National name: República Bolivariana de Venezuela
President: Hugo Chavez (1999)
Land area: 340,560 sq mi (882,050 sq km); total area: 352,144 sq mi (912,050 sq km)
Population (2007 est.): 26,084,662 (growth rate: 1.4%); birth rate: 18.5/1000; infant mortality rate: 20.9/1000; life expectancy: 74.8; density per sq mile: 77
Capital (2003 est.): Caracas, 3,517,300 (metro. area), 1,741,400 (city proper)
Largest cities: Maracaibo, 1,889,000 (metro. area), 1,854,300 (city proper); Valencia, 1,515,400; Barquisimeto, 948,900
Monetary unit: Bolivar
Languages: Spanish (official), numerous indigenous dialects
Ethnicity/race: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Arab, German, African, indigenous people
Religions: Roman Catholic 96%, Protestant 2%
Literacy rate: 93% (2003 est.)
Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2006 est.): $186.3 billion; per capita $7,200. Real growth rate: 10.3%. Inflation: 15.8%. Unemployment: 8.9%. Arable land: 3%. Agriculture: corn, sorghum, sugarcane, rice, bananas, vegetables, coffee; beef, pork, milk, eggs; fish. Labor force: 12.5 million; services 64%, industry 23%, agriculture 13% (1997 est.). Industries: petroleum, construction materials, food processing, textiles; iron ore mining, steel, aluminum; motor vehicle assembly. Natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, gold, bauxite, other minerals, hydropower, diamonds. Exports: $69.23 billion f.o.b. (2006 est.): petroleum, bauxite and aluminum, steel, chemicals, agricultural products, basic manufactures. Imports: $28.81 billion f.o.b. (2006 est.): raw materials, machinery and equipment, transport equipment, construction materials. Major trading partners: U.S., Netherlands Antilles, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico (2004).
Communications: Telephones: main lines in use: 4.216 million (2006); mobile cellular: 12.496 million (2005). Radio broadcast stations: AM 201, FM n.a. (20 in Caracas), shortwave 11 (1998). Radios: 10.75 million (1997). Television broadcast stations: 66 (plus 45 repeaters) (1997). Televisions: 4.1 million (1997). Internet Service Providers (ISPs): 51,968 (2006). Internet users: 3.04 million (2005).
Transportation: Railways: total: 682 km (2002). Highways: total: 96,155 km; paved: 32,308 km; unpaved: 63,847 km (1999 est.). Waterways: 7,100 km; Rio Orinoco and Lago de Maracaibo accept oceangoing vessels. Ports and harbors: Amuay, Bajo Grande, El Tablazo, La Guaira, La Salina, Maracaibo, Matanzas, Palua, Puerto Cabello, Puerto la Cruz, Puerto Ordaz, Puerto Sucre, Punta Cardon. Airports: 375 (2006).
International disputes: claims all of Guyana west of the Essequibo River; maritime boundary dispute with Colombia in the Gulf of Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea; US, France and the Netherlands recognize Venezuela's claim to give full effect to Aves Island, which creates a Venezuelan EEZ/continental shelf extending over a large portion of the Caribbean Sea; Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines protest the claim and other states' recognition of it.
Venezuela, a third larger than Texas, occupies most of the northern coast of South America on the Caribbean Sea. It is bordered by Colombia to the west, Guyana to the east, and Brazil to the south. Mountain systems break Venezuela into four distinct areas: (1) the Maracaibo lowlands; (2) the mountainous region in the north and northwest; (3) the Orinoco basin, with the llanos (vast grass-covered plains) on its northern border and great forest areas in the south and southeast; and (4) the Guiana Highlands, south of the Orinoco, accounting for nearly half the national territory.
When Columbus explored Venezuela on his third voyage in 1498, the area was inhabited by Arawak, Carib, and Chibcha Indians. A subsequent Spanish explorer gave the country its name, meaning “Little Venice.” Caracas was founded in 1567. Simón Bolívar, who led the liberation from Spain of much of the continent, was born in Caracas in 1783. With Bolívar taking part, Venezuela was one of the first South American colonies to revolt in 1810, winning independence in 1821. Federated at first with Colombia and Ecuador as the Republic of Greater Colombia, Venezuela became a republic in 1830. A period of unstable dictatorships followed. Antonio Guzman Blanco governed from 1870 to 1888, developing an infrastructure, expanding agriculture, and welcoming foreign investment.
Gen. Juan Vicente Gómez was dictator from 1908 to 1935, when Venezuela became a major oil exporter. A military junta ruled after his death. Leftist Dr. Rómulo Betancourt and the Democratic Action Party won a majority of seats in a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution in 1946. A well-known writer, Rómulo Gallegos, candidate of Betancourt's party, became Venezuela's first democratically elected president in 1947. Within eight months, Gallegos was overthrown by a military-backed coup led by Marcos Peréz Jiménez, who was ousted himself in 1958. Since 1959, Venezuela has been one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. Betancourt served from 1959–1964, while Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, president from 1969 to 1974, legalized the Communist Party and established diplomatic relations with Moscow.
