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REPUBLIC OF VENEZUELA, Spanish REPÚBLICA DE VENEZUELA,
country at the northern extremity of South America. The capital
Caracas. The country's greatest extent is about 650 miles (1,050
km) from north to south and about 800 miles (1,285 km) from
east to west. It is bordered on the east by Guyana, on the south
by Brazil, and on the west by Colombia. Venezuela fronts the
Caribbean Sea on the north and the Atlantic Ocean on the northeast.
Area 352,144 square miles (912,050 square km). Pop. (1991 est.)
Venezuela may be divided into three broad geographic regions: the
Llanos (Plains), a low-lying grassland of central Venezuela
occupying about one-third of the country's territory; the
Guiana Highlands in the southeast, a sparsely inhabited, often
rugged, granite massif comprising more than two-fifths of the
country; and the coastal plains and mountains in the north,
including (from west to east) ranges of the
Andes, a lower transitional mountainous zone, and the
Coastal Range. The 5,130-square-mile (13,280-square-kilometre) Lake
Maracaibo in the northwestern part of the country is a shallow,
partly freshwater inlet of the sea surrounded by swampy lowlands.
Highest elevations range from 16,427 feet (5,007 m) in the Venezuelan
Andes to roughly 8,200 feet (2,500 m) in the Guiana Highlands
and to 9,069 feet (2,765 m) in the Coastal Range.
Orinoco River (1,700 miles [2,735 km] long) drains most of the
Llanos and the Guiana Highlands, emptying into the Atlantic
Ocean through a number of distributaries. Tributaries of the
Orinoco in the Guiana Highlands descend over gigantic, erosion-resistant
mounds known as tepuis;
Angel Falls, the highest waterfall in the world (3,212 feet
[979 m]), descends from one of these tepuis. The Orinoco
drainage system has great hydroelectric potential, particularly
at the Guri Dam on the Caroní River.
The climate in Venezuela, although variable according to elevation,
is generally tropical, with the seasons marked more by differences
in rainfall than in temperature. At Caracas, for example, the
average annual temperature is 72º
F (22º C) with an
average annual range of about 8º
F (4º C). Areas lying
behind topographic barriers, such as the northern coastal plains
and Caribbean islands, are arid (11 inches [280 mm] annual rainfall
at Guaira), whereas the windward mountain slopes of northern
Venezuela are generally well watered. Extensive flooding is
common in the Llanos during the May-October rainy season, followed
by an equally severe dry season.
Venezuela's cultivated land lies mostly in the coastal and
Maracaibo lowlands and in intermontane valleys. Forests cover
about two-fifths of the country, and grasslands (in the Llanos
and the high tablelands of the Guiana Highlands) cover about
one-half. Where it is humid the forests vary from true rain
forest in the low-lying Orinoco River basin to semitropical
evergreen at higher elevations, often characterized by orchids
and tree ferns. Wildlife is profuse, although it has rehelp withed
before human presence in the north; in this zone, numerous endangered
species have been recognized since the mid-1970s.
Venezuela's principal mineral resources are petroleum, amounting
to about 6 percent of world reserves, and natural gas, amounting
to almost 3 percent. Iron and bauxite reserves, like petroleum,
finance and serve the industrial base of the country; other
mineral reserves include gold, diamonds, coal, and salt.
Nearly 70 percent of Venezuela's population
is of mulatto-mestizo ancestry, followed by whites (about 20
percent), blacks (9 percent), and American Indians. Spanish
is the chief language, though more than 25 Indian languages
are still spoken, and English is widely used as a second language.
Roman Catholicism is the main religion. Population density is
not high overall, and the Guiana Highlands have a low density
of only 6 persons per square mile. The population is very young--about
40 percent are younger than 15 years of age. Health standards
are good for a developing country, and life expectancy is 67
years for men and 73 for women. Because of the country's low
population density and excellent physical-development prospects,
the government considers the demographic situation satisfactory
despite the high natural growth rate. More than 80 percent of
the population is urban, and about one-eighth lives in Caracas
and its environs. There is considerable population movement
from the rural areas to the cities. Immigration, mostly from
Colombia, Spain, Italy, and Portugal, reinforces historic trends.
Venezuela has a developing market economy
supported mainly by the exploitation of petroleum. The gross
national product (GNP), which grew rather rapidly in the 1970s,
declined during the late '80s. Nonetheless, Venezuela has the
highest GNP per capita of any country in South America. The
GNP originates primarily from manufacturing, services, and oil
production. Management of the economy through government participation
is strong because of the existence of government corporations
that dominate oil, steel, aluminum, and other industries.
Agricultural land in Venezuela amounts to only about 4 percent
of the total land area, and of this, nearly one-third lies fallow.
Although almost 12 percent of the labour force is employed in
agriculture, the country is a net importer of foods; grains
and animal fodder predominate among these imports. Domestic
food-crop production includes bananas, corn (maize), rice, and
sorghum; the main cash crops are sugarcane, coffee, and cacao.
Cattle are the chief livestock.
Forest reserves are enormous, covering most of the southern
half of the country, and, despite the presence of valuable hardwoods
such as mahogany, are little exploited. Fisheries are likewise
little developed, in spite of Venezuela's long coastline; anchovies
are the principal species caught. Petroleum and natural gas
provide most of Venezuela's foreign income. Relatively large
amounts of high-grade iron ore are mined, as well as bauxite,
diamonds, and small amounts of gold.
