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December 2010



Venezuela is comprised of 12,050 sq. km. (352,143 sq. mi.), slightly more than twice the size of the state of California. Its capital, Caracas, has a population of 3.2 million. Other major cities include: Maracaibo, Valencia, Barquisimeto, Maracay, Merida, Ciudad Bolivar. The terrain of Venezuela consists of Andes Mountains and Maracaibo Lowlands in northwest, plains in the central area, and the Guiana Highlands in the southeast. Its climate varies from tropical to temperate, depending on elevation.

At the time of Spanish discovery, the people living in what is now Venezuela were mainly agriculturists and hunters living in groups along the coast, the Andean mountain range, and the Orinoco River. The first permanent Spanish settlement in South America, Nuevo Toledo, was established in Venezuela in 1522. Venezuela was a relatively neglected colony in the 1500s and 1600s, gaining independence from Spain on July 5, 1811.

Much of Venezuela's 19th-century history was characterized by periods of political instability, dictatorial rule, and revolutionary turbulence. The first half of the 20th century was marked by periods of authoritarianism--including dictatorships from 1908-35 and from 1950-58. For most of the first half of the 20th century, Venezuela was ruled by generally benevolent military strongmen, who promoted the oil industry and allowed for some social reforms.

Venezuela remains highly dependent on oil revenues, which account for roughly 90% of export earnings. In 2008-09 President Hugo Chavez continued efforts to increase the government's control of the economy by nationalizing firms in the agribusiness, banking, tourism, oil, cement, and steel sectors.

An estimated 28 million people lived in Venezuela as of 2009. The population growth rate is 1.6% per year, and roughly 50% of Venezuelans are under the age of 25. The natural resources of Venezuela include: petroleum, natural gas, iron ore, gold, bauxite, other minerals, hydropower, and diamonds. Natural hazards to Venezuela are: floods, rockslides, mudslides, and periodic droughts.

CIA World Factbook, U.S. State Department Background Notes, 10/2010, 2/2010