Venezuela (officially the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) is a country on the northern coast of South America, bordering Colombia, Brazil and Guyana. Its society has been deeply shaped by Spanish , which introduced Roman Catholicism and the Spanish language. Today, the dominant culture of Venezuela reflects a blend of indigenous and Spanish customs, as well as regional Caribbean and Andean influences. Venezuelans are often described as warm, welcoming and open people. They are generally unified by a shared desire for fairness and equality. This is embodied by the national hero, Simón Bolívar, of whom they are very proud. However, customs and attitudes can vary significantly depending on a person’s class, or locality (e.g. rural or urban). Indeed, perceptions of the culture often especially differ between those from different social and economic classes.
Geography and Urbanisation
The majority of the Venezuelan population live in urban areas (88.2%), mostly situated in the northern and western highlands.1 Urbanisation has increased in recent decades with the mass rural-to-urban migration leading to the formation of large outer-urban shanty towns surrounding cities. It is estimated over 80% of the population of Caracas live in these neighbourhoods, also known as ‘barrios’.2 Those living in rural areas often continue to live agriculturally based lifestyles. Roughly, a quarter of land in Venezuela is still used for agricultural purposes.3
People often draw cultural distinctions based on geographic divisions in Venezuela, such as differences between the ‘Andinos’ (people from the Andean region), ‘Llaneros’ (people from the plains) or ‘Orientales’ (people from the east). Some of these characteristics are clear to see, while others are maintained through stereotypes often associated with each region. For example, Andinos are often thought to be more religious, reserved and formal. Meanwhile, Llaneros are often described as ‘cowboys’ of the plains.
Migration and Ethnic Composition
Many aspects of Venezuela’s culture have been shaped by its rich history of migration. The period of the 16th century onwards introduced a sizeable Spanish population and a substantial African demographic under slavery schemes. Various other European groups (such as Italians, Germans, French and Portuguese) also arrived. The diverse composition has greatly contributed to the cultural practices of the country. For example, Spanish is the most widely spoken language. Many other modern cultural forms (such as music and food) are derived from the consolidation of Spanish and Afro-Caribbean traditions with the indigenous culture.
Nearly all Venezuelans have mixed heritage in some way. According to the 2011 Venezuelan census, more than half of the population (51.6%) identifies as ‘mestizo’, meaning they share a mixture of European, or Afro-Caribbean ancestry to some degree. The term 'moreno' (literally translating as 'brown’) is more commonly used in day-to-day language when referring to a /person of mixed and is not generally seen as an offensive term. A further 42% of the population identified as ‘white’ (predominantly European heritage), 2.8% as ‘black’ or of African descent and a further 2.7% as indigenous.4 However, it is reported that the estimates of minorities are likely far lower than the actual proportion.5 Other sources estimate nearly a quarter of the population has African ancestry.6
Ethnic Identity and Class
The national discourse in Venezuela tends to homogenise belonging. For example, if asked about their , people generally describe themselves as being simply “Venezuelan” rather than explaining their exact heritage. There is a sense that, because most people share a mix of white, black and indigenous ancestry to some degree, Venezuelans are one large group of /moreno people that are ‘racially equal’.7 As such, social disadvantage and discrimination are generally described as a class issue rather than one of or .8
However, there is evidence to suggest that class and / are closely linked in Venezuela. The historical affluence and power of the European colonists over the indigenous population led to centuries of economic, political and social policies that favoured white inheritance of wealth.9 This general pattern has seen those of darker skin to be more economically and socially disadvantaged. Meanwhile, those of lighter complexion are more likely to be in higher socioeconomic and social positions.
Members of the traditional elite class often trace their lineage back to wealthy European families and commonly hold positions of power (such as large landowners or oil industry contractors). Meanwhile, most of the rural poor have more dominant indigenous or Afro-Caribbean ancestry. This being said, social mobility became more possible from the 1960s onwards. A new high class has emerged consisting of people who have little connection to the European past, such as company owners that supported the Chavismo movement (see Political History and Chavismo below).
There are large inequalities of wealth across Venezuela. Social stratifications often permeate social interaction and define opportunities afforded to people. This has often been seen as an inevitable fact of daily life, and has translated into a broad social acceptance of power .10 However, such attitudes are changing significantly as the political and economic situation deteriorates. Class has become increasingly politicised as the economic crisis has disadvantaged certain social groups more than others. Today, the ‘elite’ now generally consists of those who have access to international currency and, hence, have more financial mobility.
