The República Bolivariana de Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela), a federal republic, lies on the northern coast of South America, bordered by the Caribbean Sea on the north. Colombia lies to the west, Brazil to the south, and Guyana
to the east. A country of some 25 million, Venezuela is a land of vast natural resources and breathtaking scenic beauty. Caracas is the capital and most populous city; other of its most populous cities include Maracaibo, Valencia, Maracay, and Barquisimeto
in the west, and Ciudad Bolívar, Puerto Ordaz, Ciudad Guayana, and Cumuná in the east. Spanish is the official language, and most Venezuelans profess the Roman Catholic faith with no more than 4% belonging to other religious groups.
The earliest residents of Venezuela were the Arawak, Carib, and Chibcha Indians. Columbus explored Venezuela on his third voyage in 1498, and it is commonly held that Amerigo Vespucci came upon an island where the native houses were built on stilts which
prompted him to call it “little Venice.” Spanish settlements were established in the east, and Caracas was established in 1567. Simón Bolívar, who would become “The Liberator,” was born in Caracas in 1783. Uprisings
against Spanish control began as early as 1795, but independence was not formally declared until 1811. Venezuela, along with present day Colombia, Ecuador, and Panamá, formed the federal republic of Gran Colombia. This political union was the
culmination of Bolívar’s efforts, but it failed in favor of the independence movement.
The principal figure and leader in the independence movement was another hero and former ally of Bolívar, José Antonio Paez. Political control alternated between conservative and liberal leaders, with disputes and civil strife between caudillos of the landholding class until the emergence in 1870 of Guzmán Blanco whose period of influence saw improvement in education, communications, and finance. He alienated the church and enriched himself. This dictatorship and the already established
tradition of strongman leadership (Paez and Monagas brothers having preceded him), set the stage for a rather long tradition of relatively benign dictators—from Joaquín Crespo (1899) to Cipriano Castro, Juan Vicente Gómez (for
more than 25 years), and Colonel (later General) Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1948-1958). For the most part, these governments, despite their authoritarian nature, were responsible for creating a modern prosperous and industrialized country.
Since 1958, Venezuela has been one of the most stable democracies in Latin America with the two major parties, Democratic Action and Social Christian winning all presidential elections until 1999. The country has benefited greatly from the industrialization
of its natural resources, especially its oil revenues. But, the economy has seen ups and downs since the 1980s due to the volatility of oil prices, immigration from poorer nations in South America, effects of drug trafficking, and the devaluation
of its currency. In 1996, the President, Rafael Caldera Rodríguez instituted austerity measures to address the failing economy and increasing foreign debt. Economic insecurity led to the election of former military officer, independent candidate,
and populist Hugo Chávez Frías as president in 1999. His presidency has been characterized by redefining the government’s roles and powers which has resulted in increasing polarization of the Venezuelan people and continued economic
and political insecurity. Chávez has forged alliances and friendship with radical regimes while frequently denouncing the United States. In 2005, the government set into motion a program of reclaiming large private land estates for redistribution
among the poor.
Education for the privileged, provided by the Roman Catholic Church or by sending the sons of wealthy to Europe, was the about the only education available during colonial times. Bolívar, who had been educated in Europe, however, was influenced
by the writings of Rousseau and the French ideals of liberty and equality. He issued several decrees addressing free and public education. Even today, the highly centralized nature of the system, the strict structure of school organization, and the
highly standardized nature of the curriculum reflects the French influence as does the structure of the system, based on three levels (primary, secondary, and higher education). Compulsory education until the 1980s was based on grades 1-6. Secondary
education consisted of two cycles, a 3-year ciclo básico and an additional 2-year ciclo diversificado cycle of upper secondary education leading to careers or admission to higher education. Since 1980, the focus of education has
been on creating and training teachers for preschool education, and the compulsory age has been raised.
Primary and Secondary Education
Educación básica now represents the first 9 years of study, with a 2-year upper secondary cycle (with some technical courses requiring 3 years). Secondary programs prepare the student for university admission or for careers in technical,
industrial, commercial, and agricultural fields.
Types of schools include: Colegios Universitarios, Institutos Universitarios, Institutos Universitarios de Tecnología, Institutos Universitarios Eclesiásticos, Institutos Universitarios Pedagógicos,
Institutos Universitarios Politécnicos, and Universidades.
First Cycle, Academic
Academic programs, most of 5 years’ duration, lead to first degrees of licenciado and títulos profesionales.
First Cycle, Vocational/Technical
Higher education includes programs at university level institutes and universities which lead to careers in a wide range of technical fields and usually require 3 years of study to earn a técnico superior.
Second and Third Cycles
Estudios posgrados lead to titles of especialista, maestría/magister, and doctor as well as qualifications in specific fields and specialties. Recent innovations in education include the Bolivarian university which aims
to provide access to university education to all who, regardless of their ability to attend classes in the traditional campus setting, and the misión schools which have several purposes: to eliminate illiteracy, to capacitate the unskilled,
and to prepare the disadvantaged to continue academic studies.
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