As many as 400,000 Amerindians were living in the land now known as Venezuela when Christopher Columbus landed at the mouth of the Orinoco in August 1498, on his third voyage of discovery. The nation received its name, meaning "Little Venice," from Alonso de Ojeda, who sailed into the Gulf of Venezuela in August 1499 and was reminded of the Italian city by the native huts built on stilts over the water.
The first Europeans to settle Venezuela were Germans. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted the Welsers, a German banking firm, the right to colonize and develop Venezuela in exchange for the cancellation of a debt. Lasting a little less than 20 years, the administration of the Welsers was characterized by extensive exploration and organization of the territory but also by brutality toward the native population. In 1546, the grant was rescinded, and Venezuela was returned to the Spanish crown.
Under the Spanish, Eastern Venezuela was governed under the audiencia (region under a royal court) of Santo Domingo, and the western and southern regions became a captaincy-general under the viceroyalty of Peru. Settlement of the colony was hampered by constant wars with the Amerindians, which did not stop until after a smallpox epidemic in 1580. Meanwhile, the province was carved into encomiendas (hereditary grants), which were given to the conquistadores as rewards. By the end of the century, however, the encomienda system was abandoned, and existing grants were declared illegal. The cabildos, or town councils, won more authority, and a national consciousness began to develop. In 1717, the western and southern provinces were incorporated into the viceroyalty of New Granada, and in 1783, the area of present-day Venezuela became a captaincy-general of Caracas.
The war for independence against Spain began in 1810. Francisco de Miranda ("El Precursor"), a military adventurer, was named leader of the Congress of Cabildos, which declared the independence of Venezuela on 5 July 1811. Royalist factions rallied to overthrow the new republic, which was weakened when an earthquake destroyed revolutionary strongholds and left royalist centers virtually untouched. Miranda was captured and sent to die in a dungeon in Cádiz, but Simón Bolívar, a native of Caracas who had served under Miranda, was able to flee to Colombia. He then led an army across the Andes into Venezuela, declaring "War to the death and no quarter to Spaniards." In August 1812, he entered Caracas and assumed the title of Liberator ("El Libertador"). He was defeated and forced to flee to Jamaica, as the royalists again took control of the capital.
In December 1816, Bolívar, after landing in eastern Venezuela, established his headquarters in Angostura, now Ciudad Bolívar. He was aided by Gen. José Antonio Páez. The Congress of Angostura convened in October 1818 and in February 1819 elected Bolívar president of the Venezuelan republic. In the spring, he crossed the Andes, and in July, he entered Tunja, Colombia, with about 3,000 men and, after defeating the Spaniards at Boyacá, entered Bogotá. Under Bolívar's leadership, Gran Colombia (Greater Colombia) was formed from Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, with Bolívar as its president and military dictator. The end of the Venezuelan war of independence came with Bolívar's victory at Carabobo in June 1821.
In 1830, Venezuela seceded from Gran Colombia. A period of civil wars lasted from 1846 to 1870, when the caudillo Antonio Guzmán Blanco assumed power. Guzmán was overthrown in 1888, and a few years later, Joaquín Crespo, a former puppet president of Guzmán, seized power. The next dictator, Cipriano Castro (1899–1908), was a colorful, if controversial, figure. A drunkard and a libertine, Castro also put Venezuela deeply into debt. When Castro refused to repay its outstanding loans, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy sent gunboats to blockade the Venezuelan coast. After mediation by the United States and a decision favorable to the European creditors by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, Venezuela met its obligations by 1907. The next year, Castro sought medical care in Paris, leaving Venezuela in the hands of Juan Vicente Gómez. Gómez (1908–35) promptly seized power and ruled as dictator until his death. Although uneducated and practically illiterate, Gómez had a mind for business and proved a capable administrator. During his dictatorship, agriculture was developed and oil was discovered, making Venezuela one of the richest countries in Latin America. Oil concessions attracted US, British, and Dutch companies, initiating an era of oil wealth that continues today.