Manufacturing was originally concentrated in Caracas but has
been extended by opportunity and policy to the northern coastal
centres of Maracaibo (foodstuffs and heavy machinery) and Morón
(petrochemicals) and to the eastern Orinoco River basin centred
on Ciudad Guayana (steel and aluminum complexes).
The transportation sector has road, rail, water, and air services
well adapted to current needs. One-third of the road network
is paved. The poorly developed railroad network is mostly private
and used for industrial purposes such as transporting iron ore
from mines in the Guiana Highlands to the steel mills of Ciudad
Guayana. La Guaira, the port for Caracas, is the country's main
port for imports, and Simón Bolívar Airport, also
near Caracas, is Venezuela's busiest international airport.
The national labour force is distributed primarily among public
administration, trade, and manufacturing. The booming oil economy
of the 1970s and early '80s attracted job seekers from surrounding
countries, especially Colombia. Venezuela continues to have
an active labour-union movement.
Venezuela has enjoyed a positive balance of trade for decades.
The major destinations for its exports, largely of crude petroleum
and refined petroleum products, are the United States (by far
the largest), Puerto Rico, The Netherlands, and Germany. Machinery
and transport equipment, chemicals, and basic manufactures are
the major imports, and the United States is the major import
Government and social conditions.
Venezuela is a rarity in Latin America--a
functioning democracy (since 1958) with a stable and representative
civilian government comprising a directly elected president
and a bicameral legislature. The legislature consists of a Senate
and a Chamber of Deputies, with the members of both houses elected
for a term of five years. Venezuela's constitution, the 26th
since independence (1821), was promulgated in 1961. The judiciary,
headed by the Supreme Court of Justice, is national, and there
are no autonomous state courts.
The public-welfare system is generally well developed. Social
security was established in 1944. Compensation is also provided
for maternity, illness, and disability. Health services are
excellent and compare favourably with those of more developed
countries, although the numbers of doctors and of hospital beds
are still relatively low.
Literacy is at 92 percent and rising. Preschool and nine years
of basic education are free and compulsory. Secondary education
is less well developed, providing places for less than half
of all 13-17 year olds. The country has numerous institutions
of higher learning.
Privately owned radio, television, and printed news media are
free to criticize the government but generally practice self-censorship.
The circulation of daily newspapers is among the highest in
Latin America. Television broadcasting is available to most
Venezuela's folk and popular culture is
regional in character and is represented by figures such as
llanero, or vaquero, the cowboy of the Llanos; the
maracucho, the dynamic businessman of the Maracaibo basin; the
guayanés, the hardy frontiersman following a dream; and the rugged
andino of the mountains.
The pre-Columbian Indian cultures of Venezuela
were not part of the better-known civilizations of the Andes
or Central America. Rather, they arose in a transitional region
connecting the so-called marginal cultures of the Andes with
those of the Caribbean and the Amazon River basin. Isolated
tribes settled extensively throughout the coastal and Llanos
regions from at least 2000 BC until the arrival of European
colonists in the 16th century AD. The Venezuelan coast was sighted
by Christopher Columbus in 1498 during his third voyage and
the next year was named Venezuela ("Little Venice") by Spanish
explorers after observing native Indian villages perched on
stilts along the shores of swampy Lake Maracaibo.
For three centuries Venezuela was a
Spanish colony dominated by priests and bureaucrats from Spain.
Creoles (native-born whites) owned the colony's agricultural
land and worked it using the labour of Indians and imported
blacks. Venezuelan creoles led by Francisco de
Miranda and Simón
Bolívar spearheaded the South American independence movement
of about 1810-25. After the defeat of the Spanish in 1821, Venezuela,
together with Colombia and Ecuador, was part of the republic
Gran Colombia, but in 1830 it seceded and became an independent
republic. Between 1830 and 1958 Venezuela was generally ruled
by a series of military dictators, including generals Antonio
Guzmán Blanco (1870-88), Cipriano Castro (1899-1908),
and Juan Vicente
A long-standing and continuing border dispute with
Guyana (formerly British Guiana) over about two-thirds of Guyana's
territory originated in 1844 when Venezuela claimed the south-to-north-flowing
Essequibo River of central Guyana as its eastern border on the
grounds of prior Spanish possession. The territory (mostly tropical
rain forest) is still depicted in Venezuelan maps as territory
to be reclaimed, despite rulings in 1899 and in later years
that have been generally in favour of the British and Guyanese
Political order and liberal concessions (including the building
of roads and schools) under the tyrannical rule of Gómez
attracted British, Dutch, and American petroleum interests shortly
before and after World War I. By the late 1920s Venezuela had
become the world's leading exporter of oil and was second only
to the United States in oil production. The oil boom of the
1940s and '50s paid the government huge royalties; some of these
funds were used for public works (especially in modernizing
Caracas at the expense of rural areas) while intermittent strongman
rule continued. The overthrow in 1958 of the military dictator
Marcos Peréz Jiménez was followed by democratically
elected, mostly left-of-centre administrations. Rómulo
Betancourt was the first elected president of Venezuela to serve
his full term (1959-64). His programs led to social and economic
advancement and the beginnings of political and economic stability.
In the two decades following Betancourt, Venezuela changed presidents
five times by democratic process. In the early 1980s, even with
the special pressures of worldwide economic recession, democracy
seemed firmly established. Venezuela's economic dependence on
petroleum exports made it vulnerable to the dramatic changes
in the demand for oil that characterized the later 20th century.
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