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South America, Venezuela

Guiana Highlands, marshy land, relative poverty, mestizos, Orinoco River

Venezuela, officially Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, republic in South America, bounded on the north by the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, on the east by Guyana, on the south by Brazil, and on the southwest and west by Colombia.

A Spanish colony for more than 300 years, Venezuela became one of the first of Spainís South American colonies to declare its freedom in the early 19th century. Since becoming a sovereign nation, Venezuela has undergone periodic episodes of civil conflict and dictatorship, with the military exerting a strong influence over politics. Since the late 1950s, democratically elected governments have ruled the nation.

The majority of Venezuelans are mestizos, individuals of mixed European and Native American ancestry. The countryís economy was dominated by agriculture until the discovery of vast quantities of petroleum in the early 1900s. Government-run agencies have coordinated oil production since that time. Although the oil industry has generated great wealth, society remains sharply divided between rich and poor. An elite class of businessmen, oil-company technicians, and large landowners controls most of the countryís resources, while a large number of unskilled urban laborers and rural farmworkers live in relative poverty.

Venezuela sits at the northern edge of the Andes Mountains, which dominate the northwestern portion of the country. To the east lie the plain of the Orinoco River and the rugged inland region of the Guiana Highlands. The coastline of Venezuela is about 2,800 km (about 1,700 mi) long and has numerous indentations, of which the gulfs of Venezuela and Paria are notable. Except in the west, which has expanses of low and occasionally marshy land, the coast is generally narrow and steep. Of the 72 islands off the coast that belong to Venezuela, Margarita is the largest and most important. The total area of Venezuela is 912,050 sq km (352,144 sq mi). The capital and largest city is Caracas.

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