminal elements. In reality, most crossed the border simply in search of better economic conditions. Most of them, farm or urban laborers, came in response to the lure of salaries several times as high as those prevailing in Colombia. Others were seasonal workers; about 15,000 reportedly entered each year to work as field hands during the harvest season. Still others entered to take jobs on farms or in factories for a longer time, but with the intention of eventually returning home. Most did stay, however, particularly in the northwestern states of Táchira and Zulia, where most of the border crossings took place. Some eventually migrated farther into the country, to Maracaibo or Caracas. Maracaibo hosted the largest urban concentration of Colombian indocumentados, who found work in the construction, petroleum, and other industries.

The illegal migration reportedly slowed down somewhat in the 1980s as a result of Venezuela's extended period of economic depression. Jobs became scarcer, and more Venezuelans found themselves seeking employment in occupations they had previously considered beneath their dignity. At the same time, complaints of mistreatment from Colombians in Venezuela increased, and a growing number of Colombian migrants apparently opted to travel to the United States.

Settlement Patterns

Venezuelans referred to their few major cities as "poles of attraction". These poles indeed functioned as magnets, drawing the population from the interior of the country to the urban centers. The 1971 census evidenced the mobility of the population when it indicated that a larger percentage of urban dwellers had come from some other place in the country than from the city where they lived. For example, less than 30 percent of the population of Caracas had been born there.

By the 1970s, the population of Caracas was spilling over into smaller towns and cities in adjacent administrative units. As a result, the Metropolitan Urban Commission was established in 1973 to be responsible for city planning for the entire metropolitan area. By the late 1980s, a rapid-rail transportation system connected the capital with some outlying towns. Another means of relieving congestion was the Caracas Metro (C.A. Metro de Caracas--Cametro), an extremely modern subway system that served a limited area of the capital.

The government sought to encourage reverse migration, from urban to rural areas, but the results proved disappointing. The National Agrarian Institute (Instituto Nacional Agrario--INA) conducted a program providing incentives for rural colonization and resettlement, but ironically, the more economically successful settlements produced such high population growth that they became, in effect, new urban centers. The government also attempted to create other poles of attraction through publicly funded industrialization projects. The best example of this policy was Ciudad Guayana, which at its founding in 1961 was planned to accommodate no more than 300,000 persons. By 1990 the government projected that the city, with its industrial complex and concentration of government services, would boast a population of one million before the end of the twentieth century. During the 1960s, the government also initiated a project to open up the sparsely populated public lands of the Orinoco Delta. Through swamp reclamation, the government expected to make some 1.6 million hectares available for year-round agricultural use. Other programs included the planned settlement of families along the country's frontiers, especially in the area of Bolívar state near the Brazilian border.

In spite of these various attempts to manage migration patterns, Caracas continued to overshadow all other cities. In fact, there have been years when the capital grew at the incredible rate of 7 percent annually. Such growth caused tremendous economic and social problems and triggered crises in the delivery of public services, especially as oil revenues dwindled.

Different sections of the country reflected quite different life-styles. Caracas was a modern, sophisticated, cosmopolitan city. Its citizens contrasted sharply with the llaneros, persons of the interior plains and cattle-ranching areas, who continued to lead a rugged existence. By the same token, the more conservative Andean peasants also shared few values or perspectives with their fellow citizens from the capital.

The effects of rapid urbanization are strikingly apparent in the poor barrios of Caracas, with their ramshackle ranchos. Most of the inhabitants of these barrios came from fairly good-sized towns or were actually born in Caracas, rather than gravitating directly from the hinterland to the capital city. Studies have shown that residents of the barrios were, on average, even younger than Venezuelan society as a whole. In addition, the average family of four children was overwhelmingly the product of informal unions, and many of the children were not recognized by their fathers. In fact, in cases where the father left to form another family or disappeared altogether, prevailing social attitudes held that the mother should support the child herself, perhaps with some assistance from her own family.

The Venezuelan Children's Council (Consejo Venezolano para los Niños--CVN) was the government agency in charge of protecting the welfare of minors, but it seldom instituted judicial proceedings to compel fathers to support their children. In accord with the Hispanic tradition of maternal responsibility for rearing children, mothers were reluctant to complain to the CVN, and the council itself had few means, and perhaps even less will, to seek out those fathers who had left the household and who no longer demonstrated a sense of obligation to their children. The sprawling capital, with its labyrinth of nearly one thousand separate barrios, served as an effective haven for such individuals.

Updated population figures for Venezuela.




Before the oil era began in the mid-1920s, about 70 percent of the Venezuelan population was rural, illiterate, and poor. Over the next fifty years, the ratios were reversed so that over 88 percent of the population became urban and literate. No group has escaped the impact of this modernization process. Even the most isolated peasants and tribal Indians felt some effects of this economic growth, which opened up access to the elite stature, expanded opportunities for large numbers of immigrants, increased the size, power, and cohesiveness of the middle class, and created a sector of organized workers within the lower class.

