There is evidence of human habitation in northwest Venezuela going back more than 10,000 years. Steady agriculture was established around the first 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 end of the 15th century, during the Spanish conquest, some 300,000 to 400,000 indigenous people inhabited the region that is now Venezuela.
The Timote-Cuica tribes, of the Chibcha linguistic family, were the most technologically developed of Venezuela’s pre-Hispanic societies. They lived in the Andes and developed complex 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.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to set foot on Venezuelan soil, which was also the only place where he landed on the South American mainland. On his third trip to the New World in 1498, he 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 onto something slightly larger.
A year later Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda, accompanied by the Italian Amerigo Vespucci, sailed up to the Península de la Guajira, on the western end of present-day Venezuela. On entering Lago de Maracaibo, the Spaniards saw indigenous people living in palafitos (thatched homes on stilts above the water). Perhaps as a bit of sarcasm, they called the waterside community ‘Venezuela,’ meaning ‘Little Venice,’ and simultaneously gave birth to the country's name. The first Spanish settlement on Venezuelan soil, Nueva Cádiz, was established around 1500 on the small island of Cubagua, just south of Isla de Margarita. The earliest Venezuelan town still in existence, Cumaná (on the mainland directly south of Isla Cubagua) dates from 1521.
Simón Bolívar & Independence
Venezuela lurked in the shadows of the Spanish empire through most of the colonial period. The country took a more primary role at the beginning of the 19th century, when Venezuela gave Latin America one of its greatest heroes, Simón Bolívar. A native of Caracas, Bolívar led the forces that put the nail in the coffin of Spanish rule over South America. He is viewed as being largely responsible for ending colonial rule all the way to the borders of Argentina.
Bolívar assumed leadership of the revolution, which had kicked off in 1806. After unsuccessful initial attempts to defeat the Spaniards at home, he withdrew to Colombia and then to Jamaica to plot his final campaign. In 1817 Bolívar marched over the Andes with 5000 British mercenaries and an army of horsemen from Los Llanos, defeating the Spanish at the battle of Boyacá and bringing independence to Colombia. Four months later in Angostura (present-day Ciudad Bolívar), the Angostura Congress proclaimed Gran Colombia a new state, unifying Colombia (which included present-day Panama), Venezuela and Ecuador – though the last two were still under Spanish rule.
The liberation of Venezuela was completed with Bolívar’s victory over Spanish forces at Carabobo in June 1821, though the royalists put up a rather pointless fight from Puerto Cabello for another two years. Gran Colombia existed for only a decade before splitting into three separate countries. Bolívar’s dream of a unified republic fell apart before he died in 1830.
On his deathbed, Bolívar 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 was not too far off the mark. Venezuela followed independence with nearly a century of rule by a series of strongmen known as caudillos. It wasn’t until 1947 that the first democratic government was elected.
The first of the caudillos, General José Antonio Páez, controlled the country for 18 years (1830–48). Despite his tough rule, he established a certain political stability and strengthened the weak economy. 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. Nonetheless his despotic rule triggered popular opposition, and when he stepped down the country fell back into civil war.
20th-Century Oil State
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 ruthless 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 and crushed the opposition on his path to monopolizing 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 petrol states, almost none of the oil wealth made its way to the common citizen. The vast majority continued to live in poverty. Fast oil money led to the neglect of agriculture and development of other types of production. It was easier to just import everything from abroad, which worked temporarily but proved unsustainable.
After a short flirtation with democracy and a new constitution in 1947, the inevitable coup took place and ushered in the era of Colonel Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Once in control, he smashed the opposition and plowed oil money into public works and modernizing Caracas – not making many friends in the process.
Coups & Corruption
Pérez Jiménez was overthrown in 1958 by a coalition of civilians and military officers. The country returned to democratic rule, and Rómulo Betancourt was elected president. He enjoyed popular support and was the first democratically elected president to complete his five-year term in office. There was a democratic transition of power though the country drifted to the right.
Oil money buoyed the following governments well into the 1970s. Not only did production of oil rise but, more importantly, the price quadrupled following the Arab–Israeli war in 1973. The nation went on a spending spree, building modern skyscrapers in Caracas and Maracaibo, and importing all sorts of luxury goods. But what goes up must come down and by the late 1970s the bust cycle was already in full swing, and the economy continued to fall apart through the 1980s.
In 1989 the government announced IMF-mandated austerity measures, and a subsequent protest over rising transportation costs sparked the caracazo, a series of nationwide riots quelled by military force that killed hundreds – maybe thousands – of citizens. Lingering instability brought two attempted coups d’état in 1992. The first, in February, was led by a little-known paratrooper named Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías. The second attempt, in November, was led by junior air-force officers. The air battle over Caracas, with warplanes flying between skyscrapers, gave the coup a cinematic dimension. Both attempts resulted in many deaths.
Corruption, bank failures and loan defaults plagued the government in 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.
A Left Turn
Nothing is 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, the Chávez ‘social revolution’ was anything but peaceful. Shortly after taking office, Chávez set about rewriting the constitution. The 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.
Despite presiding over the slow collapse of the national economy and lurching from crisis to crisis, Chávez's position seemed unassailable after a decade in power, in which it essentially became impossible to rise in politics unless you were a 'Chavista'. Having abolished presidential term limits, Chávez won a third term in power in 2012, albeit by a far smaller majority than in previous elections, and despite having been diagnosed with cancer in 2011, something long rumored but never announced to the electorate before the ballot. Indeed, Chávez had barely been seen in public in the run up to the election, instead spending months in Cuba undergoing treatment and even missing his third inauguration as president.
Chávez died on March 5 2013. Nicolás Maduro, the vice president (who had been anointed his successor by Chávez shortly before his death), was elected to the presidency in April 2013 by a wafer-thin majority in a special election where fairness was contested by his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski. Maduro, a former bus driver and trade union leader, has hardly made a mark on Venezuela's national psyche since coming to power, and Chávez' image and rhetoric continues to dominate the country's political scene.