Venezuela benefited from the oil boom of the early 1970s. In 1974, President Carlos Andrés Pérez took office, and in 1976 Venezuela nationalized foreign-owned oil and steel companies, offering compensation. Luis Herrera Campíns became president in 1978. Declining world oil prices sent Venezuela's economy into a tailspin, increasing the country's foreign debt. Pérez was reelected to a nonconsecutive term in 1988 and launched an unpopular austerity program. Military officers staged two unsuccessful coup attempts in 1992, while the following year Congress impeached Pérez on corruption charges. President Rafael Caldera Rodríguez was elected in Dec. 1993 to face the 1994 collapse of half of the country's banking sector, falling oil prices, foreign debt repayment, and inflation. In 1997, the government announced an expansion of gold and diamond mining to reduce reliance on oil.
Leftist president Hugo Chavez took office in 1999, pledging political and economic reforms to give the poor a greater share of the country's oil wealth. A constituent assembly was formed to rewrite the constitution in July 1999, followed by the creation of a constitutional assembly made up of Chavez's allies that replaced the democratically elected Congress. Chavez's assumption of greater power prompted charges that he is establishing a left-wing dictatorship.
Chavez was reelected to a six-year term in July 2000. Troops were called in to quell serious protests over the election in several cities. In 2000 Chavez visited other OPEC countries, becoming the first foreign head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. He is close to President Fidel Castro of Cuba, which receives Venezuelan oil at reduced prices.
In Dec. 2001, business and labor organizations held a work stoppage to protest Chavez's increasingly authoritarian government. In April 2002, tensions reached a boiling point as workers reduced oil production to protest Chavez's policies. Following a massive anti-Chavez demonstration during which 12 people were killed, a coalition of business and military leaders forced Chavez from power. But international criticism of the coup, especially in Latin America, and an outpouring of support from the president's followers returned Chavez to power just two days later. After the coup, Chavez remained highly popular among the poor, despite the desperate state of the economy. Venezuelan labor unions, business organizations, the media, and a good part of the military remained substantially less enchanted.
Beginning in early Dec. 2002, a general strike was called by business and labor leaders. By Jan. 2003 it had virtually brought the economy, including the oil industry, to a halt. Strike leaders pledged to continue until Chavez resigned or agreed to early elections. But in Feb. 2003, after nine weeks, the strikers conceded defeat. In Aug. 2003, a petition with 3.2 million signatures was delivered to the country's election commission, demanding a recall referendum on Chavez. The Chavez government challenged the referendum process rigorously, and petitions submitted in Sept. 2003 and Feb. 2004 were rejected as invalid. The electoral board finally accepted a petition in June 2004 and scheduled the referendum for August 15. Chavez, who had been shoring up his standing with the Venezuelan poor during the delays, won the referendum with an overwhelming 58% of the vote. The opposition alleged fraud, but international observers confirmed that there had been no irregularities. Chavez's hand was clearly strengthened, and by the spring of 2005, his popularity rating reached 70%, due in large part to his social spending programs. In Dec. 2005 parliamentary elections, Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement won 114 of 167 seats, and the remaining seats were won by his allies. The opposition boycotted the election, maintaining they could not trust the pro-Chavez National Electoral Council. President Chávez won reelection in Dec. 2006 with 63% of the vote.
In early 2007, Chávez took significant steps to further consolidate his power and move Venezuela closer to becoming a socialist state. In January, he announced the nationalization of major energy and telecommunications companies. Days later, the National Assembly voted to allow Chávez to rule by decree for 18 months. In May, Chávez shut down the main opposition television station, RCTV, which has been critical of the government. The National Assembly voted in August to abolish presidential term limits.
In November 2007, the Colombian army captured FARC rebels who were carrying videos, photographs, and letters of about 15 hostages, some who have been held in jungle camps by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for nearly ten years. The Marxist-inspired FARC—the largest rebel group in Latin America—has been waging guerilla wars against the Colombian government for 40 years. Hostages included three American military contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, former Colombian presidential candidate. Also in November, Uribe withdrew his support of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s attempts to negotiate with the FARC, escalating tension between the two countries. Chávez subsequently withdrew the Venezuelan ambassador to Colombia.
On December 3, 2007, a referendum that was widely expected to pass was rejected by voters, 51% to 49%, following weeks of uncharacteristic public protests and campaigning against the package put forward by Chávez. The proposed 69 amendments to the constitution included abolishment of presidential term limits, removal of the Central Bank's autonomy, which would have given Chávez new power to build a socialist economy, and a few that enjoyed wide support, including reducing the work day to six hours and offering pensions to street vendors and housewives.
“I will not withdraw even one comma of this proposal, this proposal is still alive," Chávez said. "For me, this is not a defeat."
Chavez instituted a time change on December 9, 2007, which put Venezuela a half-hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time. The government claimed it was a health measure to improve the lives of Venezuelans by exposing them to more sunlight.
Months of negotiations between Chavez and FARC rebels over the release of three hostages came to an end on December 31, 2007, when the FARC refused to hand them over, saying the promised security conditions had not been met. The failed mission is Chavez's second defeat in the last month after the loss of his referendum. On January 10, 2008, however, FARC rebels freed two hostages, Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonz�lez de Perdomo, in Guaviare, in southern Colombia. Rojas, a Colombian politician captured in 2002, and Perdomo, a Colombian law-maker captured in 2001, were escorted out of the jungle by several guerillas. The release of the hostages was a triumph for Chavez, who coordinated the operation.