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Figure 3. Estimated Population by Age and Sex, mid-1985


Squatter settlements, commonly known as ranchos, in Caracas
Courtesy Inter-American Development Bank


View of Caracas
Courtesy Karen Sturges-Vera

Three races contributed significantly to the composition of the Venezuelan population: whites, Africans, and Indians. The Indians of the region belonged to a number of distinct tribes. Those who devoted themselves to agriculture and fishing belonged mainly to the Arawak, Ajaguan, Cumanagoto, Ayaman, and other Carib tribes. The Guajiro lived, as they still do today, in the area that became the state of Zulia (see fig. 1). The Timoto-Cuica lived in the states of Táchira, Mérida, Trujillo, and Lara. The Caquetío, who prevailed in the area of present-day Falcón state, developed probably the highest cultural state of civilization of all the indigenous groups. A number of tribes also lived, as the Guajiro still do, in the Amazon jungle. Compared with other Latin American countries, however, Venezuela never had a large Indian population. After discovery by Spain, this population diminished still further, mainly because the natives lacked immunity to the many diseases brought to the New World from Europe (see Discovery and Conquest , ch. 1). In addition, Indians and Spanish intermarried; the product of this union, the mestizo, often opted for or was forced into assuming Spanish customs and religion. Fewer than 150,000 Indians were counted in the 1981 census, and, of these, over a third were made up by the Guajiro, who, though distinctive, were mostly Roman Catholic, wore their own version of Western-style clothing, and traded openly with other Venezuelans and Colombians.

During the colonial period, white Venezuelans immigrated mostly from Spain. Most blacks were brought from Africa as slaves to replace the large numbers of Indians who died from diseases and other consequences of the conquest. The African slaves labored in the hot, equatorial coastal plantations. Although miscegenation was widespread, it did not diminish the importance of color and social origin. In colonial society, peninsulares (those born in Spain) enjoyed the greatest prestige and power. Criollos (those born in America of Spanish parentage) occupied a subordinate position. Mestizos, blacks, and Indians made up the large lower end of the social hierarchy. Even at these lower levels, those who could somehow demonstrate a measure of white ancestry enhanced their chances of avoiding a life of penury.

Although the criollos resented the peninsulares, they did not identify or empathize with the lower strata. Instead, they remained deeply aware of the potential for trouble from the large mass below them and employed a variety of means to keep the nonwhite peoples at a safe distance. Despite their sometimes disreputable personal backgrounds, peninsulares boasted that they had pure white pedigrees. Circumstances rendered the ancestry of some criollos more questionable, and even the wealthiest were conscious of race mixture and anxious to dispel any doubts as to their parentage by remaining as separate from the nonwhite and mulatto population as possible. Perceptions of race, however, evolved somewhat over time in response to changing social, political, and even cultural interests.

Reforms in the eighteenth century affected race relations by enhancing the social mobility of the crown's nonwhite subjects. During this period, persons of mixed racial origin, or pardos (see Glossary), were allowed, for a price, to join the militia, to obtain an education, to hold public office, and to enter the priesthood. They could even purchase legal certification of their "whiteness." These changes eliminated most of the few distinctions that had set the criollos apart from the darker-skinned masses (pardos at that time represented more than 60 percent of the population). Feeling their already tenuous position in society threatened, most Venezuelan criollos rejected the social policy of the Bourbons and established themselves in the forefront of the revolutionary movement for independence.

Not all criollos, however, sought to preserve the system whereby pardos served as virtual vassals of the upper class. Twentieth-century Venezuelan history books proudly recount the late eighteen-century radical conspiracy of the retired army officer Manuel Gual and the hacienda owner José María España, who advocated a republic that would incorporate all races and peoples equally. Inspired by the rhetoric of the French Revolution, the small group led by Gual and España recruited pardos, poor whites, laborers, and small shopkeepers, calling for equality and liberty and for harmony among all classes. They also promised to abolish Indian tribute and black slavery and to institute free trade. Although Gual and España also invoked the example of the newly established United States, they received no encouragement from the young country. When the conspiracy surfaced in La Guaira in 1797, the Spanish authorities terminated the movement in its early stages. Not surprisingly, criollo property owners collaborated with the authorities to suppress the radical movement.

During the wars of independence, both criollo revolutionaries and Spanish loyalists sought to engage blacks and pardos in their cause. This competition opened up new paths for advancement, mainly by way of the battlefield. Many of the revolutionary armies depended heavily upon the pardos to fill their ranks; many also served as officers. Of greater significance for nineteenth-century Venezuelan society, the wars of independence brought to the fore a new class of leaders of mixed social and racial origins, perhaps best exemplified by José Antonio Páez, a fiery llanero (plainsman). Páez and leaders like him represented in almost every respect the antithesis to the cerebral, worldly wise, white, and refined Simón Bolívar Palacios and others of his class.

Páez governed Venezuela either directly as president or indirectly through his friends in the presidential office from 1830 to 1848 (see A Century of Caudillismo , ch. 1). It was a period of slow but undeniable transformation of Venezuelan society. Although traditional exports such as cotton, cacao, tobacco, and beef expanded, coffee soon came to dominate agricultural production. The transition to coffee brought changes to Venezuelan society. Coffee growing was less labor intensive than most agricultural pursuits; even in colonial times it operated mostly under systems of sharecropping and seasonal labor, rather than slavery. During the nineteenth century, small farmers increased their share of national coffee production and, consequently, they moved upward on the social ladder.

Toward the end of the century, after the years of the Federal War (1858-63), fissures once again appeared in Venezuelan society as new social elements arose, often regardless of class, place of origin, race, or education. As in so much of the country's social history, a personality, another caudillo, best exemplified the new social order. In this case, the caudillo was Juan Vicente Gómez, a semiliterate Andean who dominated the national political scene from 1908 to 1935. Although often pictured as a traditional caudillo, Gómez did more than merely advance his own interests and those of his clique; he presided over the transformation of Venezuela from a rural to an urban society, from an agrarian to an industrial economy.

The illegitimate son of an Indian mother and a Spanish immigrant, Gómez rose to prominence first as a local and later a national caudillo. Once in control of the national government, he brought prosperity to Venezuela through a regime of repression, austerity, and reform. Perhaps most important, Gómez opened the Venezuelan oil fields for exploration beginning in the second decade of the twentieth century; by 1928 Venezuela became the world's leading exporter of petroleum, second only to the United States in total petroleum production.

The impact of oil on Venezuelan society was enormous. Gómez used oil revenues to bolster his authoritarian regime. The highway system he built helped to centralize his control over the country. Agriculture rapidly lost its preeminence as petroleum became the country's leading export. Oil profits funded public works programs, industrialization, port expansions, urban modernization, and payment of the public debt. The new revenue also made Gómez and his cronies immensely rich. At the same time, Venezuela entered a new stage in its economic and social development. Traditionally self-sufficient in food, the country began to import even basic foodstuffs. The petroleum workers, never more than 3 percent of the labor force, formed an elite union that served as the nucleus of a new labor movement. The promise of jobs, prosperity, and social advancement drew Venezuelans from every corner of the country to the cities of Caracas and Maracaibo. In just a few short decades, rural agricultural Venezuelan society became urban and industrial; the middle class expanded; ethnic groups mixed more readily; and a once largely isolated society found itself involved with the rest of the world.

Data as of December 1990

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