Venezuela - People
An estimated 29 million people lived in Venezuela as of 2011. The population growth rate is 1.6% per year, and roughly 47% of Venezuelans are under the age of 25. According to the 2001 census, almost 90% of the population lives in urban areas. Metropolitan Caracas, the country's largest city, has an estimated 3.2 million inhabitants. Venezuela is proud of its tradition as a melting pot, and the majority of its citizens have a mixed racial heritage of Caucasian, African, and American Indian elements.
Before the oil era began in the mid-1920s, about 70 percent of the Venezuelan population was rural, illiterate, and poor. Over the next fifty years, the ratios were reversed so that over 88 percent of the population became urban and literate. No group has escaped the impact of this modernization process. Even the most isolated peasants and tribal Indians felt some effects of this economic growth, which opened up access to the elite stature, expanded opportunities for large numbers of immigrants, increased the size, power, and cohesiveness of the middle class, and created a sector of organized workers within the lower class.
Although the traditional gap between rich and poor persisted in democratic Venezuela, the modern upper class was by no means homogeneous. Traditional society--rural, rigid, deeply stratified--changed rapidly during the course of the twentieth century. Perhaps ironically, the man most responsible for giving impetus to this change was the semiliterate dictator Juan Vicente Gómez. The primary catalyst of the social change that began under his dictatorship was economic, and it stemmed not from the established source of land controlled by powerful hacendados, but from the subsoil in the form of petroleum extracted and marketed through the efforts of technicians and technocrats. Gómez, by permitting and encouraging oil exploration, laid the basis for the emergence of an urbanized, prosperous, and comparatively powerful Venezuela from the chrysalis of a traditionally rural, agricultural, and isolated society.
The trends away from the traditional society accelerated after 1945, particularly during the decade of dictatorship from 1948 to 1958 and under the post-1958 democratic regime, which is often described as the reign of the middle class. Despite the vast social and economic changes that took place; however, the economic elite remained a small group separated both economically and socially from the rest of society by an enormous income gap and by a whiter and more Hispanicized ethnic makeup.
In general, those who considered themselves the Venezuelan elite, and were thus considered by their fellow citizens, thought of themselves as the upholders of superior values. Most claimed at least one postsecondary degree, possibly with a further specialization abroad. Concentrated in business and the professions, the Venezuelan upper class tended to disdain manual work and to patronize (in both senses of the word) members of the lower classes. In this particular sense, Venezuela was one of the very few countries in Latin America where a number of elite-supported scholarly and community welfare foundations provided support for an imaginative variety of programs and scholarships. These foundations often carried the names of elite families who prided themselves on their sense of civic duty.
The members of the elite also tended to emphasize publicly their devotion to the Roman Catholic Church and faith and to display a more stable family life than did the rest of the society. That is, although divorce did occur in this class, children were usually born within a legally constituted family union. Many of the younger women managed to combine profession and family, often with the help of servants and members of the extended family.
Perhaps surprisingly for those who visit or observe Venezuelan society for the first time, the elite is not a closed and static group. Prominent politicians, even those from humble backgrounds, could easily marry into the elite. Successful professionals could also move up and find acceptance among the upper class. This relative openness of the elite may serve to mitigate to some extent the extremes that persist, particularly in economic terms, between the Venezuelan rich and those considered "marginal."
Most accounts describe the Venezuelan middle class as the country's most dynamic and heterogeneous class in terms of social and racial origins, and as the greatest comparative beneficiary of the process of economic development. Consisting of small businessmen, industrialists, teachers, government workers, professionals, and managerial and technical personnel, this class was almost entirely urban. Some professions, such as teaching and government service, were traditionally associated with middle-class status, whereas newer technical professions have expanded the options and enhanced mobility within this class. Improved educational and job opportunities since the establishment of democratic government in 1958 have enabled more women to enter the labor force, thus either helping themselves and/or their families to attain middle-class status. Not surprisingly, those who passed from the lower to the middle class in Venezuela often attributed their changed status to their education, and, accordingly, many struggled to send their children to private schools so that they could move still farther up the social ladder.
A few members of the middle class moved into the elite ranks through successful business deals or by marriage. It should be noted, however, that class antagonism in Venezuela has been tempered somewhat as a result of the special efforts made by political parties to appeal to and to co-opt middle-class voters. As a result, the Venezuelan middle class had reason to feel much more politically empowered and significant than did similar groups elsewhere in Latin America. Besides the political parties, active participation in a variety of social groups and organizations further strengthened the commitment of this particular middle class to the overall sociopolitical system.
Constitutional provisions have helped both the middle and the poorer classes fulfill their aspirations in terms of greater personal freedom, expanded economic opportunities, and greater individual involvement in government. At the core of the 1961 constitution is a commitment to social justice; this commitment, in turn, has led to the creation and funding of government agencies designed to provide to the middle class and to the poor many services that had traditionally been reserved to the wealthy prior to the 1958 coup. The implementation of many social justice goals is all the more remarkable because it occurred not only during Democratic Action (Acción Democrática--AD) governments, which, by definition, were center-left, but also under Christian Democratic (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente--COPEI) administrations, which were more centerright in the Venezuelan spectrum.
The majority of peasants were wage laborers, sharecroppers, or squatters on private or state-owned lands, and their meager income placed them at the outer margins of Venezuela's general prosperity. Rural life has changed little since colonial times, in spite of concerted efforts by governments committed to agrarian reform. The best land still belonged to a relatively few owners, many of them absentees, while the dwindling rural population eked out a miserable subsistence on inadequate tracts of less-than-prime farmland. Even the agrarian reform, which had distributed millions of hectares of land since 1960, had not as of the 1990s gone on to the essential next step of providing the peasants legal title to their parcels.
Massive rural-to-urban migration has resulted in the emergence of a burgeoning urban lower class, the most successful members of which have become urban workers. In the Venezuelan social view, the lower class consisted of those in low-status occupations (usually manual), the illiterate, and recent immigrants from the countryside. For many, the transition was traumatic and stressful, as epitomized by the presence of innumerable abandoned children in the streets of the capital city.
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