Venezuela Table of Contents

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.

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Venezuela.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress