A country of striking natural beauty, which ranges from the snow-capped Andean peaks in the west, through the Amazonian jungles in the south, to the beaches of the north, Venezuela is among the most highly urbanised countries in Latin America.
Its economic fortunes are tied to world oil prices. A 1970s boom largely benefited the middle classes, but a subsequent price collapse condemned many of this class to poverty while eroding the living standards of the already impoverished. Unemployment is high and, according to official figures, around 60% of households are poor.
In 1998 Venezuelans broke the stranglehold of the discredited party system to elect the populist left-winger Hugo Chavez, a former army officer who has proclaimed a "Bolivarian revolution", named after South America's independence hero.
AT A GLANCE
Politics: President Hugo Chavez leads a self-styled socialist revolution but polarises domestic opinion
Economy: Venezuela is a major oil producer; export revenues fund huge social programmes
International: Mr Chavez is a strident critic of Washington; the US portrays him as a security threat. Critics say he is using fuel sales under preferential terms to extend political influence in the region
Radical reform, political unrest and deep divisions have characterised the president's term in office. His supporters - known as "chavistas" - and his detractors have both staged street protests.
Supporters say his economic reforms - including the nationalisation of much of the economy, especially the oil sector - and his expansion of social programmes has helped the poor benefit from the country's oil export revenues.
Critics say his actions have damaged economic performance and encouraged inflation, running at 25% by the end of 2009. In January 2010, the government devalued the bolivar in an attempt to boost oil revenues and simulate domestic production.
Venezuela under Mr Chavez has sought to strengthen its regional influence through diplomatic and economic overtures towards other South American and Caribbean nations.
This has been seen, in part, as an effort to counter Washington's influence in the region, and has been a contributory factor in strained relations with US allies such as Colombia.
Mr Chavez has also aligned himself with Russia and Iran, and has frequently expressed support for anti-Western leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Hugo Chavez, who has survived a coup, protests, strikes and a referendum on his rule since coming to power in 1998, is the subject of both adulation and loathing among his divided electorate.
Hugo Chavez has polarised political opinion
The president, who says he wants to create a new form of socialism, has pursued populist policies aimed at helping the poor. The programmes include free health care, subsidised food and land reform.
Critics have accused Mr Chavez of trying to emulate Cuba's communist system and of increasing state intervention in business.
Mr Chavez came to prominence when he led a failed coup in 1992. After a spell in prison he embarked on a political career that swept him to power in a landslide election victory in 1998.
The charismatic president often continued to wear his paratrooper's red beret. He delighted the poor but infuriated the rich and the powerful news media with his rambling speeches that denounced the wealthy elite.
As Mr Chavez grew more powerful, his critics said he was leading Venezuela towards a Cuban-style authoritarian government. He was criticised for courting countries which attracted US or international disapproval, namely Cuba, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Libya, and more recently, Iran.
He was forced out of office by the military in April 2002, only to be reinstated within 48 hours after a post-coup government collapsed in the face of a rebellion by loyalist troops and massive protests.
Following an opposition petition, Mr Chavez faced a referendum on his rule on 15 August 2004, from which he emerged victorious.
He won a third term in elections in December 2006, and in early 2007, the National Assembly - boycotted by the opposition - unanimously voted to grant him sweeping powers to rule by decree for the next 18 months, with the aim of pushing through sweeping economic reforms.
After 2006, Chavez's government forged ahead with plans to nationalise much of the economy, especially in the energy sector, traditionally dominated by US-owned firms.
Mr Chavez suffered his first electoral defeat in December 2007, when voters in a referendum narrowly rejected proposals to extend his powers and accelerate his socialist revolution.
However, Venezuelans backed the president by voting to abolish term limits in a February 2009 referendum, clearing the way for Mr Chavez to run for re-election in 2012.
The opposition made significant gains in the September 2010 parliamentary elections. While the socialist party of Mr Chavez still controls the assembly it missed out on the two-thirds majority which would have given him the freedom to pass his legislative agenda without the support of his opponents.
Mr Chavez underwent treatment for cancer in the summer of 2011, travelling several times to Cuba. He insisted that his illness would not prevent him from continuing to lead the country, and said that doctors had given him a clean bill of health in May 2012. He then announced he would stand in the October 2012 presidential election.
Venezuela's many private broadcasters operate alongside state-run radio and TV. President Chavez has been accused of creating an intimidatory climate for journalists, while some private media have been accused of being involved in the opposition movement against him.
Officials have used legal channels to close down "dissident" TV and radio networks, says Reporters Without Borders. Under President Chavez, three TV stations and 32 radio stations have had their licences revoked.
Mr Chavez has his own weekly TV and radio programme on the state broadcaster, and is active on Twitter.
Venezuela is the main shareholder in Telesur, a Caracas-based pan-American TV. Governments with a stake in the venture are all left wing or left of centre.
Venezuela launched its first telecommunications satellite, Venesat 1, in 2008.
There were 10.4 million internet users by March 2011 (Internetworldstats.com). Of these, more than 8 million have Facebook accounts and around 2.3 million are active on Twitter.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.