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Venezuela - History

At the time of Spanish discovery, the natives in Venezuela were mainly agriculturists and hunters living in groups along the coast, the Andean mountain range, and the Orinoco River. On his third voyage to the New World in 1498, Christopher Columbus discovered Venezuela, which Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci explored the next year. The early explorers named the country “Venezuela” (Spanish for little Venice) because they found inhabitants living in stilt houses in lakes. Venezuela’s original inhabitants were the Carib and Arawak Amerindian peoples. Spanish explorers founded the settlements of Valencia in 1555 and Santiago de León de Caracas in 1567. Colonial Venezuela's primary value to Spain was geographic. During its annual journey between Portobelo, in present-day Panama, and Cuba, the Spanish bullion fleet depended on Venezuela’s long Caribbean coastline for security from foreign enemies and pirates. For the first two and a half centuries of colonial rule, Venezuela lacked political unity, in part because it was of no economic importance to Spanish officials.

By the late sixteenth century, agriculture had become Venezuela’s chief economic activity. The colonial economy became centralized around the city of Caracas as a result of developments such as the growth of the cocoa trade, the Spanish crown’s granting in 1728 of exclusive trading rights in Venezuela to the Basque-run Caracas Company, and Spain’s suppression of the 1749 revolt. In recognition of this growth, Caracas was given political-military authority as the seat of the Captaincy General of Venezuela in 1777, marking the first instance of recognition of Venezuela as a political entity. Nine years later, its designation was changed to the Audiencia de Venezuela, thus granting Venezuela judicial and administrative authority as well.

Periods of political instability, dictatorial rule, and revolutionary turbulence characterized much of Venezuela’s nineteenth-century history. In the first decade, after almost three centuries on the periphery of the Spanish American empire, Venezuela found itself at the center of the independence movement sweeping Latin America. Led initially by Francisco de Miranda, the best known of the precursors of the Spanish American revolution, the colony rebelled against Spain in 1810. However, the rebellion collapsed as a result of a combination of factors, including local and personal rivalries encountered by Miranda; an earthquake that almost completely destroyed Caracas and other key cities on March 26, 1812; and Miranda’s subsequent arrest and death in a Spanish jail. Simón Bolívar Palacios, Venezuela’s national hero, native son, and later president, assumed leadership of the struggle for independence. After his victory at Carabobo, Bolívar made a triumphal entry into Caracas in June 1821. Venezuela joined with what are now Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador to form the short-lived República de Gran Colombia (Republic of Greater Colombia), but withdrew in 1830 and became a sovereign state.

After Bolívar’s death in December 1830, civilian and military leaders called for the restoration of legitimate authority. The century of the caudillo (or caudillismo, the system of rule by a strongman who exercises dictatorial powers), featuring a series of changes in power from one commander to another, started auspiciously with 16 relatively peaceful and prosperous years under the authority of General Juan Aguerrevere (José Antonio) Páez (president, 1830–31, 1837, 1838–43, 1846–47, 1861–63) and several other caudillos. Regarded as second only to Bolívar as a national hero, Páez was twice elected president under the 1830 constitution. A mestizo, he established the pattern of dictatorial rule, ruling with the support of the criollo elite as long as coffee prices remained high. In the 1840s, coffee prices plunged, and the elite divided into two factions: those who remained with Páez called themselves Conservatives, and his rivals called themselves Liberals. Between 1858 and 1863, local caudillos engaged in a chaotic struggle known as the Federal War because the Liberals favored federalism. In 1870 Antonio Guzmán Blanco (president, 1870–77, 1879–84, 1886–87) finally restored central government authority and ruled for 18 years.

For most of the first half of the twentieth century, until 1958, a series of military dictators who promoted the oil industry and allowed for some social reforms ruled Venezuela. During the regime of General Juan Vicente Gómez (president, 1908–10, 1922–29, 1931–35), oil was discovered in the Maracaibo Basin, and Venezuela changed from a poor, largely agrarian country into one of the richest nations in Latin America. A military coup led by General Marcos Pérez Jiménez (president, 1952–58) overthrew President Rómulo Gallegos Freire, Venezuela's first democratically elected president, on November 24, 1948, after only 10 months in office, ending a brief three-year experiment in democracy known as the trienio, or triennium (1945–48).

In 1958 a coalition of political groups ousted Pérez Jiménez and restored democracy. Historians have often pointed to the second inauguration of Rómulo Betancourt (president, 1945–48, 1959–64) as the pivotal point in four centuries of Venezuelan history. After nearly a century and a half as perhaps the most extreme example of Latin America's post-independence affliction of caudillismo and military rule, the event, augmented with the adoption of a new constitution in 1961, clearly marked a new era for the country. Venezuela's political life since 1959 has been defined by uninterrupted civilian constitutional rule. After becoming the first president to have served a full term of office, Betancourt was succeeded in 1964 by Raúl Leoni (president, 1964–69) and in 1969 by Rafael Caldera Rodríguez (president, 1969–74). Caldera Rodríguez did much to create economic and political stability, although the latter was marred by terrorist abductions and assassinations.

Stability increased in 1974, after the election of Carlos Andrés Pérez (president, 1974–79, 1989–93) of the Democratic Action Party (Acción Democrática—AD). However, Pérez’s first term coincided with a fourfold rise in oil prices in late 1973, and by 1979 the Venezuelan economy had stalled and corruption was widespread.

Venezuela's prevailing political calm came to an end in 1989, when Venezuela experienced riots in which 200 people were reportedly killed in Caracas. The so-called “Caracazo” riots was a response to an economic austerity program launched by then-President Carlos Andres Perez. Three years later, in February 1992, a group of army officers led by then-Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, an outspoken paratroop commander, mounted an unsuccessful coup attempt, claiming that the events of 1989 showed that the political system no longer served the interests of the people. Chavez was convicted of rebellion and jailed for his role in the coup, but was released in 1994. A second unsuccessful coup attempt by other officers affiliated with Chavez followed in November 1992, while Chavez remained in jail. A year later, Congress impeached Perez on corruption charges.

In 1994 public disaffection with the political system compelled President Rafael Caldera (president, 1969–74, 1994–98) to pardon Chávez, who had attained folk-hero status while in prison. Deep popular dissatisfaction with the traditional political parties, income disparities, and economic difficulties were some of the major frustrations expressed by Venezuelans following Perez's impeachment. In December 1998, Hugo Chavez Frias won the presidency on a campaign for broad reform, constitutional change, and a crackdown on corruption.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2012 15:30:42 ZULU