New Internationalist

Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution - The Facts

Issue 390

The recent progress of the Bolivarian Revolution is difficult to chart, in part because the least unreliable statistics – those published by the UN1 – have yet to reach beyond 2003. In that year the impact of lost production during the oil dispute was deeply felt, following several years of economic recession. Since then world oil prices have risen sharply and the economy has picked up. Domestic Venezuelan statistics are often coloured by pro- and anti-Chávez sentiment.

Photo: David Ransom
Chavista family and dog ready to demonstrate on 4 February 2006 in Caracas. Photo: David Ransom


  • The population has doubled since 1975.
  • Venezuelans differ from most Latin Americans because a large and increasing majority already lives in cities, concentrated along the Caribbean coast.


  • Since 1998 the number of people receiving treated drinking water has increased by 3.5 million.
  • At over 5%, the prevalence of HIV/AIDs remains among the highest in Latin America.
  • New primary healthcare in poor barrios is still largely staffed from Cuba under barter arrangements for Venezuelan oil, which do not always figure in the statistics.
  • As in the US, for many years more resources were devoted to private healthcare for the rich than to public healthcare for the majority of Venezuelans. Even so, the Venezuelan total of $272 per person in 2002 spent on health was less than a 20th of that in the US.


  • Oil provides roughly a third of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, around 80% of export earnings and half of all government revenues.
  • With 75.6 billion barrels, Venezuela has the largest proven and useable oil reserves in the western hemisphere – sufficient for more than 70 years at current rates of extraction.
  • The extraction of an estimated 235 billion barrels of heavy oil deposits in the Orinoco delta and river basin is restricted by its cost and environmental destructiveness.
  • Venezuela also has the nineth largest gas reserves in the world.
  • It is the world’s fifth largest producer and fourth largest exporter of crude petroleum, supplying about 15% of US oil imports.
  • PDVSA, the national oil company, owns Citgo, which runs refineries and 15,000 gas stations in the US.
  • Production, which fell back sharply during the oil dispute in early 2003, has now been restored to previous levels – around three million barrels a day.
Photo: David Ransom.
Chávez is good for business on the streets. Photo: David Ransom.


  • Expenditure on education as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product has risen continuously, from 3.4% in 1998 to 4.9% in 2004.2
  • Primary education is now provided for 99% of primary-school-age children.
  • The Government claims that its ‘Misión Robinson’ programme brought literacy to 1.2 million adults in just one year (2004).2
  • The biggest long-term improvement has been in secondary enrolment. Similar trends have been occurring more recently in higher education.


  • With almost 80% of private land owned by just 5% of all landowners, in 1996 (the most recent survey) land ownership was even more concentrated in Venezuela than in Brazil, which is often cited as the worst in the world.3
  • By the end of 2003, the Government claimed that some 60,000 rural families had new titles to 2.2 million hectares of largely fallow land, far surpassing the target set by its Plan Zamora earlier in the year.6
  • Slower progress has been made on the ‘Vuelta al Campo’ (‘Return to the Countryside’) project. It began in 2003 with 23 families from Caracas who occupied 23 hectares of unused land in the state of Lara.6
  • Between 2000 and 2003 there was a small increase in the value added in agriculture, from 4.2% to 4.5% of Gross Domestic Product – matched by a slight decline in Venezuela’s long-established reliance on food imports, reversing long-term trends for the first time in many years.3


  • Despite the emphasis on gender in the Bolivarian Constitution, less than 10% of seats in Congress are held by women, ranking the country 114th in the world.
  • Venezuela does much better with female professional and technical workers, at 61.3% of the total, ranking as high as 14th in the world.
  • But it does badly on the ratio of female to male earned income, which at 0.42 ranks 114th in the world again.
  • The Gender Development Index (GDI) adjusts the Human Development Index (HDI) downward for gender inequality, and shows that, nonetheless, Venezuela is ranked slightly better on the GDI (58) than on the HDI (75).
Photo: David Ransom.
Devastation caused by mudslides on the coast in 1999. Photo: David Ransom.


  • One of the 10 most biodiverse countries on earth, Venezuela officially lost 8.3% of its forest cover – 4.3 million hectares – between 1990 and 2005. There has been no proven reduction in the rate of deforestation since 1998.5
  • Mining – much of it illegal – in the south and east causes widespread damage from pollutants such as mercury, used in the extraction of gold.
  • There are frequent spills from the 130 oil tankers every month which use a narrow channel out of Lake Maracaibo – the most important oil field.
  • Land surrounding Lake Maracaibo falls by roughly eight centimetres every year due to the extraction of oil beneath it.
  • Petroleum for vehicles in Venezuela is the cheapest in the world.
  • Emissions of carbon dioxide are the highest in the region and almost four times higher than in neighbouring Colombia – though still only a fraction of the levels in North America, Australasia or Europe.


  • The UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) provides a broad measure of a people’s general state of well-being, including health and education. The higher the HDI ‘value’ is, the better, with 1.00 representing absolute perfection. Other UN indices, derived from the HDI, measure poverty and inequality, as well as gender development (see below left).
  • Despite oil wealth, Venezuela’s people as a whole have so far prospered little, even relative to other countries in the region – though since 2003 their situation has undoubtedly improved.
  • In 2003 Venezuela still ranked well below the Latin American and Caribbean average on the HDI and was only a little less than halfway down the ranking of every country in the world.


  • Venezuela ranks towards the better end of the Human Poverty Index (HPI), which shows the proportion of people living below a threshold level of life expectancy, health, education and standard of living.
  • The country is no longer among the most unequal societies in the world – as most other countries in Latin America still are.
  • However, in 2003 15% of the population still lived on less than $1 a day, and 32% on less than $2 a day.
  1. Unless otherwise stated, all figures are from Human Development Report 2006, UNDP.
  3. World Development Report 2006, World Bank.
  4. Handbook of Statistics 2005, UNCTAD.
  6. ‘Land Reform in Venezuela’, Global Exchange, 2004.

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  1. #1 Maire Ui Chathain 17 Aug 11

    It is sad to see that this country with such rich natural resources has been dominated by global companies leaving the venezuelan people impoverished.

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This article was originally published in issue 390

New Internationalist Magazine issue 390
Issue 390

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