Venezuela took its last steps toward full democracy after January 1958, when a popular revolt with military backing drove Pérez Jiménez from power. An interim government consisting of a military junta held elections in December 1958, and Betancourt was chosen president. Venezuela has had fair and free elections ever since. After the death of Gómez, Venezuela began to move toward democracy. During two military governments, opposition parties were permitted, allowing the Democratic Action (Acción Democrática—AD) to organize. In 1945, the military scheduled an election, but many feared a fraudulent outcome. The AD deposed the military, and a junta named AD leader Rómulo Betancourt provisional president. Betancourt set elections for 1947, and conducted the first free election for president in Venezuelan history. The AD candidate Rómulo Gallegos, a distinguished novelist, was elected overwhelmingly, but the military intervened in November 1948. A bloodless army coup replaced Gallegos with a military junta that ruled for four years. In December 1952, during the scheduled presidential election Marcos Pérez Jiménez seized power and became an absolute dictator.
The Betancourt government (1959–64) instituted modest programs for fiscal and agrarian reform, school construction, the elimination of illiteracy, and diversification of the economy. However, a depression beginning in 1960 trammeled these efforts and aggravated dissatisfaction with the regime. Betancourt was challenged by political instability coming from several fronts. The military, looking for a chance to return to power, engaged in several attempts to overthrow the government. Betancourt also opposed Fidel Castro, and allied with the United States against him. Castroites in Venezuela responded with a guerrilla campaign under the FALN (Armed Forces for National Liberation). Betancourt charged the Castro government with attempting to subvert his government by supporting the FALN. In February 1964, the OAS formally charged Cuba with an act of aggression against Venezuela as a result of the discovery of an arms shipment to guerrillas in November 1963.
The AD was reelected in December 1964, when Raúl Leoni won the presidency over five other candidates. In 1966, supporters of Pérez Jiménez staged an unsuccessful military uprising. In the same year, in a drive against continued Castro-supported terrorism, President Leoni suspended constitutional guarantees and empowered the police to make arrests without warrants, to hold suspects without bail for an indefinite period, and to enter the quarters of suspected terrorists without judicial permission.
In 1968, Venezuela passed another test of democracy by transferring power peacefully from AD to the opposition Social Christian Party. The victor, Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, governed along the same lines as his AD predecessors, maintaining a set of social programs and benefiting from increasing oil revenues. At this point, Venezuela's future seemed assured, and public expenditures increased. The AD returned in 1973 with the victory of Carlos Andrés Pérez. By 1976, Pérez had brought about complete nationalization of the oil and iron industries. In the December 1978 elections, Luis Herrera Campíns, leader of the Social Christian Party, won the presidency.
The next year, Venezuela received its first rude awakening, when the oil market dropped, thus threatening the foundations of the Venezuelan economic and political systems. There was soon a financial crisis, as Venezuela struggled to make payments on its overextended debt. The crisis culminated in the devaluation of the national currency, the bolívar, which dropped to one-third of its previous value against the dollar. Venezuelan consumers responded angrily, and the early 1980s were years of unrest. In the elections of December 1983, the AD returned to power behind presidential candidate Jaime Lusinchi.
Lusinchi's tenure was marred by scandal and trouble in the midst of the world petroleum crisis. While the economy floundered through the 1980s, the government maintained public confidence by stressing a "social pact" with guarantees of housing, education, and public health. Some progress was made in boosting non-oil exports, particularly in agriculture and mining, and the government promoted import substitution, particularly in food and manufacturing.
The 1988 elections brought back Carlos Andrés Pérez, who had been elected president 15 years earlier. Pérez immediately imposed austerity measures, removing government subsidies on a number of consumer goods, including gasoline. Prices rose and Caracas was rocked by rioting on a scale not seen since the uprising of 1958. The military was called in to quell the disturbances, but when the trouble finally died down, thousands had been killed or injured. The situation continued to deteriorate, and in 1992 Venezuela was shocked by two military coup attempts. The leader of the coup was an obscure and young military leader named Hugo Rafael Chávez Friaz. Venezuelans could not have guessed that Chávez within a short few years would be leading the nation.
