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officially REPUBLIC OF VENEZUELA, Spanish REPÚBLICA DE VENEZUELA, country at the northern extremity of South America. The capital is 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.) 19,733,000.

The land.

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.

The 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.

The people.

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.

The economy.

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 source.

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 Venezuelans.

Cultural life.

Venezuela's folk and popular culture is regional in character and is represented by figures such as the 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 of 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 Gómez (1909-35).

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 claims.

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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