The Elite

Although the traditional gap between rich and poor persisted in democratic Venezuela, the modern upper class was by no means homogeneous. Traditional society--rural, rigid, deeply stratified--changed rapidly during the course of the twentieth century. Perhaps ironically, the man most responsible for giving impetus to this change was the semiliterate dictator Juan Vicente Gómez. The primary catalyst of the social change that began under his dictatorship was economic, and it stemmed not from the established source of land controlled by powerful hacendados, but from the subsoil in the form of petroleum extracted and marketed through the efforts of technicians and technocrats. Gómez, by permitting and encouraging oil exploration, laid the basis for the emergence of an urbanized, prosperous, and comparatively powerful Venezuela from the chrysalis of a traditionally rural, agricultural, and isolated society.

The trends away from the traditional society accelerated after 1945, particularly during the decade of dictatorship from 1948 to 1958 and under the post-1958 democratic regime, which is often described as the reign of the middle class. Despite the vast social and economic changes that took place; however, the economic elite remained a small group separated both economically and socially from the rest of society by an enormous income gap and by a whiter and more Hispanicized ethnic makeup.

In general, those who considered themselves the Venezuelan elite, and were thus considered by their fellow citizens, thought of themselves as the upholders of superior values. Most claimed at least one postsecondary degree, possibly with a further specialization abroad. Concentrated in business and the professions, the Venezuelan upper class tended to disdain manual work and to patronize (in both senses of the word) members of the lower classes. In this particular sense, Venezuela was one of the very few countries in Latin America where a number of elite-supported scholarly and community welfare foundations provided support for an imaginative variety of programs and scholarships. These foundations often carried the names of elite families who prided themselves on their sense of civic duty.

The members of the elite also tended to emphasize publicly their devotion to the Roman Catholic Church and faith and to display a more stable family life than did the rest of the society. That is, although divorce did occur in this class, children were usually born within a legally constituted family union. Many of the younger women managed to combine profession and family, often with the help of servants and members of the extended family.

Perhaps surprisingly for those who visit or observe Venezuelan society for the first time, the elite is not a closed and static group. Prominent politicians, even those from humble backgrounds, could easily marry into the elite. Successful professionals could also move up and find acceptance among the upper class. This relative openness of the elite may serve to mitigate to some extent the extremes that persist, particularly in economic terms, between the Venezuelan rich and those considered "marginal."

<>The Middle Class
<>Workers and the Urban Lower Class


Venezuela - The Middle Class


Most accounts describe the Venezuelan middle class as the country's most dynamic and heterogeneous class in terms of social and racial origins, and as the greatest comparative beneficiary of the process of economic development. Consisting of small businessmen, industrialists, teachers, government workers, professionals, and managerial and technical personnel, this class was almost entirely urban. Some professions, such as teaching and government service, were traditionally associated with middle-class status, whereas newer technical professions have expanded the options and enhanced mobility within this class. Improved educational and job opportunities since the establishment of democratic government in 1958 have enabled more women to enter the labor force, thus either helping themselves and/or their families to attain middle-class status. Not surprisingly, those who passed from the lower to the middle class in Venezuela often attributed their changed status to their education, and, accordingly, many struggled to send their children to private schools so that they could move still farther up the social ladder.

A few members of the middle class moved into the elite ranks through successful business deals or by marriage. It should be noted, however, that class antagonism in Venezuela has been tempered somewhat as a result of the special efforts made by political parties to appeal to and to co-opt middle-class voters. As a result, the Venezuelan middle class had reason to feel much more politically empowered and significant than did similar groups elsewhere in Latin America. Besides the political parties, active participation in a variety of social groups and organizations further strengthened the commitment of this particular middle class to the overall sociopolitical system.

Constitutional provisions have helped both the middle and the poorer classes fulfill their aspirations in terms of greater personal freedom, expanded economic opportunities, and greater individual involvement in government. At the core of the 1961 constitution is a commitment to social justice; this commitment, in turn, has led to the creation and funding of government agencies designed to provide to the middle class and to the poor many services that had traditionally been reserved to the wealthy prior to the 1958 coup. The implementation of many social justice goals is all the more remarkable because it occurred not only during Democratic Action (Acción Democrática--AD) governments, which, by definition, were center-left, but also under Christian Democratic (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente--COPEI) administrations, which were more centerright in the Venezuelan spectrum.

A short list of government agencies devoted to the implementation of social justice goals sketched in the 1961 constitution would include the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, which provided free medical care, retirement benefits, and pensions to the disabled; and the Ministry of Education, which supervised a vast array of goals and programs intended to bring literacy, technical, and professional training to all Venezuelans. The Venezuelan presidency itself offered a striking illustration of the impact of these social justice goals: since 1958 all presidents have come from the middle class, and in some cases they could claim, with reason, that they had surmounted rather lowly beginnings.