The lowest class is the biggest class, generally made up of rural workers and people with temporary or informal employment (e.g. street vendors or merchants). The middle class used to be primarily made up of well-educated and urbanised people with steady employment. However, distinctions between middle and lower class have become blurred in recent years due to the economic instability and hyperinflation. Many people have had to adapt to the informal economy to create job opportunities for themselves. For example, it is common for people to earn money by lining up all day for food and other basic goods at state stores, which they resell at large mark-ups. These ‘bachacos’ (ants) form enormous lines all over the country. Today, is largely divided between those who line up for goods and those who pay others to line up for them.11
Indigenous People of Venezuela
Venezuela was originally inhabited by a diverse number of indigenous groups prior to . These groups practiced various forms of subsistence lifestyles (i.e. sedentary, nomadic or semi-nomadic). Many were hunters and gatherers, such as the Carib people.12 Other groups, such as the Arawak, Sáliva and Chibcha people, were mostly agriculturalists that lived in village communities.13,14 While many Venezuelans would claim to have a degree of indigenous heritage, the practice of indigenous traditions has significantly diminished since Spanish .
The most recent estimates identified 51 distinct indigenous groups, 44 of which are officially recognised by the Venezuelan government.15,16 Some of the largest groups include the Wayuú, Pemón, Warao, Yanomamö and Kariña groups. There are dozens of indigenous languages and dialects spoken throughout the country (some estimate over 70). However, it is estimated only one in ten indigenous Venezuelans speak a language other than Spanish.17 Many indigenous languages are now considered threatened or extinct. Those who speak a native language are usually bilingual in Spanish (often just fluent enough to do business and daily interactions). Many indigenous Venezuelans are concentrated in the south of the country, near and within the Amazon rainforest. For example, the Yanomamö live within the Amazon and are one of the most remote indigenous communities in the world.18 However, the majority of indigenous people now live in urban areas.19
Attitudes towards the nation’s history and Christopher Columbus have changed over time. In 2004, the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival was renamed as the “Day of Indigenous Resistance” in recognition of the devastating impact the ‘discovery’ of the Americas brought upon the indigenous people of the region. This movement has led to more anti- activism. The national education curriculum now also highlights the destructive aspects of . Despite increased formal recognition, the indigenous people of Venezuela continue to be significantly disadvantaged across many population measurements.20
Venezuela achieved independence from Spain in 1821 after Simón Bolívar united the areas of present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador to lead the movement (as well as parts of Peru, Guyana and Brazil). This independence movement, ‘Gran Colombia’, gave rise to modern and also ended slavery in the region. Simón Bolívar (also known as ‘The Liberator’) is widely considered a hero in the region and equally loved across the political spectrum for taking a stand against the , slavery, inequality and segregation of the period. His legacy informs a large part of the Venezuelan national identity, representing many of the values Venezuelans hold very close. He is often idolised as an underdog figure and admired for forfeiting his privileged upbringing to fight for principles of fairness and equality.
The symbolism of Simón Bolívar has grown in Venezuela with the popularity and rise of Hugo Chavéz (see Political History and Chavismo below). His administration initiated the “Bolivarian Revolution”, renaming the country (the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela), rewriting the Constitution (the Bolivarian Constitution 1999) and introducing socialist policy in Simón Bolívar’s name. This use of the name and imagery of Bolivar activated the collective warmth that Venezuelans have towards their national hero. However, those who oppose Chavéz may feel Bolívar’s image has been distorted by Chavismo (see Political History and Chavismo). Generally, a Venezuelan's attitude on this generally varies depending on their political preferences.
Political History and Chavismo
It is important to understand the political history of Venezuela as the events of recent decades have drastically changed society and inform the current situation. Venezuela was widely considered one of South America's wealthiest and safest countries throughout the 20th century. A lot of the nation’s wealth stemmed from its large oil reserves, which are the largest in the world.21 However, the country has also struggled with widespread corruption.
In 1999, Hugo Chavéz came into power promising a social transformation to tackle inequality and corruption. His presidency lasted for 14 years until his death in 2013, during which time he embarked on a socialist project and enacted sweeping reforms. A key belief of his left-wing ideology (referred to as ‘Chavismo’) was that the state should support social welfare programs for its citizens and represent the needs of the poor. Among a suite of policies, the government nationalised many private industries (including the oil industry) and invested oil revenue into social services, health care and education, reducing poverty rates by about 20% during his presidency.22
Hugo Chavéz’s policies have had deep, influential impacts across the country and increasingly polarised the Venezuelan population. Political ideologies in Venezuela often remain largely divided between “pro-” or “anti-Chavista” attitudes. Chavéz’s rule became more controversial as he expanded the scope and power of the presidency (removing a chamber of congress, ending presidential term limits and reducing civilian control of the military). Nevertheless, he particularly appealed to a large socially marginalised and disenfranchised demographic in the lower class. He is still revered by many as an almost mythical figure, referred to by some as the 'supreme commander' of Venezuela. The Chavismo movement and ideology continues to be upheld by his former vice president, Nicolás Maduro. Maduro was elected as Chavéz’s successor in 2013 following his death and is seen by many as his spiritual son. However, his popularity has diminished since the economic crisis (see The Crisis below).
