Leader: President Jaime Lusinchi
Economy: GNP per capita: $4,140 (1982)
Monetary unit. Bolivar
Main exports: crude petroleum. iron-ore, coffee, sisal, bananas
People: 116.7 million (mid-1982)
Health: Infant mortality: 39 per 1,000 live births
Life expectancy: 68
Percentage of population with access to clean water:
91% (urban) 50% (rural)
Culture: Mostly Spanish-Indian mestizos. Also pure-blood Indians, pure-blood Africans and some of mixed African, Indian and Spanish descent along the coast. Nearly one million European immigrants since World War Two.
Official language: Spanish
Religion: Largely Catholic
Sources: World Development Report 1984, State of the World’s Children 1985
When you first enter Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, three features strike you: the density of its traffic, the immensity of its skyscrapers, and the picturesque sight of the mountainsides which encircle it, dotted with colourful dwellings.
During the oil boom of the 1970s, skyscraper office blocks and prestige projects gave the city a veneer of great affluence. But it is the mountainsides which tell a more realistic story, littered with shanty housing, ramshackle and vulnerable to fatal land slips. This is where the hordes of the underemployed live.
Until well into the twentieth century, Venezuela was a comparatively insignificant agricultural country. When the Spaniards first arrived in 1499 it was sparsely inhabited by various tribes of Indians who had created no strong distinctive culture. Its largely uneventful colonial period came to an end at the beginning of the nineteenth century when Venezuela’s major historical figure, Simon Bolivar, set off from Caracas on a campaign which rapidly achieved independence from Spanish rule right down to the borders of Argentina.
For a hundred years following its establishment as an independent republic in 1830, despotism and anarchy alternated, and corruption flourished on a scale remarkable even for Latin America. During the long regime of its most notorious dictator, Gomez, oil was discovered in 1914. The country’s economy was transformed to such an extent that agriculture became neglected and food was imported.
Great wealth flowed to those able to benefit, but little attempt was made to address the problems of general education, health or housing.
Democracy was finally established in 1958. Since then the country has been one of the most stable in Latin America. As a result of its enormous oil reserves, Venezuela developed in the 1970s into the most prosperous country in South America. By 1980, 95 per cent of its export revenue came from oil. Belatedly money has been spent on state industry, agrarian reform, and tackling the problems of education, housing and unemployment. But huge numbers of the agricultural poor continue to pour into the cities. In the 1980s Venezuela has amassed great debts to the West, the payment of which is seriously undermining the economy.
In 1984 the centre-left ‘Accion Democratica’ regained power from the Christian Democrat (Copei) party. At each election for the past quarter century these two parties, the only ones with sufficient money to mount effective electoral campaigns, have exchanged power. It seems, after all, that the candles flickering around the statues of the Virgin in every Venezuelan village represent to the poor a more secure hope for the future than the posturings of the politicians.