Venezuela Table of Contents

Venezuelan society of the late twentieth century was clearly in transition. After centuries of isolation as a rural backwater in Latin America, Venezuela has become a respected voice in world councils because of its oil riches. Most of its population has moved to the cities, and well-to-do Venezuelans have traveled around the world in search of recreation and diversion. Economic growth, urbanization, industrialization, improved education, and expanded opportunities for women have changed the nation's character dramatically. Improved transportation, widespread radio and television access, the availability of numerous national newspapers, and the delivery of government services even in remote areas combined to make regionalism largely a thing of the past. Caracas was greatly influenced by developments in Miami and other foreign commercial and cultural centers; the rest of the country, in turn, felt the reverberations of the capital's growth and change.

The rapid pace of change has had a tremendous impact in such areas as the emerging role of women in Venezuela. Women have occupied positions in the cabinet and have held prominent jobs in the political parties and in labor unions. More than a dozen women representatives had served in the Chamber of Deputies up until the 1988 elections. A number of women also held top positions in private enterprises. Approximately as many women as men attended postsecondary institutions; in some departments, women outnumbered their male counterparts.

For the middle-class woman who wanted to combine job and family careers there was still the support provided by the extended family and the availability of maids, who often were recent migrants from the Andean region or from Colombia. As the extended family progressively shrank and the traditional pool of poor and uneducated women grew progressively smaller, Venezuelan professional women had begun clamoring for day-care facilities. As of 1990, more progressive and larger firms were beginning to provide such facilities, but the main push was for the provision of these services by the government. Meanwhile, an active feminist movement was particularly strong in the capital and the major cities, and women's studies were beginning to make their appearance among the university offerings.

Some social observers claimed that the rapid change in women's roles was attributable, at least in part, to the traditional weakness of the Venezuelan Roman Catholic Church when compared, for example, with the church in neighboring Colombia. Some 90 percent of Venezuelans were baptized in the Roman Catholic faith, but most had little regular contact with the church. The number of Protestants continued to grow, mainly as a result of the tremendously successful proselytizing efforts among shantytown dwellers by charismatic and evangelical sects, and had reached about 5 percent of the population in the 1990s. A Jewish population of several thousand was concentrated in the major cities, especially in Caracas and Maracaibo. A minuscule number of Indians, particularly in the Amazon area, continued to practice their traditional religions, but many had adopted Roman Catholicism. This was particularly true among the Guajiro near Maracaibo and on the Colombian border. A few other religions were represented in very small numbers. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the nation's 1961 Constitution.

Relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Venezuelan state have been harmonious throughout most of the twentieth century. They continued to be peaceful even after the 1958 coup d'état against Pérez Jiménez, in spite of the fact that the church had supported the dictator in his early years as president. Relations between the church and AD were somewhat strained during the trienio, mainly because the church felt threatened by some of the AD government's liberal reforms. As the corruption of the Pérez Jiménez regime became increasingly apparent, however, the church began to disassociate itself from his rule and to support a return to democracy.

Although there is no official state church, the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed close ties to the government and could be perceived as a national church. The COPEI, the second largest political party, was originally organized by Roman Catholic lay leaders, even though it has since broadened its appeal to Venezuelans of all religious persuasions.

The Venezuelan church was not well endowed economically. It owned little property and received only limited private contributions. The government contributed a large part of the church's operating expenses through a special division of the Ministry of Justice. Government funds generally covered the salaries of the hierarchy, certain lesser functionaries attached to the more important episcopates, a limited number of priests, and the missionaries to the Indians. In addition, government contributions sometimes paid for religious materials, for construction and repair of religious buildings, and for other projects submitted by bishops and archbishops and approved by the ministry.

Attitudes toward the church varied with education and social class, but it was generally viewed as a traditional institution involved more in ritual than in day-to-day contact with its members. Venezuelans generally practiced a form of Roman Catholicism that adhered loosely to church doctrine but was often deeply emotional in its manifestations. Religious laxity was widespread, as was a low level of general knowledge of the basic tenets of the faith. During the latter half of the twentieth century, Venezuela has become a much more secular and materialistic society, less committed to the traditional social primacy of the church.

In all social classes, religion was regarded as the proper sphere of women. Generally more conscientious in religious practice, women were expected to assume the duty of providing the religious and moral education of children. For girls, early religious and moral training was followed by close supervision in accordance with the socially protected status of women. Boys, however, were not encouraged to pursue the priesthood, and Venezuela historically has had a very low percentage of vocations. As a result, most of its clergy were foreign born.

Adherence to traditional Roman Catholic beliefs was stronger in the rural areas, especially in the Andean states, than in the urban centers. Many of the original leaders of COPEI came from the Andean states. Massive internal migration to the cities, however, had lessened considerably the influence of these old strongholds of Roman Catholicism at the national level.

Traditionally, one of the most significant and important areas of church involvement in society was education. Roman Catholic schools historically have educated the children of the middle and upper classes. Because many schools were supported only by tuition fees, their costs were prohibitive for lowerclass groups. Spurred by the social encyclicals issued from Rome in the 1960s and challenged by the proselytizing of Protestant groups, the church's hierarchy has sought to establish greater control over the schools, to admit greater numbers of scholarship students, and to increase the number of schools charging little or no tuition. As a result, by the middle of the 1970s an estimated two-thirds or more of Roman Catholic schools and colleges were free or partly free.

The church has always felt a special obligation to help educate and Christianize the Indians. In the 1920s and 1930s, the government entered into a series of agreements with the church that assigned the regions of the upper Orinoco, the western Zulia, the Caroní, and the Tucupita rivers to the Capuchin, Dominican, and Salesian religious orders. Educational work has been carried out in conjunction with the plans of the Indian Commission of the Ministry of Justice.

Although Venezuelan culture was a mixture of Hispanic, Indian, and African elements, comparatively rapid integration of large segments of the population prevented the syncretic blending of animistic and Roman Catholic beliefs so common in other Latin American countries. The culturally embracing nature of Venezuelan Catholicism was symbolized in the national patroness, the mestiza María Lionza, a popular figure among Venezuelans of all social classes. The cult of María Lionza presented a striking synthesis of African, Indian, and Christian beliefs and practices. She was worshipped as a goddess of nature and protectress of the virgin forests, wild animals, and the mineral wealth in the mountains, and certain traits of her character also paralleled those of the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholic tradition.

The worship of María Lionza was particularly widespread among urban dwellers in the shantytowns, many of whom had recently migrated to the big cities and felt the need for a blending of Christian and traditional indigenous beliefs. At the same time, beliefs and practices related to magic and spiritual healing that combined Roman Catholic, African, and Indian elements could be found in remote rural areas, especially in the Andean states. In keeping with the ethnic and cultural background of many coastal communities, African elements predominated in their rituals. Traditional Indian healers still practiced their craft among the remaining tribes.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress