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Opposition demonstrators take part in a women's rally against Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal, Venezuela.

Opposition demonstrators participate in a women's rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal on February 26.

Photograph by Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters

Eve Conant

for National Geographic

Published March 2, 2014

Venezuela's economy is unraveling—and so is the confidence of the country's hard-hit population. Soaring crime, high inflation, and a plummeting living standard have sparked weeks of protest in Caracas and other cities.

President Nicolas Maduro claims the opposition is trying to stage a U.S.-sponsored coup, but his accusations and free-speech curbs further fuel the popular anger.

Even with the opposition's Harvard-educated leader in prison, the protests are gaining supporters and the violence in the streets shows little sign of abating.

This is hardly the first time Venezuela has erupted. But unlike the current unrest in countries like Syria or Ukraine, which pits ethnic, religious, or regional groups against one another, "What we're seeing in Venezuela is different," says Arturo Valenzuela, a professor of government at Georgetown University and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. "It is a clash of economic sectors."

The essential question behind that clash is how to distribute the wealth of what many say is both Venezuela's greatest asset and greatest destabilizer—oil.

"The single most important geographic fact for Venezuela is that it has one of the greatest reserves of hydrocarbon in the world," says Valenzuela. "But that is also its curse."

Flowers with the names of the victims of recent violence are laid by opposition demonstrators in Venezuela.
Photograph by Jorge Silva, Reuters
Opposition demonstrators lay flowers bearing the names of recent violence at the feet of national guards during a rally on February 26.

A Nation Built on Oil

Many think that the discovery of oil is new for Venezuela, a product of this past century. But its history stretches back hundreds of years. Miguel Tinker Salas, professor of Latin American history at Pomona College, says the country's oil wealth boomed with the discovery of vast reserves in 1914 and again in 1922 with the eruption of the Barroso II gusher near Lake Maracaibo, but it had also been encountered by the Spanish at the time of the conquistadors.

"Oil was so plentiful it bubbled to the surface. They sent a barrel to the crown [in 1539] as a cure for gout," says Tinker Solas, speaking from Caracas this week. "It was used to caulk boats, for roofing, to light fires. But because there was no industrial revolution yet, it had no wider use."

That all changed, he says, with the invention of the internal combustion engine and the decision of the British Navy to convert their ships from coal to oil in the early 1900s. During this time, agriculture in Venezuela was largely regional, not able to sustain a national economy, he says. There was coffee production in the western Andean states, cattle culture in the llanos (plains), and cacao cultivation in the central plains. (See pictures of Venezuela.)

In his book, The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela, Tinker Salas writes that, "with its unpredictable weather patterns, fragmented topography, impenetrable rainforest and implacable insects, Venezuela proved incapable of sustaining large complex and hierarchical structured Indigenous societies similar to those found in Mexico, Central America or the Andes.

A fractured geography not only accentuated physical boundaries but also cultural frontiers between groups..." As oil developed, the people of its countryside—with its malaria and other tropical diseases and dismally low life expectancy of 37 years—moved to the oil fields and rapidly developing urban centers of the country.

Anti-government demonstrators clash with riot police at Altamira Square in Caracas.
Photograph by Carlos Garcia Rawllins, Reuters
Antigovernment demonstrators clash with riot police at Altamira Square in Caracas on February 24.

Weak Agriculture

By 1935 Venezuela was a net importer of food. With oil so lucrative, economic sectors like agriculture weren't developed to their full potential.

Caracas—a city developed by the Spaniards away from the coast to protect it from marauding pirates and unrest—found itself crowded with shantytowns and newcomers, he says.

Today, Venezuela is of the most urbanized of all the Latin American countries. "As a result of what's known as a resource curse, there was a geographical displacement of the vast majority of the populace into the cities," says George Ciccariello-Maher, assistant professor of history and politics at Drexel University.

Nationalization of Oil Industry

In 1978, American companies found themselves kicked out as oil became nationalized. But the oil boom of the 1960s and '70s saw a bust in the '80s as oil prices fell. Riots reached a peak in 1989, 25 years ago this week, when the country's leadership tried to implement austerity measures.

The poor—distraught over rising gasoline and bus ticket prices—tried to take over the city. "This had a profound, traumatizing effect on the whiter, wealthier classes," says Ciccariello-Maher. "Caracas became segregated and militarized, with gated neighborhoods. The geographic impact of that political movement was profound."

One military officer, Hugo Chávez, joined others in the security forces who didn't want to take further part in efforts to repress the protests. He rose to power in 1999, remaining president until his death last year. (See "Hugo Chávez Leaves Venezuela Rich in Oil, But Ailing.")

He drew inspiration from South America's most celebrated independence hero, Simón Bolívar, who played a leading role in Latin America's fight for independence from the Spanish empire. Chávez even dubbed his socialist, anti-American movement the "Bolivarian Revolution."

That revolution, however, appears to be on unsteady footing now, especially in the cities.

A supporter of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro holds a portrait of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a march.
A supporter of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro holds a portrait of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a march in Caracas on February 2.

Opposing the Socialist Way

"The main cities of Venezuela are found in the arco costa-montaña (coast-mountain-arc)—the mountainous region of Venezuela (the Andes) and the Coastal Range—because they have the most fertile soil and healthiest climate of the country," says Tomás Straka, a historian at Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

These cities are where the petrodollars were invested and where most of the Venezuelan middle and upper classes live, and many are governed by leaders who oppose the socialist leadership in Caracas. (Also see "Venezuelan Refinery Under Scrutiny After Deadly Blaze.")

In Caracas itself, some of the neighborhood lines drawn after the 1989 protests remain in effect now. "The social geography of the city has an influence on the protests today," says Straka.

"In Caracas, the spatial division of the classes and its political consequences are particularly clear. By 2002-2003 [a time of protests and a coup attempt against Chávez] separations were already evident: The east, where the middle and higher classes live, was the scene of protests against Hugo Chávez, while in the west, where the working class is the majority, were the supporters of Chávez. Nowadays, although this division in general still remains, some areas of the west have started to protest as well." (Watch a video of the Chávez era.)

The recent upheaval first began with students protesting deteriorating security after an alleged campus rape attempt in the city of San Cristóbal, but protests have swelled to include older Venezuelans fed up with rising prices and scarce goods.

Protesters are also upset, says Straka, over a crackdown on independent media and angry over the behavior of colectivos (created by Chávez and supported by him), which are fashioned as political organizations but act in some cases as paramilitary groups. Roaming the city on motorcycles, the colectivos appear to be behind several recent attacks, including one that led to the deaths of three demonstrators.

Neighborhoods that have seen some of the roughest protests, like Altamira, are in fact located in some of the wealthier, more middle class areas, where the government's economic policies and its expropriation of factories and other antibusiness measures are most strongly denounced.

The poor have suffered in the downturn, too, but as a disenfranchised community it has been more supportive of government price controls and other subsidies.

At the heart of the debate, says Drexel's Ciccariello-Maher, are "two visions" of the country and how its oil wealth should be distributed and spent: Should it go to social programs for the county's poor, or should it target other needs, such as an end to socialist policies or better policing—which are just some of the demands of protesters?

With the Crisis, Violence

"You have a genuine economic crisis going on," says Georgetown's Valenzuela, worsened by a failure of leadership.

"Venezuela has become one of the most violent countries in Latin America. What we've been seeing, actually, is the collapse of the state. This was exacerbated after the death of Chávez, who was a charismatic leader with magical appeal among his followers. (See "Pictures: Hugo Chávez's Venezuela.")

"His successors simply can't take on the mantle of Hugo Chávez."

David Seabaugh
David Seabaugh

Oil is not the "destabilizer" in Venezuela and this is not "a clash of economic sectors". Communism imported from Cuba is the destabilizer and this is a clash of totalitarianism versus freedom. Another country in the Americas falls to Communism and millions of good, freedom loving people are condemned to lives of extreme poverty, lack of basic necessities, and hopelessness while Obama vacations and tacitly supports the communist who are literally shooting children in the streets.

Ray Shackelford
Ray Shackelford

Hugo Chavez created a mess that was on a foundation of a mess to begin with,  I lived in Venezuela in 92 and everyone wanted Carlos Andres Perez to be ousted.  It almost happened and Chavez was jailed as you mentioned.  Now the masses are protesting again  about the same issues that are worse and Lopez is in jail.  We'll have to see if another Caldera is around to let Lopez out and the people vote him in.  It's like a cycle.