Pérez seemed unmoved by the coup attempts, and his administration continued business as usual. A major scandal, with allegations of embezzlement and theft in office, brought him down. Pérez was suspended from office and later sentenced to 28 months in prison, and Ramón José Velásquez was named interim president until the regularly scheduled elections in December 1993.
In that election, Venezuelans chose Rafael Caldera, who ran under a coalition of four parties. The election of Caldera, who had been president during the brighter years of 1968–73, demonstrated the level of impasse in the Venezuelan system. Unable to produce new leadership, former presidents were being returned to office. Even though Venezuela remained one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, instability was rapidly increasing. The Venezuelan economy fell into a recession in 1993, which continued to worsen over the next four years. In order to enforce emergency economic measures, President Caldera suspended a number of civil rights in 1994–95.
The Venezuelan middle class plunged into poverty as inflation soared to 103% by 1995. Doctors, university professors, and national telephone company workers all went out on strike during 1997, and several other groups threatened to strike as well. Within this fragile political atmosphere, Chávez reappeared in the political scene. Backed by the new party Movement for the Fifth Republic, Chávez quickly established himself as a major contender in the 1998 presidential election. A charismatic populist, Chávez appealed to the nation's poor. The traditional parties that had ruled the country for some 40 years had impoverished the nation and pillaged its resources, he said, promising to end the avarice and poverty. In December 1998, he gained 57% of the votes to become president.
During his inauguration speech in February 1999, Chávez unveiled his intentions to dramatically change the political and social fabric of the nation. He swore allegiance to the 1961 constitution, but he stressed it was a moribund document and vowed to replace it. He promised a "peaceful democratic revolution." To some Venezuelans and international observers, Chávez's leftist rhetoric was alarming. Some saw a caudillo in the making, a man who reminded them too much of Cuba's Fidel Castro. But Castro, a close friend, said he and Chávez did not share the same political ideology, even though Chávez had become a vocal opponent of free-market economics. Chávez called for a new constitution, and in April, voters approved a 131-member National Constitutional Assembly (ANC) to rewrite the document. Backers of Chávez won 121 of the 131 seats in July elections. In December, 46% of the country's 11 million eligible voters went to the polls to decide the fate of the proposed constitution. Approved by 71% of those who voted, the new document, the country's 26th constitution, came into effect on 30 December 1999. The new constitution was expected to bring dramatic changes to all branches of government as laws are changed to meet its demands.
The new constitution eliminated the Senate and replaced it with a unicameral National Assembly. It gave the nation a new name to honor Bolívar: Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela). It consolidated power in the executive branch, extended the presidential term from five to six years, and eliminated a restriction that prevented the president from serving two consecutive terms. It banned the privatization of social security, health care, the oil industry, and other key state-owned enterprises. In January 2000, the ANC concluded its work and selected a 21-member National Commission to help rule the country until elections for the new National Assembly were held on July 30, 2000. Nearly all national, regional and local offices were up for grabs in the July "mega-elections," including the presidential office. Chávez easily won with 59.5% of the vote, securing the presidential post for 6 more years. Chávez's political party, the Fifth Republic Movement, captured 76 of the 165 seats of the unicameral assembly. But Chávez enjoys the support of other allied parties that give him control of the 108 seats in the legislature.
Opposition to Chávez has grown and calls for his resignation increased. Discontent with the economic and political situation led a group of business opposition leaders to back a military coup in April 2002. After having claimed victory, the coup failed and Chávez was back in power two days later. Chávez replaced his vice president Diosdado Cabello with foreign minister Vicente Rangel and several military officers involved in the coup attempt were jailed. But popular discontent has not decreased and social unrest has worsened. The economy suffered a recession in 2002 after a meager 2.7% growth in 2001. A midterm plebiscite is scheduled for late 2003, but the divided opposition is unlikely to mount a serious challenge against the president who still commands support from a large minority of the population.