Venezuela - Peasants


The majority of peasants were wage laborers, sharecroppers, or squatters on private or state-owned lands, and their meager income placed them at the outer margins of Venezuela's general prosperity. Rural life has changed little since colonial times, in spite of concerted efforts by governments committed to agrarian reform. The best land still belonged to a relatively few owners, many of them absentees, while the dwindling rural population eked out a miserable subsistence on inadequate tracts of less-than-prime farmland. Even the agrarian reform, which had distributed millions of hectares of land since 1960, had not as of 1990 gone on to the essential next step of providing the peasants legal title to their parcels.

Regional variations in settlement patterns reflected geographic conditions, land-use practices, and historical traditions. In the northern mountain region, the heart of Spanish colonial influence, most peasants lived in small, dense settlements. In areas where wage laborers or sharecroppers still worked on large plantations, workers lived in small, centrally located clusters of houses. In the forests of the Orinoco plains, the pattern was usually one of isolated farms and cattle ranches.

Although most peasants were poor, there were gradations determined by such variables as land ownership or job security on a plantation or a ranch. The poorest peasants migrated from farm to farm or from crop to crop. In strict economic terms, the small number of tribal Indians represented the poorest group in Venezuelan society; this characterization, however, was misleading because Indian communities have never been fully integrated into the nation's economy, and therefore the concepts of individual earnings or the use of currency were foreign to their way of life.

For centuries, Venezuelan peasants supported rebel leaders in return for promises of reform. At the time of independence, they were much closer to their own José Antonio Páez than to the aristocratic Bolívar. Since 1958 many have joined the peasant leagues affiliated with the AD and have become much more influential in political terms. Nevertheless, peasants continued to migrate in massive numbers to the cities to escape their poor rural conditions.


Venezuela - Workers and the Urban Lower Class


Massive rural-to-urban migration has resulted in the emergence of a burgeoning urban lower class, the most successful members of which have become urban workers. In the Venezuelan social view, the lower class consisted of those in low-status occupations (usually manual), the illiterate, and recent immigrants from the countryside. For many, the transition was traumatic and stressful, as epitomized by the presence of innumerable abandoned children in the streets of the capital city. Nonetheless, several studies indicated that most migrants felt that they had made the right move in spite of the hardships and disappointments. Most were confident that the urban environment would help ensure greater prosperity and opportunity for their children.

The urban lower class has not been ignored politically. Political parties made concerted efforts to enlist urban workers into their affiliated unions, and the government has also attempted to "normalize" squatter settlements by providing legal title, utilities, and other services. Nevertheless, the 1989 food riots that shook Caracas and left an estimated 300 dead demonstrated that many of the urban poor deeply resented the sociopolitical system in spite of numerous partisan and government efforts in their behalf.

The inroads made among the urban poor class by Protestant evangelical and charismatic sects provided another manifestation of this sense of alienation. Perhaps sensing that its traditional hold was being challenged, the Roman Catholic Church renewed efforts during the 1980s to reach out to this group of Venezuelans. Church-sponsored neighborhood organizations, whether Catholic or Protestant, tried to respond to the slum dwellers' immediate needs, such as gaining title to their ranchos. The churches also sought to improve the future opportunities for the children of the lower class. For many migrants, the expectation of greater opportunities for children was the major reason for coming to the barrio in the first place. Barrio residents also benefited to a limited extent from programs sponsored by political parties. Despite the hardships imposed by poverty and the alienation produced by a consumer culture, Venezuelan barrios were surprisingly stable. These communities were socially and politically integrated into the local and national systems, and their inhabitants generally perceived even the mean circumstances of urban slum life as representing improvements over their previous living conditions.




Venezuelan society by the twentieth century was an amalgam of three races; numerically, the country was primarily mestizo (mixed race). Although ethnic background served as an important criterion of status in colonial times, it became less so as genetic mixing involving various combinations of white, black, and Indian made distinguishing among racial types increasingly difficult. Eventually, ethnic categories came to be regarded as points along a continuum rather than as distinct categories, and physical appearance and skin color--instead of ethnic group per se--became major criteria for determining status. No national census has classified Venezuelans according to ethnicity since 1926, so that characterizations of the national composition are only rough estimates. Only 1 to 2 percent were pure Indians, and somewhere between 56 and 82 percent of the population were mestizos, which in Venezuela signified a mixture of any of the other categories. A credible break-down through 1990 would be 68 percent mestizo, 21 percent unmixed Caucasian, 10 percent black, and 1 percent Indian.

