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 1990 gone on to the essential next step of providing the peasants legal title to their parcels.
Regional variations in settlement patterns reflected geographic conditions, land-use practices, and historical traditions. In the northern mountain region, the heart of Spanish colonial influence, most peasants lived in small, dense settlements. In areas where wage laborers or sharecroppers still worked on large plantations, workers lived in small, centrally located clusters of houses. In the forests of the Orinoco plains, the pattern was usually one of isolated farms and cattle ranches.
Although most peasants were poor, there were gradations determined by such variables as land ownership or job security on a plantation or a ranch. The poorest peasants migrated from farm to farm or from crop to crop. In strict economic terms, the small number of tribal Indians represented the poorest group in Venezuelan society; this characterization, however, was misleading because Indian communities have never been fully integrated into the nation's economy, and therefore the concepts of individual earnings or the use of currency were foreign to their way of life.
For centuries, Venezuelan peasants supported rebel leaders in return for promises of reform. At the time of independence, they were much closer to their own José Antonio Páez than to the aristocratic Bolívar. Since 1958 many have joined the peasant leagues affiliated with the AD and have become much more influential in political terms. Nevertheless, peasants continued to migrate in massive numbers to the cities to escape their poor rural conditions.
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