POPULATION: 21 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; Amerindian languages
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; some Protestantism, Judaism, and native Amerindian religions
Venezuela was colonized by Spain in the sixteenth century. The Spanish conquerors at first explored its long Caribbean coastline. They fought with a variety of American Indian peoples and later brought slaves from Africa. Venezuelans today are descended from all three groups—Spanish, Indian, and African. There are still about twenty groups of American Indian tribes in the country.
Venezuela holds an honored place in Latin American history because its capital, Caracas, is the birthplace of the great liberator Simón Bolívar (1783–1830). He freed Venezuela, along with Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, from Spanish rule. Thanks to his efforts, Venezuela became an independent nation.
Venezuela suffered under various dictatorships during the twentieth century. But since 1958, there have been free elections and democratically elected presidents. Because it has large oil reserves, Venezuela has made rapid economic progress. The wealth produced by the petroleum industry may be the reason Venezuela has avoided the violence that has arisen in some neighboring countries, including Colombia and Peru.
Venezuela is the size of the states of Texas and Oklahoma combined. It shares a border with Colombia to the west, with Brazil to the south, and with Guyana to the east. To the north, its Caribbean coastline is about 1,865 miles (3,000 kilometers) long. Most of the country has a warm climate.
While most of the population is descended from the Spanish or is of mixed Spanish and American Indian or Spanish-African descent, there are still about twenty pure American Indian groups. They usually speak their own languages. They number about 200,000 out of a total population of 21 million.
During the twentieth century, immigrants have arrived in Venezuela from Italy, Spain, and Portugal, as well as from neighboring Colombia.
The official language of Venezuela is Spanish. Many of the surviving American Indian peoples continue to speak their own languages.
Folklore in Venezuela has evolved from the blending of Spanish, African, and American Indian customs. Several colorful festivals are the result of this blending of cultures. Carnaval is a yearly nationwide event that lasts for several days and begins just before Ash Wednesday (usually in February). On the holiday of Corpus Christi (in May or June), there is a dramatic "Dance of the Devils" in the town of San Francisco de Yare. People parade and dance in the streets in costumes and masks in the streets. Black African music influences the Fiesta de San Juan, held in the state of Miranda in June.
Most Venezuelans are Roman Catholic. There are also some Protestants and a Jewish community in Caracas. Some Venezuelan American Indians have also adopted Roman Catholicism.
One of Venezuela's important religious events takes place in the town of Guanare. It is a yearly feast day honoring the Virgin Mary, who is known in Venezuela as Nuestra Señora de Comoroto , Venezuela's patron saint. It commemorates the day in 1652 when the Virgin is said to have appeared to an American Indian chief on the shores of the Guanaguare River. She encouraged him to accept Christian baptism and left him a tiny image of herself. The chief was frightened and ran away. He later died of a snakebite. Just before his death, however, he asked to be baptized and advised his people to do the same.
Aside from religious festivals and the national Carnaval, the major holiday in Venezuela is Independence Day. It is celebrated on April 19. Other public holidays also mark important historical events. They include Simón Bolívar's birthday on July 24, the victory over the Spanish in the Battle of Carabobo on July 5, and the arrival of Columbus in the Americas on October 12. Labor Day, May 1, is also a public holiday.
Since most of Venezuela is Roman Catholic, baptism and first communion are important occasions. Most children have the name of a saint as part of their name, so many celebrate their saint's day as well as their actual birthday.
When a person dies, prayers are held at the person's home for nine days. Relatives and close friends usually attend.
Venezuelans are considered outgoing and friendly. The spirit of fun is evident in their love of social gatherings and parties.
Like many other Latin Americans, Venezuelans have an easygoing attitude toward time. They are tolerant of late arrivals to meetings and social gatherings. Even business lunches can be lengthy, lasting two or three hours.
Even in the prosperous 1960s and 1970s, when the oil boom changed Caracas from a relatively quiet town to a busy modern city, the contrast between wealthy and poor housing was very clear. Lavish hotels and apartment blocks were only a few blocks away from shantytowns. Some of this hillside housing was so poorly built that it would slide down the mountain after heavy rains.
This contrast also existed, but to a lesser extent, in other less-populated towns. More recently, the expansion of education and the newer universities have contributed to the development of a growing middle class. This is seen in the building of more middle-class houses.
Venezuelans value family ties. The bonds between the extended family—which includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins—are very important. Occasions for large family gatherings include birthdays, baptisms, first communions, weddings, and major holidays. Extended families also gather on weekends or on short holiday visits to beaches and parks. In smaller towns, the extended family gathers often for family meals and celebrations. The family offers a secure network for support. This is important because there is a lack or shortage of some government services and benefits.
