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The first few millennia

It is generally believed that the first inhabitants of the Americas came from Siberia across the Bering Strait, spread over the North American continent, then moved down to Central and South America in several waves of migration. There is evidence of human habitation in northwest Venezuela going back more than 15, 000 years. Steady agriculture was established around the 1st millennium, leading to the first year-round settlements.

Formerly nomadic groups began to develop into larger cultures belonging to three main linguistic families: Carib, Arawak and Chibcha. By the time of the Spanish conquest at the end of the 15th century, some 300, 000 to 400, 000 indigenous people inhabited the region that is now Venezuela.

The warlike Carib tribes occupied the central and eastern coast, living off fishing and shifting agriculture. Various Arawak groups were scattered over the western plains and north up to the coast. They lived off hunting and food-gathering, and occasionally practiced farming.

The Timote-Cuica tribes, of the Chibcha linguistic family, were the most advanced of Venezuela’s pre-Hispanic societies. They lived in the Andes and developed advanced agricultural techniques, including irrigation and terracing. They were also skilled craftspeople, as we can judge by the artifacts they left behind – examples of their fine pottery are shown in museums across the country. No major architectural works have survived, though some smaller sites in the Andean region have recently been unearthed and will be opening for tourism in the next few years.

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The Spanish are coming!

In 1498, on his third trip to the New World, Christopher Columbus became the first European to set foot on Venezuelan soil. Columbus anchored at the eastern tip of the Península de Paria, just opposite Trinidad. He originally believed that he was on another island, but the voluminous mouth of the Río Orinoco hinted that he had stumbled into something slightly larger.

A year later, explorer Alonso de Ojeda, accompanied by the Italian Amerigo Vespucci, sailed up to the Península de la Guajira, at the western end of present-day Venezuela. On entering Lago de Maracaibo, the Spaniards saw the local indigenous people living in palafitos (thatched huts on stilts above the water). They called the land ‘Venezuela’ (literally ‘Little Venice’), perhaps as a sarcastic sailor joke as these rustic reed dwellings didn’t exactly match the opulent palaces of the Italian city they knew. The name of Venezuela appeared for the first time on a map in 1500 and has remained to this day. Laguna de Sinamaica is reputedly the place where the first Spanish sailors saw the palafitos, and you can see similar huts there today.

Alonso de Ojeda sailed further west along the coast and briefly explored parts of what is now Colombia. He saw local aborigines wearing gold adornments and was astonished by their wealth. Their stories about fabulous treasures inland gave birth to the myth of El Dorado (The Golden One), a mysterious land abundant in gold. Attracted by these supposed riches, the shores of Venezuela and Colombia became the target of Spanish expeditions, an obsession with El Dorado driving them into the interior. Their search resulted in the rapid colonization of the land, though El Dorado was never found.

The Spanish established their first settlement on Venezuelan soil around 1500, at Nueva Cádiz, on the small island of Cubagua, just south of Isla de Margarita. Pearl harvesting provided a livelihood for the settlers, and the town developed into a busy port until an earthquake and tidal wave destroyed it in 1541. The earliest Venezuelan town still in existence, Cumaná, on the northeast coast, dates from 1521 and is an enjoyable place to visit, even though earthquakes ruined much of the early Spanish colonial architecture.

Officially, most of Venezuela was ruled by Spain from Santo Domingo (present-day capital of the Dominican Republic) until 1717, when it fell under the administration of the newly created viceroyalty of Nueva Granada, with its capital in Bogotá.

The colony’s population of indigenous communities and Spanish invaders diversified with the arrival of black slaves, brought from Africa to serve as the workforce. Most of them were set to work on plantations on the Caribbean coast. By the 18th century, Africans surpassed the indigenous population in number.

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Out from under the yoke

With few exploited gold mines, Venezuela lurked in the shadows of the Spanish Empire for its first three centuries. The country took a more prominent role at the beginning of the 19th century, when Venezuela gave Latin America one of its greatest heroes, Simón Bolívar.

Francisco de Miranda lit the initial revolutionary flame in 1806. However, his efforts to set up an independent administration in Caracas ended when fellow conspirators handed him over to the Spanish. He was shipped to Spain and died in jail. Bolívar then assumed leadership of the revolution. After unsuccessful initial attempts to defeat the Spaniards at home, he withdrew to Colombia, then to Jamaica, until the opportune moment came in 1817.

