Society and Culture
Venezuela owes its name to Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
In 1499, a year after Columbus first explored the Orinoco River
Delta, Vespucci sailed along the northern coast of South America
(then called Tierra Firme) until he reached Lake Maracaibo. The
stilted huts that indigenous people had built along the shore
reminded him of the Venetian homes in his native land, so he named
the land Venezuela, or "Little Venice."
Venezuela, roughly twice the size of California, occupies
more than 555,000 square miles of South America's northern coast.
The sixth-largest country on the continent, it is wedged between
Colombia, Brazil and Guyana.
Caracas is the political and economic capital of Venezuela.
The capital city is centrally located on the coast. One of every
five Venezuelans lives there.
Venezuela's favorite son, Simón Bolívar, led
the emancipation struggle. Bolívar consolidated the region
into Gran Colombia, which included present-day Colombia, Venezuela,
Ecuador and Panama. Gran Colombia declared independence from
Spain on July 5, 1811.
With the help of Mariscal de Sucre and British missionaries,
Bolívar's forces finally defeated the Spanish in 1821.
In 1830, the larger state of Gran Colombia collapsed, and
Venezuela emerged as an independent state.
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On February 27, 1989, then-President Andres Perez imposed austerity
measures on the country, and violent riots erupted in the streets
of Caracas. At least 300 people died in the chaos, known as
In 1992, junior military officer Hugo Chavez led two coup
attempts against President Perez. After the second attempt,
Chavez surrendered and was jailed for two years.
President Andres Perez was impeached in 1993 on corruption
Hugo Chavez was elected president in December 1998. Chavez
was born on July 28, 1954, in Sabaneta, a town of 20,000 inhabitants
in the Andean state of Barinas. The son of schoolteachers, Chavez
graduated from the military academy in 1975 with a degree in
Hugo Chavez is the 38th president of Venezuela. His political
party, the Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR), received 59
percent of the vote in 1998. His landslide election ended three
decades of democratic rule by two parties, Democratic Action
(AD) and the Social Christian Party of Venezuela (COPEI).
In August 1999, 131 elected officials of the National Constituent
Assembly convened to begin drafting the 35,000 words that made
up a new constitution. Ratified with 70 percent approval among
voters, the 1999 constitution defines Venezuela's current system.
In 1999, President Chavez prohibited U.S. aircraft from flying
over Venezuela while patrolling the drug trade in neighboring
Colombia. In 2001, he undermined U.S. efforts to isolate Iraq
by visiting Saddam Hussein. Chavez was the first head of state
to do so since the 1991 Gulf War.
There are an estimated 70,000 Bolivarian Circles, or pro-Chavez
groups, in Venezuela. These neighborhood groups were officially
established under the 1999 constitution to promote the "Bolivarian
During the recent general strike, independent media stations
broadcast an estimated 700 pro-strike (and anti-Chavez) advertisements
a day, according to government reports. During the same two-month
period, President Chavez used 40 hours of airtime, in addition
to his weekly television and radio program Hello President.
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Venezuela ran up an external debt of $34.4 billion in 2001,
equal to about a quarter of its gross domestic product.
Venezuela's gross domestic product declined 8.9 percent in
2002. The economy is expected to sink another 17 percent in
2003. The International Monetary Fund projects a rebound in
2004 of 13.4 percent.
From December 2001 through May 2003, unemployment in Venezuela
doubled, from 11.1 percent to 22 percent. An estimated 85 percent
of Venezuelans live in poverty.
Venezuela's oil boom began in 1921, after turmoil in Mexico
resulted in searches by large international oil companies seeking
alternative sources. By 1939, Venezuela was already producing
137 million barrels a day, second only to the United States
in total output.
The Venezuelan economy is highly oil-dependent. Oil accounts
for more than three-quarters of the country's total export revenues
and for about one-third of its GDP.
With 77 billion barrels of proved oil reserves, Venezuela
ranks as the fifth-largest oil exporter in the world and the fourth-largest supplier of oil to the United States. The United
States consumes more than half of Venezuela's exported oil.
Venezuela is the sole member from the Western Hemisphere of
OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries). Other
member countries are Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar,
Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.
Together they control 40 percent of the world's oil.
Tourism is Venezuela's second-most-profitable industry. Tourism
receipts account for 1.6 percent of the gross domestic product.
International tourist arrivals dropped 9.5 percent between 1995
and 2000. The World Tourism Organization expects business to
sag as long as the nation's political climate remains turbulent.
Venezuela is a member of the Andean Community trade group,
which also includes Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. President
Chavez also has announced his interest in entering the Southern
Common Market, or Mercosur, trade block. Current members of
Mercosur are Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with Chile,
Bolivia and Mexico as associate members. With a GDP of $1.4
trillion, Mercosur is the third-largest regional trade block,
after the European Union and the trade block comprising the
member countries of the North American Free Trade Agreement
(Canada, Mexico and the United States).
Society and Culture
Venezuela is home to 39 living native languages, among them
Arawak, Carib and Yanomamo. Spanish is the national language.
Joropo is the national Venezuelan dance. Joropo
originated in the llanos region (the plains) in central
Venezuela and is traditionally accompanied by gaita,
which incorporates maracas, harps, four-stringed guitars and
improvised vocals. Today, however, merengue and salsa, with
their Caribbean rhythms, are the predominant dances styles in
Angel Falls in Venezuela's Canaima National Park is the world's
highest waterfall. The falls, known locally as "Salto Angel,"
plummets more than 3,200 feet off a sandstone mesa, or tepui.
The majestic site was named after American bush pilot Jimmy
Angel, who discovered the falls while searching for gold in
Before oil development commenced in 1921, 70 percent of Venezuela's
population was rural, poor and illiterate. A half-century later,
88 percent lived in cities or towns and could read.
Before being elected president of Venezuela in 1948, Rómulo
Gallegos (1884-1969) was best known as the author of Doña
Bárbara, the 1929 novel about life on the Venezuelan
plains and the contest of civilization and barbarism. Eight
months after assuming office, Gallegos was ousted by a military
coup orchestrated by Colonel Marcos Perez Jimenez. Gallegos
lived in Mexico until 1958 when Perez was overthrown and democracy
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Sources: Venezuelan Embassy,
Washington, D.C.; CIA World Factbook 2002: Venezuela; Biblioteca
Virtual de Simón Bolívar; U.S. Library of Congress;
Harvard University Timeline; BBC News Profiles: Venezuela; PoliSci.com;
U.S. State Department; "Chaos and Constitution," Mother Jones
(February 2003); Rep™blica Bolivariana de Venezuela; "Venezuela's
Media War," BBC News (March 6, 2003); U.S. Department
of Energy; OPEC; "Consensus Forecast: Venezuela," Latin Focus;
IMF World Economic Outlook (April 2003); "Country Briefings:
Venezuela," The Economist (August 2002); "Latin Briefing:
Venezuela," The Miami Herald (May 1, 2003); World Information.com;
U.S. Market Access and Compliance; "Languages of Venezuela,"
Ethnologue.com; Venezuela's Eco Portal; Columbia Encyclopedia.