Frontline World

VENEZUELA - A Nation On Edge, June 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "A Nation On Edge"

Leanings of Latin American Leaders

Dateline Caracas

Players in the Battle for Venezuela's Oil

Interview With the President's Psychiatrist

Economy, Government, Society and Culture

Anti-Chavez and Pro-Chavez groups, Relations With U.S., Oil, Media




Images of Venezuela
Facts & Stats

General Background
Society and Culture

General Background

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 "El Caracazo."

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 charges.

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 engineering.

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 Revolution."

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 Venezuela.

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 1937.

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 restored.

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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;; 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; U.S. Market Access and Compliance; "Languages of Venezuela,"; Venezuela's Eco Portal; Columbia Encyclopedia.