THROUGHOUT MOST OF ITS HISTORY, Venezuela remained a poor country with a rigidly stratified, largely rural population. The political system in the long era of caudillismo (rule by local strongmen, or caudillos) was one in which shifting factions, loosely organized around competing caudillos, vied for dominance over disenfranchised masses. A minuscule upper class of wealthy hacendados, whose income derived from cocoa abd coffee plantations, controlled the economy. This group based their superior status on their light skin and on Hispanic cultural and social norms established during the colonial period. Despite its power, prestige, and wealth, however, the upper stratum never formed the sort of cohesive, entrenched oligarchy so common throughout most of the rest of the continent. Venezuela's comparative poverty--its lack of gold or precious stones--limited the attention it received from Spain; fewer Spaniards ventured to Venezuela than to nearby Colombia or more distant Peru. The colonial period, therefore, did not produce an opulent upper class, either Spanish or native born.
Below this small, modestly rich, and fragmented upper class was a somewhat larger, but still limited, middle stratum. This group consisted of soldiers, artisans, craftsmen, bureaucrats, and small traders. Farther down the social ladder was the vast bulk of the population. Persons in this stratum, who were considered and considered themselves lower class, consisted largely of peasants of mixed descent. They had different values, life-styles, family patterns, and religious practices from those of the upper class. These Venezuelans played only a marginal role in the country's affairs. They occupied a subordinate and dependent position in the socioeconomic structure and exercised political influence only by joining the ranks of the local caudillo's personal militia.
Independence effected few changes in the relative position and sizes of these three classes. Indeed, until the discovery and exploitation of large quantities of oil in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Venezuela's economy and society exhibited a traditional agrarian pattern dominated by the production of export crops, such as cocoa and coffee, and some cattle raising. The shift to oil and the subsequent expansion of manufacturing eradicated the old order. In less than a generation, Venezuela became a far more modern, urban-based society. By 1960 some 60 percent of the population lived in cities of over 5,000 inhabitants, and the population of metropolitan Caracas numbered over a million.
Middle-class Venezuelans became a highly mobile people, moving regularly from place to place and job to job. Traditional values changed in ways that made the society more open and class boundaries more flexible. The ongoing process of value modification contributed to changes that accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s, as more women entered the universities and the labor force and more citizens participated in the liberalized political system. In the 1990s, a Venezuelan society still exhibited enormous differences between its upper and its lowest strata. But the social system had become more permeable, and the urban middle class had become probably the most effective group involved in the country's vigorous partisan politics. Many Venezuelans therefore felt that the greatest challenge to their sociopolitical system lay not in further involvement of the middle class, but in responding to the concerns of the still large group at the base of the societal pyramid.
|Country Studies main page | Venezuela Country Studies main page|