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."
|Country Studies main page | Venezuela Country Studies main page|