Venezuelan society by the twentieth century was an amalgam of three races; numerically, the country was primarily mestizo (mixed race). Although ethnic background served as an important criterion of status in colonial times, it became less so as genetic mixing involving various combinations of white, black, and Indian made distinguishing among racial types increasingly difficult. Eventually, ethnic categories came to be regarded as points along a continuum rather than as distinct categories, and physical appearance and skin color--instead of ethnic group per se--became major criteria for determining status. No national census has classified Venezuelans according to ethnicity since 1926, so that characterizations of the national composition are only rough estimates. Only 1 to 2 percent were pure Indians, and somewhere between 56 and 82 percent of the population were mestizos, which in Venezuela signified a mixture of any of the other categories. A credible break-down through 1990 would be 68 percent mestizo, 21 percent unmixed Caucasian, 10 percent black, and 1 percent Indian.
Even during the colonial period, native Venezuelan Indians were neither as numerous nor as advanced as their counterparts in Mexico and Peru. Different tribes with varying cultures and languages occupied portions of the territory. The more advanced groups were ruled by a single chief and supported a priesthood to serve the local temples, whereas the more primitive lived as wandering hunters and gatherers or as seminomadic slash-and-burn farmers. The Spanish conquest, either directly or indirectly, resulted in the decimation of many indigenous groups. Many perished from diseases against which they had no immunity; others died of famine or the harsh conditions of enslavement. The nomadic tropical forest Indians were less affected by the Spaniards than those Indians who occupied a defined territory. Most of the nomadic groups simply moved to less accessible areas. Even they, however, lost many of their number to diseases brought by the white men, diseases that were airborne or waterborne and therefore did not require direct contact to spread infection. By the end of the first century of Spanish rule, some twenty tribes out of forty or fifty had become extinct.
Also during the colonial period, racial mixture proceeded apace. The earliest conquerors brought no Spanish women with them, and many formed common-law relationships with Indian women. It was not uncommon for the offspring of these unions to be recognized and legitimated by the fathers.
African slavery was instituted in Venezuela to meet the growing labor demands of an emerging agricultural economy. Many of the slaves came to Venezuela not directly from Africa, but from other colonies, especially the Antilles (West Indies). Again, racial mixture was common. The offspring of master and slave often was freed and might even have received some education and been named a beneficiary in the father's will.
As a result of these racial mixtures, Venezuelan society from its very beginnings displayed a more homogeneous ethnic makeup than most other Latin American colonies. The large group of freedmen worked mostly as manual laborers in the emerging cities or lived as peasants on small plots of land. Blacks and mestizos occupied the rungs below Spaniards on the social ladder, but they still enjoyed a number of rights and guarantees provided by Spanish law and customs.
This rather fluid ethnic situation, however, did not equate to a free and open society. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, Venezuelan social structure was quite rigidly organized along class and racial lines. A small number of more-or-less pure-blooded, unmixed Caucasians occupied the top rung of the social ladder by virtue of their status as landlords and as self-styled inheritors of Hispanic mores and customs. This heritage stressed the importance of the patriarchal extended family, the primacy accorded individual uniqueness and dignity, disdain for manual labor, and a sharp distinction between the roles of men and women. In the traditional society, the lower class was rural, with the majority of its members poor peasants, usually of pure or mixed Indian or black descent. A small middle class, made up of less successful whites and some mestizos, lived mainly in the cities and towns.
By the early eighteenth century, the outlines and bases of the social system had been drawn. Most Indians and a growing number of blacks were losing their ethnic and cultural identities through the processes of racial mixture and societal pressure to conform to Hispanic norms. New generations began to see themselves as Venezuelans, distinct from Colombians, with whom they were associated through colonial administrative structures, or from the dwindling numbers of isolated forest Indians. The criollos, Venezuelan but of direct Spanish descent, formed the leadership cadre of a new national system. The growth of nationalism, however, did not subsume or overcome regional differences. In fact, the devotion to region was often far stronger than devotion to country, a factor that in many ways explains the protracted nature of the war of independence. In addition, both Indians and blacks during this period had reason to feel that they were better protected by the Spanish crown than might be the case under a regime ruled by haughty criollos.
After independence the society changed little; a small, privileged, criollo elite upper class still held sway over a small middle class and a large lower class. The internal wars among competing caudillos during the second half of the nineteenth century served as a leveler to some extent. By the turn of the century, even though Venezuela was still a very traditional society, the upper levels had been breached to the point where a semiliterate peasant caudillo such as Gómez could rise to the very top of the political ladder and rule for nearly three decades.
Given the relative fluidity of Venezuelan society in ethnic terms, few groups have stayed isolated and "pure". Among these were a few settlements of coastal blacks that retained more of their African and West Indian identity than did the vast majority of dark mestizos in many other areas of Venezuelan society, particularly in such cosmopolitan cities as Caracas. Other isolated groups included the tribal Indians, particularly in the Amazon area. A more visible but still distinct group was that of the Guajiro Indians, who could be found mainly in part of the area around Maracaibo, on the Península de la Guajira, and on the Colombian border.
The Guajiro, pastoral nomads who range freely across the Venezuelan-Colombian border region, represented probably the best known and largest tribe of Indians remaining in the country. Owing to their pastoral life, most of the Guajiro lived in temporary villages, often in shelters that were little more than lean-tos. Guajiro society is organized into matrilineal clans, headed by chieftains who inherit their office through the maternal line. The social organization is based on a division of society into classes of nobles and commoners.
Although the Guajiro's style of dress and customs separated them sharply from the larger Venezuelan society, they had adopted many criollo traits and adapted fairly well to a money economy. Most professed at least nominal Roman Catholicism and spoke Spanish. Intermarriage with non-Guajiros also was not uncommon. In this respect, the Guajiros reflected the changes in twentiethcentury Venezuelan society as a whole as they adapted to a process of modernization driven by the nation's oil wealth.
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