The Napoleonic Wars had just ended, and Bolívar’s agent in London was able to raise money and arms, and recruit a small number of British Legion veterans of the Peninsular War. With this force and an army of horsemen from Los Llanos, Bolívar marched over the Andes and defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Boyacá, bringing independence to Colombia in August 1819. Four months later in Angostura (present-day Ciudad Bolívar), the Angostura Congress proclaimed Gran Colombia (Great Colombia), a new state unifying Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador (though the last two were still under Spanish rule). The memories of the event are still alive in Ciudad Bolívar, and you can see the great mansion where the first congress debated. Venezuela’s liberation came on June 24, 1821 at Carabobo, where Bolívar’s troops defeated the Spanish royalist army.

Though the least important of Gran Colombia’s three provinces, Venezuela bore the brunt of the fighting. Venezuelan patriots fought not only on their own territory, but also in the armies that Bolívar led into Colombia and down the Pacific Coast. By the end of 1824, Bolívar and his assistants had liberated Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. It’s estimated that a quarter of the Venezuelan population died in the independence wars.

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Great Colombia & greater problems

Bolívar’s dream of a unified republic fell apart even before he died in 1830. On his deathbed, he proclaimed: ‘America is ungovernable. The man who serves a revolution plows the sea. This nation will fall inevitably into the hands of the unruly mob and then will pass into the hands of almost indistinguishable petty tyrants.’ Unfortunately, he wasn’t far off the mark. Gran Colombia began to collapse from the moment of its birth; the central regime was incapable of governing the immense country with its racial and regional differences. The new state existed for only a decade before splitting into three separate countries.

Following Venezuela’s separation from Gran Colombia, the Venezuelan congress approved a new constitution and – incredibly – banned Bolívar from his homeland. It took the Venezuelan nation 12 years to acknowledge its debt to the man to whom it owed its freedom. In 1842, Bolívar’s remains were brought from Santa Marta, Colombia, where he died, to Caracas and entombed in the cathedral. In 1876 they were solemnly transferred to the Panteón Nacional in Caracas, where they now rest in a bronze sarcophagus.

Enter the era of ‘indistinguishable petty tyrants.’ The post-independence period in Venezuela was marked by serious governmental problems that continued for more than a century. These were times of despotism and anarchy, with the country being ruled by a series of military dictators known as caudillos.

The first of the caudillos, General José Antonio Páez, controlled the country for 18 years (1830–48). It was a tough rule, but it established a certain political stability and put the weak economy on its feet. The period that followed was an almost uninterrupted chain of civil wars that was only stopped by another long-lived dictator, General Antonio Guzmán Blanco (1870–88). He launched a broad program of reform, including a new constitution, and assured some temporary stability, but his despotic rule triggered wide, popular opposition, and when he stepped down the country plunged again into civil war.

In the 1840s, Venezuela raised the question of its eastern border with British Guiana (present-day Guyana), claiming as much as two-thirds of Guiana, up to the Río Esequibo. The issue was a subject of lengthy diplomatic negotiations and was eventually settled in 1899 by an arbitration tribunal, which gave rights over the questioned territory to Great Britain. Despite the ruling, Venezuela maintains its claim to this day. All maps produced in Venezuela have this chunk of Guyana within Venezuela’s boundaries, labeled ‘Zona en Reclamación.’

Another conflict that led to serious international tension was Venezuela’s failure to meet payments to Great Britain, Italy and Germany on loans accumulated during the government of yet another caudillo, General Cipriano Castro (1899–1908). In response, the three European countries sent their navies to blockade Venezuelan seaports in 1902.

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The national soap opera

The first half of the 20th century was dominated by five successive military rulers from the Andean state of Táchira. The longest lasting and most tyrannical was General Juan Vicente Gómez, who seized power in 1908 and didn’t relinquish it until his death in 1935. Gómez phased out the parliament, squelched the opposition and monopolized power.

The discovery of oil in the 1910s helped the Gómez regime to put the national economy on its feet. By the late 1920s, Venezuela was the world’s largest exporter of oil, which not only contributed to economic recovery but also enabled the government to pay off the country’s entire foreign debt. As in most petro-states, almost none of the oil wealth made its way to the common citizen. The vast majority of Venezuelans continued to live in poverty with little or no educational or health facilities, let alone reasonable housing. Fast oil money also led to the neglect of agriculture and to the development of other types of production. It was easier to just import everything from abroad, which worked for a while, but proved unsustainable.

Tensions rose dangerously during the following dictatorships, exploding in 1945 when Rómulo Betancourt, leader of the left-wing Acción Democrática (AD) party, took control of the government. A new constitution was adopted in 1947, and noted novelist Rómulo Gallegos became president in Venezuela’s first democratic election. The inevitable coup took place only eight months after Gallegos’ election, with Colonel Marcos Pérez Jiménez emerging as the leader. Once in control, he smashed the opposition and plowed oil money into public works and built up Caracas. He superficially modernized the country but the mushrooming development did not heal the country’s economic and social disparities, nor the bitter resentment that lingered from the coup.