Manuela Santiago
Manuela Santiago

Here is Class Work form my school

Once you have read the entire article, answer the following questions in your Wikispaces post. You will be graded on how much you complete and the accuracy of your answers. This is not a group project. You should work on this individually. This is not homework. You must post your work by the end of class. If you don’t post anything, you will not earn any points. (15 points possible)

1. What is happening in Venezuela?

In Venezuela there’s a big crisis, there are people dead. People rebel even students, Nicolas Maduro doesn’t want to take the blame that he really has. Some Venezuelans are against him and others are with him. Every minute there are people killing other people. It’s not fair to Venezuela to suffer that just because they don’t have a good president. Everybody chose him for president because he was the second hand of Chavez, which everyone loved.  I think Chavez thought Nicolas was going to follow his steps but he didn’t. Henrique Capriles looks nicer and he had excellent ideas for Venezuela, but God has His purpose for his people in Venezuela. Another problem in Venezuela is that the homicide rate is increasing, the food is food shortages and a representative of the opposition was imprisoned.

2. Why is the conflict in Venezuela different than the conflict in other countries like Syria or Ukraine?

Syria or Ukraine, which pits ethnic, religious, or regional groups against one another. Venezuela is suffering more by this part, "It is a clash of economic sectors." And also because there is a disability of the government, a conflict between the government and the opposition. And that is a risk of the Venezuelans.

3. Who does the President of Venezuela (Nicolas Maduro) blame for the conflict?

He hasn’t respected the opposition of the country, I think he is really confused and inresponsible. He doesn’t know anything about leading a country. He is just blaming on everything he sees.  

4. What is the greatest source of wealth in Venezuela?

The oil.

5. Who owns this vast source of wealth?

The government of Hugo Chavez.

6. Is this a monopoly? Why or why not?

Yes because they started to appropriate the business and shops, also TV Shows.

7. Why is agriculture weak in Venezuela?

They were more interested in selling oil and producing oil, they were obsessed with oil. Oil was a better substance for them to win money and maybe work less, so they just decided to stop agriculture.

8. What does it mean for an industry to be “nationalized?”

That Chavez kicked out the American Companies that wanted to exchange stuff for oil they needed. He didn’t let them take their oil.

9. What name is given for Venezuela’s type of government?

Socialist kind-of government.

10. How is wealth distributed in this type of government?

To the high stratum and middle stratum he placed them in the East and to the working stratum was on the West, and that division brought hate.

11. Who is Hugo Chavez?

Hugo Chavez was the ex president of Venezuela, he ruled 1999- 2013, he started the Bolivarian Revolution. He died last year because of cancer.

12. Which social class supports Chavez and now Maduro?

Venezuelan middle and upper classes.

13. Why do they support them?

They support them because they gave them price and subsidies.

14. Why are the protesters mad? What are they mad at?

  • They are mad at

  • deteriorating security

  • rising prices and scarce goods

  • expropriation of factories and other antibusiness

  • independent media and angry over the behavior of colectivos

15. What do you think will happen in the next 6 months?

I think people will be still protesting and maybe there will be worse economic crisis. But we know a lot of Christians in the world are praying, and the will be from God, He will never wnat our lives in danger.

Jesus Gonzalez
Jesus Gonzalez

When i read the title: "Behind the Headlines: Venezuela's Crisis" I had a hope of have a deeper look into what is going on in my country, thing that me and my family live every day but i found offensive that this writer do not even have a clue. I advice to the writer that take a look of these videos for have a idea what is happening  before you to give a poor opinion about, In respect of the ones whose are died and the ones that are fighting for there freedom of my country in Pacific protest, instead of take two pictures of the internet and made up a story:

Armando A.
Armando A.

I like seeing that countries in political turmoil such as Syria and Ukraine are being covered by NG in an un-biased way. I am not trying to imply that NG has been biased in the past, as far as I know.

I was wandering when NG would report on the extreme trial Venezuelans are enduring. And I was surprised to find this article today. Thanks NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIS and Eve Conant.

It´s about time for people around the world to be informed on what is happening in Venezuela, a country that has moved backwards in many aspects.

To Pedro Manrique, Carlos B, Josefina Blanco, Cristóbal Martínez and Hermann Alvino, your comments depict very well what is happening in Venezuela.

I would like to add that there´s a huge breach among Venezuelans. Military know that by dividing, they conquer. And as a former member of the armed forces, that´s what the deceased president attempted to do. He was successful in instigating hatred among Venezuelans. And those wounds will take a long time to heal.

