Venezuela Table of Contents
The most striking phenomenon in the distribution of the Venezuelan population has been the shift from a highly rural to an overwhelmingly urban population in response to the process of economic growth and modernization occasioned by the development of the oil industry. Venezuelan census figures defined urban localities as those having more than 2,500 inhabitants, rural areas as those with under 1,000 inhabitants, and areas with between 1,000 and 2,500 inhabitants as intermediate. Most demographers, however, categorized these intermediate areas as urban. The 1941 census indicated that about two-thirds of the population resided in rural areas. By 1950 a major shift had occurred, as the census showed that more than 53 percent of the population was urban. By 1975 the urban population was estimated at over 82 percent; the figure surpassed 85 percent in the late 1980s.
In the thirty-year period between 1941 and 1971, the absolute number of rural people remained almost constant at 2.3 million, while the number of persons in large cities mushroomed. The rural areas experiencing the most intense out-migration were located in the states of Táchira, Mérida, and Trujillo. In 1941 only two cities, Caracas and Maracaibo, had more than 20,000 inhabitants. By 1971 there were eight cities with over 100,000 persons (see table 4, Appendix). In 1981 there were nine such cities. In 1989 the estimated population of the four largest cities was: Caracas, 3,500,000; Maracaibo, 1,350,000; Valencia, 1,250,000; and Barquisimeto, nearly 1,000,000.
In addition to its high natural growth rate, Venezuela also received a considerable number of foreign immigrants during the twentieth century. Influenced by provisions encouraging the immigration of skilled workers under the 1936 Law on Immigration and Settlement, a wave of immigrants arrived during the first years after World War II. The period of the Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship (1948-58) saw over a million people enter the country. Many of them came to help build major government public works projects; these workers effectively undermined the role of domestic labor and weakened the position of the then-underground labor unions. Many saw the government's 1959 suspension of Pérez's immigration policy as a reflection of the bitterness felt by some groups toward these immigrant workers.
Immigrants to Venezuela tended to come from a fairly small number of countries. About 30 percent of the foreign-born were Colombians. Spaniards accounted for about 25 percent of the total, Italians and Portuguese about 15 percent each. The balance of immigrants came from the Middle East, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, or Cuba. Many of these were political or economic refugees who found both economic opportunity and a democratic haven in Venezuela.
In addition to the officially recognized immigrants entering the country, many Colombians (and a far smaller number of Brazilians) have entered illegally. Although the actual number was unknown, it probably ranged between 500,000 and 1,000,000 indocumentados (undocumented or illegal aliens). These indocumentados suffered exploitation and discrimination; many Venezuelans considered them criminal elements. In reality, most crossed the border simply in search of better economic conditions. Most of them, farm or urban laborers, came in response to the lure of salaries several times as high as those prevailing in Colombia. Others were seasonal workers; about 15,000 reportedly entered each year to work as field hands during the harvest season. Still others entered to take jobs on farms or in factories for a longer time, but with the intention of eventually returning home. Most did stay, however, particularly in the northwestern states of Táchira and Zulia, where most of the border crossings took place. Some eventually migrated farther into the country, to Maracaibo or Caracas. Maracaibo hosted the largest urban concentration of Colombian indocumentados, who found work in the construction, petroleum, and other industries.
The illegal migration reportedly slowed down somewhat in the 1980s as a result of Venezuela's extended period of economic depression. Jobs became scarcer, and more Venezuelans found themselves seeking employment in occupations they had previously considered beneath their dignity. At the same time, complaints of mistreatment from Colombians in Venezuela increased, and a growing number of Colombian migrants apparently opted to travel to the United States.
Data as of December 1990
Venezuela Table of Contents