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The boom/bust cycle

Pérez Jiménez was overthrown in 1958 by a coalition of civilians and navy and air-force officers. The country returned to democratic rule and Rómulo Betancourt was elected president. He enjoyed popular support and actually completed the constitutional five-year term of office – the first democratically elected Venezuelan president to do so. Since then, all changes of president have been by constitutional means, although the last decade has seen a few hiccups.

During the term of President Rafael Caldera (1969–74), the steady stream of oil money flowed into the country’s coffers keeping the economy buoyant. President Carlos Andrés Pérez (1974–79) benefited from the oil bonanza – not only did production of oil rise but, more importantly, the price quadrupled following the Arab-Israeli war in 1973. In 1975 Pérez nationalized the iron-ore and oil industries and went on a spending spree; imported luxury goods crammed shops and the nation got the impression that El Dorado had finally materialized.

In the late 1970s, the growing international recession and oil glut began to shake Venezuela’s economy. Oil revenues declined, pushing up unemployment and inflation, and once more forcing the country into foreign debt. The 1988 drop in world oil prices cut the country’s revenue in half, casting doubt on Venezuela’s ability to pay off its debt. Austerity measures introduced in 1989 by Pérez Jiménez (elected for the second time) triggered a wave of protests, culminating in the loss of more than 300 lives in three days of bloody riots known as ‘El Caracazo.’ Further austerity measures sparked protests that often escalated into riots. Strikes and street demonstrations continued to be part of everyday life.

To make matters worse, there were two attempted coups d’état in 1992. The first, in February, was led by paratrooper Colonel Hugo Chávez. Shooting throughout Caracas claimed more than 20 lives, but the government retained control. Chávez was sentenced to long-term imprisonment. The second attempt, in November, was led by junior air-force officers. The air battle over Caracas, with war planes flying between skyscrapers, gave the coup a cinematic, if not apocalyptic, dimension. The Palacio de Miraflores, the presidential palace, was bombed and partially destroyed. The army was called to defend the president, and this time more than 100 people died.

Corruption, bank failures and loan defaults plagued the government through the mid-1990s. In 1995, Venezuela was forced to devalue the currency by more than 70%. By the end of 1998, two-thirds of Venezuela’s 23 million inhabitants were living below the poverty line. Drug-trafficking and crime had increased and Colombian guerrillas had dramatically expanded their operations into Venezuela’s frontier areas.

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Veering to the left

There is nothing better in political theater than a dramatic comeback. The 1998 election put Hugo Chávez, the leader of the 1992 failed coup, into the presidency. After being pardoned in 1994, Chávez embarked on an aggressive populist campaign: comparing himself to Bolívar, promising help (and handouts) to the poorest masses and positioning himself in opposition to the US-influenced free-market economy. He vowed to produce a great, if vague, ‘peaceful and democratic social revolution.’

Since then, however, Chávez’ ‘social revolution’ has been anything but peaceful. Shortly after taking office, Chávez set about rewriting the constitution. The new document was approved in a referendum in December 1999, granting him new and sweeping powers. The introduction of a package of new decree laws in 2001 was met with angry protests, and was followed by a massive and violent strike in April 2002. It culminated in a coup d’état run by military leaders sponsored by a business lobby, in which Chávez was forced to resign. He regained power two days later, but this only intensified the conflict.

While the popular tensions rose, in December 2002 the opposition called a general strike in an attempt to oust the president. The nationwide strike paralyzed the country, including its vital oil industry and a good part of the private sector. After 63 days, the opposition finally called off the strike, which had cost the country 7.6% of its GDP and further devastated the oil-based economy. Chávez again survived and claimed victory.

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The Chávez era

National politics continued to be shaky until Chávez won a 2004 referendum and consolidated his power. Emboldened by greater political support and his pockets swollen by high oil prices, Chávez quickly moved to expand his influence beyond the borders of Venezuela, reaching out to other Leftist leaders in Bolivia, Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil. He has openly allied himself with Cuba’s Castro regime, supported the successful Leftist candidacy of Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Leftist candidates in Peru and Mexico who did not win office.

In 2005, shortly after Caracas hosted the 6th World Social Forum, Chávez started a highly publicized and dubiously intentioned program to provide reduced-priced heating oil for impoverished people in the US. The program was expanded in 2006 to include four of New York City’s five boroughs, providing 25 million gallons of fuel for low-income New Yorkers at 40% off the wholesale price. While the program obviously aided hundreds of thousands of poor New Yorkers, it was used as a political jab to Chávez’s then enemy, former US President George W Bush.