I would like to explain the meaning of 3 words used by Pedro Manrique, which might not be understood by non Venezuelans:

cacerolazo refers to people peacefully protesting by means of banging kitchen pots

cerros refers to some hills surrounding Caracas where low income people live

Miraflores refers to Palacio de Miraflores (Miraflores Palace), where the Venezuelan President has his office

To Eve Conant, Venezuelans took over the oil industry on January 1st, 1976, instead of the year 1978. Please correct the mistype.

Pedro Manrique
Pedro Manrique

When discussing the recent events in Venezuela, this article seems to be based around the idea that the protests are only about oil distribution. It does not take into account the numerous problems the country is facing, which have been continuously brought upon by the protesters: basic goods scarcity, rampant insecurity and impunity, lack of separation of powers, a very compromised freedom of speech, and, since the movement begun, the brutal repression citizens have received from the government (and a long etcetera).

Moreover, it narrows the parties involved to economic classes. The "sides" in this issue are more complex. First, you have the government side. It is certainly not homogeneous, consisting mostly on, yes, supporters from the most modest classes, the military, government workers and economic partners, and paramilitary movements that operate in the major cities. There are strong claims of division within chavismo and, since the death of Chávez, of diffuse leadership. Another key element is the political influence Cuba has on the government of Venezuela, which is hard to measure.

On the opposition side. you have, on one side, the majority of the middle and high class. Also, as it has been seen since the last parliamentary elections, an increasing support of the most affected sectors of the population: the poor. The people. They are the ones most affected by overall scarcity, inflation, poor basic public services (such as access to clean water, or free medical assistance), and they are the ones who live in the zones with the highest violent crime rates. They are the ones that, during these last protest days, have opted to participate in cacerolazos rather than going out and join rallies or set barricades to block their streets. They have opted to go and join protests in Chacao, and other eastern, more safe, and more predominantly middle class zones of Caracas.

And the opposition knows that, without the cerros support, Miraflores is unattainable.

Richard Columbare
Richard Columbare

The turmoil going on in Venezuela can only be solved by the people, outside influences, can not solve Venezuela's problems.

Carlos B
Carlos B

I appreciate National Geographic's interest in what is happening in Venezuela. Your coverage reaches a different target audience than the traditional media outlets covering the events. There are several things I would like to add to your article:

Maduro, Chavez's protégé, has numerous legitimacy issues facing his government.  For once, it was elected to power in a tight election with roughly 3000 documented irregularities. Secondly, Maduro has long been suspected of being born in Colombia. He has been unable to provide researchers and the media with proof of this birth in Venezuela. And although, he is a naturalized Venezuelan citizen, the constitution of that country specifically designates that the President must be born in the country. In addition, Maduro's policies have been more aggressive than his predecessor Chavez, who won elections by an ample margin. Even with the irregularities Maduro only won by less by more or less 150,000 votes in a country with over 27,000,000 people. Regardless, Maduro's government fails to understand the difference between winning democratically and governing democratically. With his popularity at an all time low, he must understand that at least 50% or more of Venezuelans disagree with the policies of the Bolivarian Revolution. Instead of repressing these citizens, he should learn to govern democratically by including them and  compromising aspects of the revolution. If he doesn't then he turns his back on the principle in which Venezuela was founded. To quote Simon Bolivar

" Cuando la tirania se hace Ley, la rebellion es un derecho"  (When tyranny becomes the Law, then rebellion becomes a right)

If he doesn't he ll spark a counter Revolution not based on equality but one fueled by the principles of freedom. And to quote Bolivan once again " Freedom is the only objective worthy of sacrificing a man's life". The students and their supoorters have embraced this attitude. 


Hi. The struggle in Venezuela is not about the middle and higher class looking to have part of the oil wealth in Venezuela, is about ending a bad government incapable of dealing with food and medicine scarcity, crime control, and with lack of rule of law, all the public institutions are taken by the government party.

That middle class that exists right now in Venezuela came from the improvement of education and health in the country during the years of imperfect democracy, where people who studied and had ideas was able to have better income and improve their life quality. Right now poor people does not have this opportunity. The government only give them the basics to survive, but surviving is living? 

David Díaz
David Díaz

leave the venezuelan politics to the venezuelan people!! Yankee go home!!!

Pamela Cruz
Pamela Cruz

Rest easy, people. There are at least 60,000 Cuban agents in Venezuela masquerading as doctors, medics, teachers, consultants, agronomists, you name it. Cuba depends on cheap (read free) Venzuelan oil. These 60,000 know that they better not return to Cuba if the oil stops. Not to worry. Maduro's future is not in trouble. 