Even during the colonial period, native Venezuelan Indians were neither as numerous nor as advanced as their counterparts in Mexico and Peru. Different tribes with varying cultures and languages occupied portions of the territory. The more advanced groups were ruled by a single chief and supported a priesthood to serve the local temples, whereas the more primitive lived as wandering hunters and gatherers or as seminomadic slash-and-burn farmers. The Spanish conquest, either directly or indirectly, resulted in the decimation of many indigenous groups. Many perished from diseases against which they had no immunity; others died of famine or the harsh conditions of enslavement. The nomadic tropical forest Indians were less affected by the Spaniards than those Indians who occupied a defined territory. Most of the nomadic groups simply moved to less accessible areas. Even they, however, lost many of their number to diseases brought by the white men, diseases that were airborne or waterborne and therefore did not require direct contact to spread infection. By the end of the first century of Spanish rule, some twenty tribes out of forty or fifty had become extinct.

Also during the colonial period, racial mixture proceeded apace. The earliest conquerors brought no Spanish women with them, and many formed common-law relationships with Indian women. It was not uncommon for the offspring of these unions to be recognized and legitimated by the fathers.

African slavery was instituted in Venezuela to meet the growing labor demands of an emerging agricultural economy. Many of the slaves came to Venezuela not directly from Africa, but from other colonies, especially the Antilles (West Indies). Again, racial mixture was common. The offspring of master and slave often was freed and might even have received some education and been named a beneficiary in the father's will.

As a result of these racial mixtures, Venezuelan society from its very beginnings displayed a more homogeneous ethnic makeup than most other Latin American colonies. The large group of freedmen worked mostly as manual laborers in the emerging cities or lived as peasants on small plots of land. Blacks and mestizos occupied the rungs below Spaniards on the social ladder, but they still enjoyed a number of rights and guarantees provided by Spanish law and customs.

This rather fluid ethnic situation, however, did not equate to a free and open society. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, Venezuelan social structure was quite rigidly organized along class and racial lines. A small number of more-or-less pure-blooded, unmixed Caucasians occupied the top rung of the social ladder by virtue of their status as landlords and as self-styled inheritors of Hispanic mores and customs. This heritage stressed the importance of the patriarchal extended family, the primacy accorded individual uniqueness and dignity, disdain for manual labor, and a sharp distinction between the roles of men and women. In the traditional society, the lower class was rural, with the majority of its members poor peasants, usually of pure or mixed Indian or black descent. A small middle class, made up of less successful whites and some mestizos, lived mainly in the cities and towns.

By the early eighteenth century, the outlines and bases of the social system had been drawn. Most Indians and a growing number of blacks were losing their ethnic and cultural identities through the processes of racial mixture and societal pressure to conform to Hispanic norms. New generations began to see themselves as Venezuelans, distinct from Colombians, with whom they were associated through colonial administrative structures, or from the dwindling numbers of isolated forest Indians. The criollos, Venezuelan but of direct Spanish descent, formed the leadership cadre of a new national system. The growth of nationalism, however, did not subsume or overcome regional differences. In fact, the devotion to region was often far stronger than devotion to country, a factor that in many ways explains the protracted nature of the war of independence. In addition, both Indians and blacks during this period had reason to feel that they were better protected by the Spanish crown than might be the case under a regime ruled by haughty criollos.

After independence the society changed little; a small, privileged, criollo elite upper class still held sway over a small middle class and a large lower class. The internal wars among competing caudillos during the second half of the nineteenth century served as a leveler to some extent. By the turn of the century, even though Venezuela was still a very traditional society, the upper levels had been breached to the point where a semiliterate peasant caudillo such as Gómez could rise to the very top of the political ladder and rule for nearly three decades.

Given the relative fluidity of Venezuelan society in ethnic terms, few groups have stayed isolated and "pure". Among these were a few settlements of coastal blacks that retained more of their African and West Indian identity than did the vast majority of dark mestizos in many other areas of Venezuelan society, particularly in such cosmopolitan cities as Caracas. Other isolated groups included the tribal Indians, particularly in the Amazon area. A more visible but still distinct group was that of the Guajiro Indians, who could be found mainly in part of the area around Maracaibo, on the Península de la Guajira, and on the Colombian border.

The Guajiro, pastoral nomads who range freely across the Venezuelan-Colombian border region, represented probably the best known and largest tribe of Indians remaining in the country. Owing to their pastoral life, most of the Guajiro lived in temporary villages, often in shelters that were little more than lean-tos. Guajiro society is organized into matrilineal clans, headed by chieftains who inherit their office through the maternal line. The social organization is based on a division of society into classes of nobles and commoners.

Although the Guajiro's style of dress and customs separated them sharply from the larger Venezuelan society, they had adopted many criollo traits and adapted fairly well to a money economy. Most professed at least nominal Roman Catholicism and spoke Spanish. Intermarriage with non-Guajiros also was not uncommon. In this respect, the Guajiros reflected the changes in twentiethcentury Venezuelan society as a whole as they adapted to a process of modernization driven by the nation's oil wealth.