The end of 2006 was enveloped in the lead-up to the December 3 presidential election. Chávez’ closest challenger, Manuel Rosales, accused the president of providing impractical political favors and aid to other countries while poverty and crime increased at home, and also challenged Chávez’ government-approved land takeovers (for redistribution to the landless) and the military build-up for a hypothetical US invasion. Chávez wrote Rosales off as a lackey for the US and refused to debate him on TV. Chávez won again with the Organization of American States and the Carter Center certifying the results.

Chávez has come out of the Socialist closet during his second term, further increasing public works and social programs to benefit the poor (bringing basic healthcare to the barrios, for example) and nationalizing the country’s largest telecommunication, cement and steel companies, the majority of its electricity industry and many hotels, recreational and transport facilities. He has also managed to instill the idea of inclusion in politics among the general population whereas previous governments blatantly excluded all but the highest echelons of society.

However, despite Venezuela’s deep oil pockets and improved life for the poor, Chávez’s popularity appears to be waning. Infrastructure upgrades like improved roads and bridges, shiny new subways and barrio teleféricos (cable car) keep up appearances, but the decade ended with Venezuela struggling to combat a very serious energy and water shortage, a crisis that has struck the heart of the middle and upper classes. Widespread blackouts are commonplace throughout the country and Chávez called on all Venezuelans to limit their showers to three minutes only (a ‘Communist shower,’ he said). As 2010 was ushered in, so was water rationing, with Caracas temporarily taking the brunt of the blow: Up to 48 hours per week without water. Chávez supporters balked at the idea, however, and rations were suspended in Caracas, amplifying the problem elsewhere and sparking protests in Mérida. Electricity Minister Ángel Rodríguez was removed from office over the debacle, but the cabinet shakeup didn’t stop there: In January alone, the Vice-President and Defense Minister, Ramón Carrizalez, and his wife, Environment Minister Yubirí Ortega; and the Minister for Public Banking, Eugenio Vásquez Orellana, all resigned. Rumors blamed the electricity crisis and a disagreement with government policy, though all three politicians denied this. A month later, the energy crisis deteriorated to the point that Chávez issued a state of emergency.

Chávez has instilled many controversial policies to combat the country’s wild inflation and debilitating economy, too, including price controls on basic foodstuffs, a move that, on one hand, allows families to purchase the same amount of basic food with the same amount of money despite inflation; but sparks occasional food shortages of basics like milk and sugar on the other. In January 2010, Chávez announced a sharp devaluation of the bolívar fuerte (see p000R0046) – the first since 2005 – creating a two-tier official exchange rate in Venezuela, a move designed to boost revenue from oil exports and limit unnecessary imports. But Venezolanos, fearing widespread price increases and astronomical inflation, mobbed imported electronics stores. Chávez condemned stores that raised their prices and acted: The Venezuelan Institute for the Defense of People in Their Access to Goods and Service shut down dozens of stores for price-gouging. Elsewhere, strict currency controls mean Venezuelans who travel abroad are only allowed a rationing of $2,500 in credit card and $500 cash per year to spend outside the country, leaving some feeling trapped within their own borders; and car showrooms are virtually empty.

Though Brazil’s contentious approval of Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur was a major victory for Chávez and bilateral trade (final acceptance lies in the hands of Paraguay in 2010), Chávez’s foreign relationships weren’t faring much better than his domestic economy. Binational relations with Colombia remain extremely fragile over the neighboring country’s accusations that Venezuela was supplying arms to FARC rebels and its decision to allow US troops to operate out of seven of its military bases. Chávez banned Colombian car imports and was building up troops at the border at time of writing after several suspicious, cross-border deaths on both sides. Things got personal over these binational issues during a private meeting of heads-of-state at the Group of Rio summit in Cancun in February 2010, when Colombian President Álvaro Uribe scoffed at Chávez: ‘Be a man! …You’re brave speaking at a distance, but a coward when it comes to talking face to face.’ Chávez nearly stormed out. The Israeli ambassador was also booted out of the country in protest of Israeli’s controversial three-week military campaign in the Gaza Strip in 2008–09. And, last but not least, in 2008–09 both the US and Venezuela kicked out each other’s top diplomats over a political spat between the US and Bolivia, though diplomatic ties were eventually restored.

While some popularity surveys, including one by by Datanálisis that showed Chávez’s approval rating fall to 46% – the first drop below 50% since 2004 – indicate that he could be running out of gas, Chávez, even after a publicized battle with colon cancer, has, at the time of writing, declared his intentions to run for a fourth six-year term.

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