Victor Roncea
Victor Roncea

Interesting: 25 years ago, when European and American public was busy watching "Romanian Live Revolution", US was taking Panama. Now, the story repeats with Ukraine and Venezuela...

Eve Conant
Eve Conant

Coal was used to produce the steam to power the ships, but certainly the sentence should have read that the Navy converted from coal to oil in the early 1900s. Thank you for the helpful comment! We have made the fix or will be making it soon...Eve 

Jonathan Nack
Jonathan Nack

If National Geographic wants to provide historical background, it should do some serious research.

Here are the real historical economic statistics on Venezuela - the source is the World Bank:

Regarding inflation, the average annual inflation rate for the ten years prior to the election of Pres. Chavez in 1998 was 53.5 percent.

Since 1998, average annual inflation has been 24.4 percent. 2013 saw a high of 56.2 percent during the Chavez and Maduro administrations. In the years prior to 1999, annual inflation highs were 84.5 percent in 1989, 60.9 percent in 1994, 59.9 percent in 1995, and 99.9 percent in 1996.

Turning to poverty, in 1989, 31.3 percent of Venezuela's population lived below its poverty line. Under neoliberal economic policies, poverty grew to a majority of the population, 54.5 percent by 1997.

The number of Venezuelan's living below the poverty line fell to 33.2 percent in 2011. That constitutes a reduction of over 60 percent! Extreme poverty has been estimated at falling considerably more, by more than two thirds.

Income inequality has declined since Pres. Chavez was first elected. In 1996, the top 5th of Venezuelan income earners had 50.6 percent of all income. By the end of 2011, that number had dropped to 44.8 percent. The GINI Index number which measures income inequality has fallen from 48.8 in 1996 to 39.02 in 2011. That's a decline of over 20 percent.

According to World Bank statistics, per capita income in Venezuela in 1998 was $3,890. In 2013, per capita income was $12,729. That's a increase of over 227 percent!

Mark Mccarthy
Mark Mccarthy

"That all changed, he says, with the invention of the internal combustion engine and the decision of the British Navy to convert their ships from steam to oil in the early 1900s."

Really? Convert from steam to oil? Would you explain please exactly how one converts from "steam to oil"?

I think you meant coal to oil. 

Edward Gallagher
Edward Gallagher

Little surprise that socialism mixed with fascism would fail once again.  

Virgilio Reyes
Virgilio Reyes

@Jesus Gonzalez  I completely agree with you. It is not such a clash of economic sectors. As Seabaug said above: Communism imported from Cuba is the destabilizer and this is a clash of totalitarianism versus freedom.

Gerardo Urdaneta
Gerardo Urdaneta

@David Díaz  I didnt read any request to go to Venezuela. Did you? Or you are playing again the Conspiracy Theory game?

Virgilio Reyes
Virgilio Reyes

@Jonathan Nack  With all my respect to your remarks. Do you know who provide the data to the world bank? It is a communist government hiding real data. Venezuelan are poorer in 2014, but you need to visit the country to see it yourself. I am Venezuelan and I know it for a fact. Another interesting statistic is the 25,000 people murdered in 2012, mostly in poor towns and neighborhoods. It is part of a government policy of encouraging hate and division in order to reign among the poor.

Hermann Alvino
Hermann Alvino

@Jonathan Nack  GDP and per capita income have increased with oil prices, not because of chavismo productivity. If oil price goes down in the future so will these indicators.

Poverty percentages are false due lack of real information from government.

You forgot to mention international figures regarding freedom and corruption. Venezuela is positioned in the last quartile.

You also forgot to mention crime figures: Venezuela is in the fourth place as most violent countries-, plus drugs traffic as regional node to US.

Perhaps you also should do a serious research...

Cristobal Martinez
Cristobal Martinez

@Jonathan Nack  Take all those stats from to World Bank, probably provided by Venezyelan Government, and put them in the trash cuz the streets of Caracas say otherwise. We suffer the highest MURDER rate in the world. Actually the crime rate has tripled during Chavez era, that means poverty didnt go down, maybe only extreme poverty was alleviated. Poverty is the main factor why crime is so high in Venezuela. Impunity is related to corruption. And judges and police officers are corrupt because low salaries and inflation eating their salaries so they take bribes to release bad criminals back to the streets.

When there is no separation of powers repression and corruption rule the country. The extreme left (chavismo) is as fascist as the extreme right.

Vamos estudiantes, la lucha sigue!


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