Venezuelan society of the late twentieth century was clearly in transition. After centuries of isolation as a rural backwater in Latin America, Venezuela has become a respected voice in world councils because of its oil riches. Most of its population has moved to the cities, and well-to-do Venezuelans have traveled around the world in search of recreation and diversion. Economic growth, urbanization, industrialization, improved education, and expanded opportunities for women have changed the nation's character dramatically. Improved transportation, widespread radio and television access, the availability of numerous national newspapers, and the delivery of government services even in remote areas combined to make regionalism largely a thing of the past. Caracas was greatly influenced by developments in Miami and other foreign commercial and cultural centers; the rest of the country, in turn, felt the reverberations of the capital's growth and change.

The rapid pace of change has had a tremendous impact in such areas as the emerging role of women in Venezuela. Women have occupied positions in the cabinet and have held prominent jobs in the political parties and in labor unions. More than a dozen women representatives had served in the Chamber of Deputies up until the 1988 elections. A number of women also held top positions in private enterprises. Approximately as many women as men attended postsecondary institutions; in some departments, women outnumbered their male counterparts.

For the middle-class woman who wanted to combine job and family careers there was still the support provided by the extended family and the availability of maids, who often were recent migrants from the Andean region or from Colombia. As the extended family progressively shrank and the traditional pool of poor and uneducated women grew progressively smaller, Venezuelan professional women had begun clamoring for day-care facilities. As of 1990, more progressive and larger firms were beginning to provide such facilities, but the main push was for the provision of these services by the government. Meanwhile, an active feminist movement was particularly strong in the capital and the major cities, and women's studies were beginning to make their appearance among the university offerings.

Some social observers claimed that the rapid change in women's roles was attributable, at least in part, to the traditional weakness of the Venezuelan Roman Catholic Church when compared, for example, with the church in neighboring Colombia. Some 90 percent of Venezuelans were baptized in the Roman Catholic faith, but most had little regular contact with the church. The number of Protestants continued to grow, mainly as a result of the tremendously successful proselytizing efforts among shantytown dwellers by charismatic and evangelical sects, and had reached about 5 percent of the population in the 1990s. A Jewish population of several thousand was concentrated in the major cities, especially in Caracas and Maracaibo. A minuscule number of Indians, particularly in the Amazon area, continued to practice their traditional religions, but many had adopted Roman Catholicism. This was particularly true among the Guajiro near Maracaibo and on the Colombian border. A few other religions were represented in very small numbers. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the nation's 1961 Constitution.

Relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Venezuelan state have been harmonious throughout most of the twentieth century. They continued to be peaceful even after the 1958 coup d'état against Pérez Jiménez, in spite of the fact that the church had supported the dictator in his early years as president. Relations between the church and AD were somewhat strained during the trienio, mainly because the church felt threatened by some of the AD government's liberal reforms. As the corruption of the Pérez Jiménez regime became increasingly apparent, however, the church began to disassociate itself from his rule and to support a return to democracy.

Although there is no official state church, the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed close ties to the government and could be perceived as a national church. The COPEI, the second largest political party, was originally organized by Roman Catholic lay leaders, even though it has since broadened its appeal to Venezuelans of all religious persuasions.

The Venezuelan church was not well endowed economically. It owned little property and received only limited private contributions. The government contributed a large part of the church's operating expenses through a special division of the Ministry of Justice. Government funds generally covered the salaries of the hierarchy, certain lesser functionaries attached to the more important episcopates, a limited number of priests, and the missionaries to the Indians. In addition, government contributions sometimes paid for religious materials, for construction and repair of religious buildings, and for other projects submitted by bishops and archbishops and approved by the ministry.

Attitudes toward the church varied with education and social class, but it was generally viewed as a traditional institution involved more in ritual than in day-to-day contact with its members. Venezuelans generally practiced a form of Roman Catholicism that adhered loosely to church doctrine but was often deeply emotional in its manifestations. Religious laxity was widespread, as was a low level of general knowledge of the basic tenets of the faith. During the latter half of the twentieth century, Venezuela has become a much more secular and materialistic society, less committed to the traditional social primacy of the church.

In all social classes, religion was regarded as the proper sphere of women. Generally more conscientious in religious practice, women were expected to assume the duty of providing the religious and moral education of children. For girls, early religious and moral training was followed by close supervision in accordance with the socially protected status of women. Boys, however, were not encouraged to pursue the priesthood, and Venezuela historically has had a very low percentage of vocations. As a result, most of its clergy were foreign born.

Adherence to traditional Roman Catholic beliefs was stronger in the rural areas, especially in the Andean states, than in the urban centers. Many of the original leaders of COPEI came from the Andean states. Massive internal migration to the cities, however, had lessened considerably the influence of these old strongholds of Roman Catholicism at the national level.

Traditionally, one of the most significant and important areas of church involvement in society was education. Roman Catholic schools historically have educated the children of the middle and upper classes. Because many schools were supported only by tuition fees, their costs were prohibitive for lowerclass groups. Spurred by the social encyclicals issued from Rome in the 1960s and challenged by the proselytizing of Protestant groups, the church's hierarchy has sought to establish greater control over the schools, to admit greater numbers of scholarship students, and to increase the number of schools charging little or no tuition. As a result, by the middle of the 1970s an estimated two-thirds or more of Roman Catholic schools and colleges were free or partly free.

