Given its name by a Spanish explorer who thought it reminded him of a “little Venice”, Venezuela has the world’s largest petroleum reserves.
Known for its scenic beauty and diverse ecological landscapes, as well as sprawling, crime-ridden cities, Venezuela today is considered a land of extremes.
Initially searching for the mythical “El Dorado” or the city of gold, Spanish colonialists turned the region into a hub for mining and plantation agriculture from the 1500s until it won formal independence in 1830. Simon Bolivar, who led rebellions against colonialism, is considered the country’s liberator and national hero.
Faced with a series of dictators and political unrest, Venezuela became a democracy in 1958, far earlier than other Latin American countries.
The rise in oil prices in 1973, following the Arab oil embargo, caused the economy to grow and allowed for some infrastructure development. The subsequent fall in petroleum prices in the late 1980s caused a current accounts crisis and political instability. Aside from oil, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of export earnings, other exports include agricultural products, steel, bauxite, aluminum and some basic manufactured goods.
The current population of more than 29 million represents a diverse ethnic mix of former African slaves, Europeans and indigenous people.
The socialist years
First elected in 1998, former army officer Hugo Chavez transformed the country, distancing Venezuela from its former major ally, the US, while expanding social programmes for the poor. Critics say his rule was characterised by authoritarianism and mismanagement.
Chavez died on March 5 and his chosen successor, Nicolas Maduro, was selected as interim president ahead of presidential elections on April 14.
Rising oil prices, coupled with new social programmes, have led to significant decreases in poverty and inequality during the last 14 years, although both issues are still major social problems.
Venezuela’s Gini coefficient – an index that measures inequality by placing countries on a scale from 0 (perfect equality) to 1 (perfect inequality) – moved from 0.498 in 1999 to 0.412 in 2008, “a drop unparalleled in Latin America”, according to the Brookings Institute.
Poverty dropped by 30 per cent between 1995 and 2005, according to the World Bank, while extreme poverty dropped from 32 per cent to 19 per cent.
Crime, a long-standing problem in Venezuela, has risen in recenly. The 4,550 murders recorded in 1998 rose to 19,336 by 2011, according to the Brookings Institute. Life expectancy is around 74 years.
Since 1998, under the mantra of “21st-century socialism”, several private companies have been nationalised and critics say the country’s economic climate is poor.
Venezuela has one of the planet’s least competitive economies, according to the World Economic Forum, placing 126 out of 144 assessed economies.
Changes since 1998 have left the country deeply polarised, largely through not exclusively along class lines, with the poor supporting the “Bolivarian revolution” and the elites and middle classes backing the opposition.
Politically, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has a federal system of government, comprising 23 states, the capital district and 72 islands. The majority of Venezuela’s population is Christian, and Spanish is the primary language.