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Culture & People
 
 
 

People

Venezuela is a country of immigrants. About two-thirds of the population is mestizo (of mixed European and Indian ancestry) or mulatto-mestizo (African, European, and Indian); about one-fifth of Venezuelans are of European lineage, and one-tenth have mainly African ancestry. The native Indian population is statistically small.

Prior to 1948 Venezuela had never openly encouraged non-Hispanic immigration, except for selective influxes of merchants, sailors, and entrepreneurs from neighbouring West Indian islands. As the petroleum industry grew, however, the government attempted to attract a wider range of people. During a 10-year period of open immigration (1948–58), Venezuela recruited agricultural and skilled workers from Spain, Italy, and Portugal; at the same time migration from Colombia to Venezuela also increased. Approximately one million immigrants entered the country during that time, although many of them eventually returned home. After 1958 the government tightened immigration controls to favour foreigners with high-level skills, yet during the 1960s Colombian labourers continued to move into the rural sector as replacements for Venezuelans who were leaving farms for the cities.

The government again shifted immigration policies in response to the mid-1970s petroleum boom, because there was a large demand for semiskilled and skilled labour in all sectors of the economy. At the same time, professional and technical workers and their families were leaving Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay because of political instability and persecution there, and many of them relocated to Venezuela. After 1976 the government again tightened its controls on immigration from other South American countries, instead favouring professionals from the United States, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Throughout that period of relative prosperity and economic expansion, the volume of illegal immigration (mainly unskilled workers and their families) matched that of legal entry. Most illegal immigrants came from Colombia, with smaller numbers arriving from Brazil and other neighbouring countries. Prior to the extended economic downturn of the 1980s, as many as 1.5 million undocumented Colombians resided in Venezuela, and more than a decade later hundreds of thousands remained. The influx of foreigners generated xenophobic sentiments in the late 1980s.

Ethnic groups are commonly identified with particular regions. Venezuelans of largely European and mestizo ancestry are concentrated in the major cities of the north. Peoples of African ancestry and mulatto-mestizo groups predominate along the Caribbean coast. Many mestizos from the highlands are physically distinct from those of the lowlands because of the different levels of intermarriage between Hispanic and Indian populations in the two regions. The Indian minorities survive mainly in the sparsely inhabited interior—three-fifths live in Zulia state (primarily in the forests near Lake Maracaibo), one-seventh inhabit Amazonas state in the far south, and smaller numbers live in such remote areas as the Guiana Highlands and the Orinoco delta region in the east. According to government estimates, there are some 38 distinct Indian peoples within Venezuelan territory. The Goajiro (Wayuu) are the largest indigenous group, followed by the Warrau (Warao).


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