The church has always felt a special obligation to help educate and Christianize the Indians. In the 1920s and 1930s, the government entered into a series of agreements with the church that assigned the regions of the upper Orinoco, the western Zulia, the Caroní, and the Tucupita rivers to the Capuchin, Dominican, and Salesian religious orders. Educational work has been carried out in conjunction with the plans of the Indian Commission of the Ministry of Justice.

Although Venezuelan culture was a mixture of Hispanic, Indian, and African elements, comparatively rapid integration of large segments of the population prevented the syncretic blending of animistic and Roman Catholic beliefs so common in other Latin American countries. The culturally embracing nature of Venezuelan Catholicism was symbolized in the national patroness, the mestiza María Lionza, a popular figure among Venezuelans of all social classes. The cult of María Lionza presented a striking synthesis of African, Indian, and Christian beliefs and practices. She was worshipped as a goddess of nature and protectress of the virgin forests, wild animals, and the mineral wealth in the mountains, and certain traits of her character also paralleled those of the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholic tradition.

The worship of María Lionza was particularly widespread among urban dwellers in the shantytowns, many of whom had recently migrated to the big cities and felt the need for a blending of Christian and traditional indigenous beliefs. At the same time, beliefs and practices related to magic and spiritual healing that combined Roman Catholic, African, and Indian elements could be found in remote rural areas, especially in the Andean states. In keeping with the ethnic and cultural background of many coastal communities, African elements predominated in their rituals. Traditional Indian healers still practiced their craft among the remaining tribes.


Venezuela - Education


In the early colonial era, education by the Roman Catholic Church served a minority of wealthy landowners who, though illiterate or barely literate, sought schooling for their sons in the manner of Spanish aristocrats. The notion of education for a privileged few reflected a rigid, hierarchical social system that distinguished between the man of letters and the man who worked with his hands. The distinction between manual labor and more "artistic" or creative pursuits became deeply ingrained in the value system and affected the educational system as well. The high prestige attached to traditional and philosophical studies channeled resources and talent away from technical and scientific fields at university levels and produced curricula at the primary and intermediate levels that ignored the vocational needs of most of the population. In an abstract sense, the highest ambition was to be a pensador (thinker), a man of ideas, an intellectual, rather than an inventor or a técnico (technician).

Those who helped shape the struggle for independence and the new constitutions of the early nineteenth century were inspired by the liberalism of the French and American revolutions. Simón Bolívar, who studied in Europe, was greatly influenced by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and by the French educational system. Such features of Venezuelan education as the degree of centralization, the rigid structure of schools and curricula, and the gaining of knowledge through logic are directly traceable to French practices.

The issue of free, public, and compulsory education at the primary level first arose during the independence struggle. After the initial declaration of independence in 1811, Bolívar issued a series of decrees concerning free education. But by the time of his death in 1830, most of the programs he had proposed had not been implemented. However, the ideal of free, universal education had become inextricably joined to the name of the national hero, and this ideal has since permeated Venezuelan educational policies.

The real beginning of free public education, however, did not come until 1870. Antonio Guzmán Blanco issued a decree in which he recognized compulsory elementary mass education as the responsibility of the national, state, and local governments. The Guzmán regime went on to organize the administration and financing of the school system, establishing the Ministry of Public Education and the first normal schools for training primary school teachers. In 1891 the National University of Zulia in Maracaibo was created, followed in the next year by the National University of Carabobo in Valencia. But these ambitious beginnings came to an abrupt halt. The National University of Carabobo was closed shortly after opening and did not reopen its doors until 1958. The National University of Zulia, closed in 1904, did not function again until 1946.

The long dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez, although generally indifferent to education and repressive of student demands, did bring about the reestablishment of cordial relations between the state and the Roman Catholic Church and encouraged church-supported education. Gómez served as a patron to a number of intellectuals who were sympathetic to his regime and increased the support for the national university in Caracas.

During the decade after the death of Gómez in 1935, concern for teacher training prompted the establishment of a new institute for the preparation of intermediate teachers, the National Pedagogic Institute in Caracas. The period also witnessed an expansion of public schools to rural areas. During the trienio, a number of teachers' unions grew up. The Pérez Jiménez dictatorship (1948-58), however, represented a low point for education. The regime constantly interfered with and intermittently closed universities in response to perceived opposition among students and faculty. The budget for education was cut and the number of students entering and graduating from the universities declined.

