Population: 26,814,843 inhabitants (July 2009)
Density: 30.2 inhabitants per sq. km
The five largest cities are:
- Maracaibo 2,225,000
- Caracas 1,815,679
- Valencia 1,385,083
- Barquisimeto 809,490
- Ciudad Guayana 746,535
The government greatly expands health and welfare services, particularly in the cities. Both public (free) and private medical assistance is available. The Ministry of Health is responsible for organizing and staffing the public hospitals and rural medical centers; it has dealt with numerous budgetary and management problems, including strikes by doctors and poorly maintained hospitals.
The Venezuelan Institute of Social Security offers medical and welfare assistance to urban workers and employees. It, too, has experienced difficulties, including large deficits. In the area of housing, the metropolitan authorities have been unable to meet the needs of the urban poor. The problems of the ranchos persist, as public housing schemes meet mainly the needs of middle-income groups and poorer urbanites are left largely on their own to find employment and housing.
Venezuela has made considerable progress in education in recent years. An extensive literacy campaign has been conducted by the Venezuelan business community. For the year 2000, adult illiteracy was estimated at 7.0% (males, 6.7%; females, 7.3%). Public education from kindergarten through university is free, and education is compulsory for children ages 6 through 15. Approximately 20% of the national budget is assigned to education.
Preprimary schools are being established throughout the country by the government. After nine years of elementary school, children undergo two to three years of secondary school, which comes in two stages: the first is designed to provide a general education in the sciences and the humanities; the second prepares students for the university and offers specialization in philosophy and literature, physical science and mathematics, or biological science. Technical and vocational schools provide instruction in industry and commerce, the trades, nursing, and social welfare.
There are 14 universities, both national and private, including the University of Venezuela (founded in 1725), Los Andes University (1785), Simón Bolívar University (1970), and the Open University (1977). Leading private institutions were the Andrés Bello Catholic University (1953), Santa María University (1953), and the Metropolitan University of Caracas (1970). Over 47 institutes of higher learning, colleges, and polytechnic institutes exist where students pursue at least 180 different fields or professions.
Freedom of religion in Venezuela is guaranteed by the constitution, although the vast majority of the people are at least nominally adherents of Roman Catholicism. Religious tolerance is generally observed. Various Protestant sects form the largest minority group, and there are small groups of Jews and Muslims.
Some Indian peoples continue to practice their traditional religions, but many have converted to Catholicism, especially those in settlements clustered around riverside mission stations. The Roman Catholic Church is officially apolitical, but many priests and bishops have become involved in political events, some by espousing liberation theology and agitating for socioeconomic reforms, and others by reacting against liberal or radical government policies.