The Middle Class
Most accounts describe the Venezuelan middle class as the country's most dynamic and heterogeneous class in terms of social and racial origins, and as the greatest comparative beneficiary of the process of economic development. Consisting of small businessmen, industrialists, teachers, government workers, professionals, and managerial and technical personnel, this class was almost entirely urban. Some professions, such as teaching and government service, were traditionally associated with middle-class status, whereas newer technical professions have expanded the options and enhanced mobility within this class. Improved educational and job opportunities since the establishment of democratic government in 1958 have enabled more women to enter the labor force, thus either helping themselves and/or their families to attain middle-class status. Not surprisingly, those who passed from the lower to the middle class in Venezuela often attributed their changed status to their education, and, accordingly, many struggled to send their children to private schools so that they could move still farther up the social ladder.
A few members of the middle class moved into the elite ranks through successful business deals or by marriage. It should be noted, however, that class antagonism in Venezuela has been tempered somewhat as a result of the special efforts made by political parties to appeal to and to co-opt middle-class voters. As a result, the Venezuelan middle class had reason to feel much more politically empowered and significant than did similar groups elsewhere in Latin America. Besides the political parties, active participation in a variety of social groups and organizations further strengthened the commitment of this particular middle class to the overall sociopolitical system.
Constitutional provisions have helped both the middle and the poorer classes fulfill their aspirations in terms of greater personal freedom, expanded economic opportunities, and greater individual involvement in government. At the core of the 1961 constitution is a commitment to social justice; this commitment, in turn, has led to the creation and funding of government agencies designed to provide to the middle class and to the poor many services that had traditionally been reserved to the wealthy prior to the 1958 coup. The implementation of many social justice goals is all the more remarkable because it occurred not only during Democratic Action (Acción Democrática--AD) governments, which, by definition, were center-left, but also under Christian Democratic (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente--COPEI) administrations, which were more centerright in the Venezuelan spectrum.
A short list of government agencies devoted to the implementation of social justice goals sketched in the 1961 constitution would include the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, which provided free medical care, retirement benefits, and pensions to the disabled; and the Ministry of Education, which supervised a vast array of goals and programs intended to bring literacy, technical, and professional training to all Venezuelans. The Venezuelan presidency itself offered a striking illustration of the impact of these social justice goals: since 1958 all presidents have come from the middle class, and in some cases they could claim, with reason, that they had surmounted rather lowly beginnings.
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