VENEZUELA IS UNDOUBTEDLY one of the least known countries of Latin America. Even within the field of Latin American studies in the United States, it has tended to occupy a marginal position, with much more attention directed toward other nations of the region, such as Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, and Cuba. Yet Venezuela is a country of over 22 million people (1996 figures), whose central location on the continent makes it an important point of intersection between North America, South America, and the Caribbean. It is a major trading partner of the United States. The United States accounts for over 50% of its foreign investment and over 50% of its trade (Venezuela Today, DTI/LATAG, London, 1995, p. 5). In 1996, Venezuela became the largest supplier of petroleum to the United States, and the oil trade has served to forge particularly close links between the two countries (Box, 1997, 1464). Indeed, the strength of U.S. influence in virtually all areas of Venezuelan life became one of the most controversial topics of debate in Venezuela in the latter decades of the twentieth century.
Culturally and socially, Venezuela has much in common with the other nations of Latin America, but, as in the case of all the others, the peculiarities of its history and geography have given it distinctive features of its own. Without doubt, the most significant has been the development of the oil industry in the course of the twentieth century, which, since the 1960s, has enabled the country to sustain a stable democratic system of government and a strong and prosperous state. Indeed, that to a large extent explains the relative neglect of Venezuela for so many decades by commentators and scholars overseas, for their attention has been drawn toward the economic and political turbulence in other parts of the continent, where power has