The return of democratic government in 1958 brought leaders committed to improving both the quantity and the quality of educational opportunities. A number of new universities opened throughout the country, agricultural extension services reached out to Venezuelan farmers, and imaginative education programs broadcast on radio and television further expanded opportunities for learning. In fact, it is generally acknowledged that it was only after 1958 that the ideals and goals of Guzmán Blanco began to be systematically pursued. At least six years of primary school were compulsory until 1980, when the Organic Law of Education was passed. This law provided for compulsory preschool education and nine years of basic education, but the implementation of preschool education reform has taken longer than originally intended.

For the upper class, the growing middle class, and those members of the lower class with upward aspirations, an academic education has been indispensable. For this reason, the secondary schools, which prepared students for the universities and subsequently for white-collar jobs or academic careers, were more popular than other intermediate-level schools, such as technical schools or training institutes. Despite government efforts to promote vocational education, university students continued to display a preference for the professions that have always been prestigious and popular, and not for the newer technical fields where the need was greatest. This presented a problem in a country that was more industrialized than most in Latin America. In an effort to alleviate this problem and to enhance the prestige of a technical education, since 1969 the government has facilitated the entry into the university system of students from a variety of sources, including those students with a technical education degree. The changes injected a high degree of flexibility into the education system from 1969 on.

At the same time, the social distinction that has always existed between private and public schools, particularly at the secondary level, has intensified as a result of the expansion of public education. Although the public or official schools often enjoyed better financial support and, as a result, newer equipment and more highly paid teachers, a private-school education still carried far more prestige in the minds of many Venezuelans. In light of the cachet bestowed by affiliation with a private school, some teachers split their time between the two systems.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the natural sciences have been emphasized in education as international organizations and private foundations have cooperated with the national government in promoting research. The social sciences have been greatly influenced by work done in the United States, especially in the area of economic development.

Overall, Venezuela was among the most literate of the Latin American countries. The literacy rate among Venezuelans fifteen years of age and older was 88.4 percent in 1985. The government distributed training materials such as books and tapes throughout the country in an effort to encourage those who could read and write to assist illiterates in acquiring these skills.

Basic education consisted of nine years of compulsory schooling for children six to fourteen years of age. For those continuing their education, the system offered two years of diversified academic, technical, and vocational study at a senior high school, which could be followed by various types of higher education--junior college, university, or technical institute. In addition, adults were encouraged to participate in special night classes conducted at all education levels.

Venezuela's education system, as measured by the number of schools, teachers, and size of the enrollment, expanded rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s. Enrollments at all levels increased substantially, as did the numbers of schools and teachers at each level. Primary enrollments rose by over 30 percent and secondary by over 50 percent, while university-level enrollments nearly doubled, the latter a reflection not only of population growth but also of the opening of new schools and the easing of entrance requirements. The best-known and oldest university was the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas. Many of the country's political leaders received their education there, and several of the political parties began as student groups on the Central University of Venezuela's campus. To the west, Maracaibo was the site of the private Rafael Urdaneta University and the public Zulia University. The public University of the Andes was located in Mérida. Carabobo University in Valencia, Eastern University (Universidad de Oriente) in Sucre, and Midwestern University (Universidad Centro- Occidental) in Barquisimeto were all public universities.

Shifts in the economy affected Venezuela's technical education needs. Until the economic downturn of the 1980s, the shortage of skilled workers and managers was a main concern of government planners. Skilled personnel were needed to operate what had been a burgeoning and technologically sophisticated economy. To fill the gap, Venezuela recruited many skilled foreign technicians, expanded its technical education facilities, and sent Venezuelans abroad for training, particularly in the United States and Europe. With the economic decline of the 1980s, however, rising unemployment replaced the continuing lack of technically qualified personnel as the primary manpower concern, and the emphasis on technical education was reduced.


Venezuela - Health and Social Security


As in education, Venezuela had, by Latin American standards, an enviable record in health and social welfare and one that had shown tremendous progress. In 1940 the overall life expectancy at birth was forty-three years. By 1990, that figure was over seventy years: seventy-one years for males and seventy-seven for females, both among the highest in Latin America. The death rate was only 4 per 1,000 population and the average caloric intake was 107 percent of the minimum level established by the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization. These indices reflected generally improving health conditions, especially since the end of World War II, and the increase in preventive public health measures undertaken by the government. For example, successful inoculation programs had lessened the incidence of a number of contagious diseases. On the other hand, a comparison between the causes of death in 1973 and 1981 shows that Venezuela, a rapidly industrializing country, was also becoming more prone to causes of death--heart disease, accidents, and cancer--often associated with urban and industrialized countries and a faster pace of life. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) was also a growing problem, particularly for the major cities, such as Caracas and Maracaibo, and for tourist centers, such as La Guaira and its environs. In 1990 information on the actual incidence of AIDS in Venezuela was unreliable.

Infant mortality, pegged at a relatively low 27 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990, has also been steadily declining, especially in the years following World War II. The major causes of these improvements were better public health measures, prenatal care, and national immunization campaigns. Overall, health care facilities had grown in number and in quality; at the same time, the population had become more urban and better educated. There was also a marked increase in the number of medical facilities and personnel offering health care. The rise in the number of nurses reflected government incentives in this field as well as the selection of this vocation by a greater number of professionally inclined Venezuelan women.