Women have made good progress in entering the traditionally male professions, including medicine, dentistry, economics, and law. In middle-class households, the working woman relies on servants to help in the home. In poorer households, older relatives or older children provide help wherever possible.
In cities, men wear lightweight suits or shirts and trousers that suit Venezuela's climate. Women are usually very fashion-conscious and dress in popular Western styles.
A typical Venezuelan dish is carne mechada, shredded beef. It comes from the cattle-ranching areas of Los Llanos. It is served with fried plantains, black beans, cornmeal pancakes called arepas, rice, and, sometimes, white cheese.
Another type of cornmeal pancake, called a cachapa, is often served for breakfast with jam. A staple, tasty snack is the empanada, a fried cornmeal turnover sometimes stuffed with cheese, meat, or chicken.
In many low-income households, tropical fruits such as coconuts, mangoes, water-melons, pineapples, and papayas provide variety to the basic diet of beans, rice, and plantains. In coastal areas, the diet includes fish. It is often served fried or in a stew with vegetables, which is called sancocho.
Formal schooling begins in Venezuela at the age of six and is compulsory (required) for the first six years. The four-year high school program leads to a one-year preparation for college. College usually takes four years, but university training in medicine or engineering, for example, takes more time. Many poorer households cannot afford schooling. Young people who have to go to work to add to the family income are unable to complete high school.
Greater numbers of Venezuelans are finding their way to universities and colleges. A few of these have completely free tuition. There are about thirty universities. The largest is Universidad Central in Caracas, with about 70,000 students. Another well-known university, Universidad de los Andes, in the Andean town of Mérida, has 30,000 thousand students.
Women have made great progress in university education, and about half the students at the university level are now women.
Venezuela has produced fine writers, painters, poets, musicians, and, more recently, playwrights. The work of Expressionist painter Armando Reverón is admired throughout the continent. One of Venezuela's first poets was Andrés Rello, who knew Simón Bolívar. Venezuela's best-known poet is Andrés Eloy Blanco, who died in 1955.
Venezuela's most famous novelist is Rómulo Gallegos. In one of his novels, Doña Bárbara, he created a strong-willed, unforgettable character. His novel Canaima is a dramatic account of the struggle of humans to survive, psychologically and physically, in the jungle. Another writer of the same generation was Miguel Otero Silva, who died in 1985. His novel, Casas Muertas, is widely admired.
The joropo is Venezuela's national dance. The music for it is played on a small harp and a four-string guitar called the cuatro, with rattles for keeping the rhythm.
The prosperity (increase in wealth) of the 1960s and 1970s, based on the oil boom, was followed by a worldwide drop in oil prices. Job opportunities declined for many Venezuelans. A recent period of difficult economic adjustment has been a burden to poor people in particular, but it has also affected the middle class in Venezuela. Traditionally, the poor relied on government support to pay for basic food and transportation. When this support was withdrawn and prices rose, many people suffered.
Farming and cattle ranching are major sources of work in rural areas. In cities, people work in businesses or factories. For university graduates, the possibilities vary depending on the field. Mining is an important activity, and mining engineers usually find jobs; so do oil engineers. Economists find work in business or banking. Doctors and lawyers are in demand. There are new career possibilities in the field of communications, and television is a growth industry in Venezuela.
Soccer is a national passion in Venezuela. In coastal areas, water sports such as swimming, boating, and fishing are very popular.
Inland, in the grassy plains known as Los Llanos, horseback riding is popular. Fine equestrians take part in colorful rodeos known as toros colcados, in which they compete to bring a bull down by grabbing its tail while riding a horse at top speed.
Venezuelans enjoy visiting their beautiful national parks. They are also fond of traveling to take part in a variety of festivals around the country. In the major cities, there are nightclubs and discos. Venezuelans also enjoy eating in restaurants.
Television is popular. Venezuela produces a variety of soap operas, which are called telenovelas .
Going to bullfights is also a popular pastime.
Anthropologists and local historians have played an important part in making Venezuelans aware of the arts and crafts of the various American Indian peoples. Much of their handiwork is now more easily available. It includes pottery, baskets, hammocks, and rugs.
Venezuela has undergone a period of economic and political uncertainty that has affected job opportunities. There has also been an increase in crime. Over half of the population is under eighteen years of age. In this uneasy social and economic situation, groups within the military have tried to take power by force at two different times. Both of these attempts failed, and Venezuela has remained a democratic country. But the social ease and confidence of the more economically successful years (of the 1960s and 1970s) have not yet returned.
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