At the time of writing, Venezuela is going through some of the toughest times in the country’s history. In 2014, a decrease in global oil prices saw Venezuela experience a large economic crisis. As the country’s oil reserves had been nationalised under Chavéz’s administration, this left the country’s economy vulnerable to the rising and falling global price of oil. This crisis was exacerbated by mismanagement of state-owned companies and industries. Hyperinflation soared, leading to a goods shortage. The political and economic situation has only worsened in the years since.
Almost every aspect of life has been disrupted by the crisis, leading to poverty and mass migration. Hyperinflation has led to a dramatic drop in living standards with basic goods and services becoming hard to access or unavailable (e.g. food, electricity, health care, water). Ultimately, the country is facing a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions. As of 2019, the UN estimates nearly 94% of the country’s population are living below the poverty line.23 More than half of Venezuelan families do not have enough income to meet basic food needs, with roughly 75% of people having lost significant weight due to hunger since 2017.24,25 It is estimated that hospitals lack access to 85% of basic medicines.26 Over 3 million Venezuelans have left to neighbouring countries and beyond, including 20% of the nation’s doctors.27 The exodus of Venezuelan nationals is already one of the largest in the modern history of and the Caribbean, with the UN estimating this number will rise to 5.3 million by the end of 2019.28
Since the economic crisis began in 2014, there have been widespread protests and political agitation. However, Maduro’s leadership style has become increasingly authoritarian. Most protests and political demonstrations (both violent and non-violent) have been met with repression from the state, leading to loss of life in many cases. Maduro won another presidential term in May 2018 despite calls for his removal. In January 2019, the leader of the opposition government, Juan Guaidó, challenged Maduro's claim to the presidency and declared himself the acting president. This sparked a crisis concerning who is the legitimate President of Venezuela.
It is important not to presume a Venezuelan’s political position. Every person has a different explanation as to why things have happened. Strongly held views have divided the country (even families) and can easily ignite emotions. Some Venezuelans would consider themselves to be living in a dictatorship, while others would describe it as a socialist country. Regardless of their position, most people generally feel disenfranchised and let down by the political leadership of both sides. For example, many Venezuelans now blame Nicolás Maduro for the mismanagement of the crisis, including some of those who originally supported Chavéz. One may hear people call the political revolution a “robo-lution” (“robo” meaning “steal” in Spanish).
While many political opinions may circulate, most Venezuelans are primarily concerned with restoring social normalcy, security and economic stability. Those living overseas often express sadness over the fact that many aspects of their culture that they miss and remember have been changed by the crisis. Challenges also arise as it is very difficult for the Venezuelan living overseas to get accurate updates on the situation (it can change rapidly week to week). Many also feel that there is not enough awareness of the severity of the crisis in the West (foreign journalists in Venezuela are banned from reporting on the crisis).29 It is common for people to shake their heads and suppress their despair with dry humour when the inevitable discussion about politics arises.
The tough economic conditions have influenced a rise in violence and crime (both anarchic and organised). This insecurity has increased danger to personal safety, impacting the social atmosphere and daily life. For example, it is quite unsafe for a group of women to walk down the street unchaperoned at night in Caracas, whereas this would have been commonplace behaviour not long ago. People often have to restrict their movements to avoid crimes of opportunity. It is common for friends and family members to stay in close contact with one another.
This social climate has exacerbated a high level of in Venezuelans’ daily life. People tend to avoid ambiguity in their lives and institutions, and desire choices that offer stability.30 Decisions may be made with immediate results in mind (rather than long-term goals) as insecure conditions can make it hard to plan very far ahead into the future. Venezuelans tend to favour open and honest business dealings as transparency minimises the possibility of uncertain situations. Ultimately, people are mostly concerned with ensuring their family’s security as much as possible in the short term.
Interaction and Socialisation
Despite the country’s current challenges, Venezuelans continue to have a spontaneous and fun cultural spirit. They are also very flexible and adaptable people, able to find positives and commonalities even if the situation is bad. Such characteristics are often noticeable in the populations living in other countries. Venezuelans are commonly optimistic and value a healthy work/life balance, thinking of leisure time as important. This attitude towards life is also reflected in the festivals and holidays that are commonly celebrated in Venezuela. Regional and national festivals are often celebrated with parades, musical performances, dancing, costumes and parties, such as religious celebrations like the Fiesta de San Juan and the celebration of Corpus Christi. These also reflect the high value Venezuelans place on the traditions of the past.
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