Medicine has traditionally been a highly respected profession, and Venezuelan medical schools turned out adequate numbers of well-trained doctors. At the same time, however, relatively few nurses received proper training, so that doctors often lacked the necessary support system. The availability of care in rural areas represented another gap in the health care delivery system. Doctors tended to concentrate in the large cities, especially Caracas, leaving many smaller provincial towns without adequate medical personnel. The government has attempted to meet these shortcomings, with some success, by providing basic medical services through a system of paramedics. On the other hand, shrinking budgets could take a toll on health services. In the summer of 1990, President Carlos Andrés Pérez himself showed deep concern over the fact that, by government estimates, nearly 46 percent of state-supported hospital buildings were in need of repair.

Private medical facilities, operated for profit, enjoyed greater prestige than public institutions. Charitable organizations, especially the Roman Catholic Church, operated some health facilities. The bulk of the population, however, relied on the Venezuelan Social Security Institute (Instituto Venezolano de Seguro Social--IVSS), which operated its own hospitals, covering its costs out of social security funds. At public hospitals, small fees were charged to those patients able to meet them, but indigents were treated without cost. Services were furnished without charge at public outpatient facilities, with a nominal charge for prescription drugs. Overall, the medical assistance received by most Venezuelans far exceeded that available to the great majority of Latin Americans.

The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare operated hospitals and lesser clinical medical facilities nationwide and coordinated the planning of medical services by the states and the Federal District. Although attempts have been made to provide a unified health system, as of 1990 such plans had not been implemented.

Government campaigns for the prevention, elimination, and control of major health hazards have been generally successful. Venezuela has largely rid itself of malaria, yaws and the plague have been brought under control, and Chagas' disease, carried by a beetle that attaches itself to straw thatch roofing, has been nearly eliminated. Immunization campaigns have systematically improved children's health, and regular campaigns to destroy disease-bearing insects and to improve water and sanitary facilities have all boosted Venezuela's health indicators to some of the highest levels in Latin America.

In addition to providing public health care, the IVSS also administered the country's public welfare program. Launched in 1966, the IVSS provided old-age and survivor pensions. In addition, it sponsored maternity care and medical care for illness, accidents, and occupational diseases for workers in both the public and private sectors. Participation in the program was mandatory for all wage earners with the exception of temporary and seasonal or part-time workers, the self-employed, and members of the armed forces (who were covered under a separate system). The availability of benefits has been extended progressively to all regions of the country so that even farm workers and farmers associated with the agrarian reform program were eligible.

Private charitable and social welfare organizations, which were exempt from the income tax, played an important role in supporting and maintaining charity hospitals and organizations, assisting persons of limited income, and funding scholarships. Among the most active of these organizations was the Voluntary Dividend for the Community, founded in 1964 and supported by contributions from the business community. It subsidized welfare programs, private education, and community development projects. In this instance, as in others, Venezuela benefited from the efforts of community-minded leaders of the private sector, who bolstered government programs and provided further assistance for those in greatest need.

Thus, in the 1990s, Venezuela did not lack for public and private leaders who were deeply concerned about the needs of their fellow countrymen. Rather, the looming problem appeared to be one that Venezuela had not known for decades, that of scarcity. Throughout the 1980s, the state had fewer resources with which to respond to the demands of an expanding young population that had become accustomed to relying on the public sector for employment and social services. For a time, the public was willing to blame the new problems of scarcity on the ineptness and, to some extent, the corruption of politicians. By the end of the 1980s, however, most Venezuelans realized that even a well-intentioned, honest, and capable government would have to adjust to the economic reality of reduced export income and a large external debt. The apparent upward trend in oil prices heralded by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 represented the one bright spot on the economic horizon. Even that, however, was obscured by concerns over the general health of the domestic economy, the availability of refining capacity for Venezuela's heavy crudes, and other considerations.

Despite these economic setbacks, the legitimacy and the viability of the Venezuelan democratic society did not seem threatened. Racial tension did not divide this largely mestizo society as it did some other Latin American societies. Although poor Venezuelans sometimes demonstrated violently, as in the case of the February 1989 riots against economic austerity, there was no sentiment outside of small extremist groups for a return to an authoritarian government of the right or the establishment of a Cuban-style government of the left. The events of the 1980s, however, shocked Venezuelan society; after decades of increasing prosperity and improving health, education, and economic indices, Venezuelans suddenly found themselves vulnerable to the shifting fortunes of a world economy that had always proved beneficent in the past. This "crisis," although more economic than social, should nonetheless provide the sternest test yet of Venezuelan commitment to a free, tolerant, and socially conscious system.


CITATION: Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. The Country Studies Series. Published 1988-1999.

Please note: This text comes from the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The Country Studies Series presents a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of countries throughout the world.

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