mapa de guatemala click on the image to enlarge
The Arawaks and the Caribs were the earliest inhabitants of Venezuela, along with certain nomadic hunting and fishing tribes. Columbus discovered the mouths of the Orinoco in 1498. In 1499 the Venezuelan coast was explored by Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci. The latter, coming upon an island off the Paraguaná peninsula (probably Aruba), nicknamed it Venezuela (little Venice) because of native villages built above the water on stilts; the name held and was soon applied to the mainland. Spanish settlements were established on the coast at Cumaná (1520) and Santa Ana de Coro (1527).

Mapa de Venezuela click on the image to enlarge
The major task of the conquest was accomplished by German adventurers - Ambrosio de Alfinger, George de Speyer and especially Nikolaus Federmann - in the service of the Welsers, German bankers who had obtained rights in Venezuela from Emperor Charles V. During part of the colonial period the area was an adjunct of New Granada. Cocoa cultivation was the mainstay of the colonial economy. From the 16th to the 18th century the coastline was attacked by English buccaneers, and in the 18th century there was a brisk smuggling trade with the British islands of the West Indies.

mapa de guatemala click on the image to enlarge
In 1795 there was an uprising against Spanish control, but it was only after Napoleon had taken control of Spain that a real revolution began (1810) in Venezuela, under Francisco de Miranda. In 1811, complete independence was declared, but the revolution soon encountered difficulties. An earthquake in 1812 destroyed cities held by the patriots and helped to forward the cause of the royalists. Later, however, Simón Bolívar (born in Venezuela) and his lieutenants, working from Colombia, were able to liberate Venezuela despite setbacks administered by the royalist commander, Pablo Morillo. The victory of Carabobo (1821) secured independence from Spain.

Josť Antonio Paez click on the image to enlarge
Venezuela and other territories became part of the federal republic of Greater Colombia. Almost from the beginning, however, Venezuela was restive. José Antonio Páez, who had conquered the last Spanish garrison at Puerto Cabello in 1823, favored independence. He was a caudillo with a strong following among the hardy cattlemen, the llaneros. In 1830, the separatists gained the upper hand, and Venezuela became an independent state. Páez was the leading figure. Although conservative and liberal parties appeared, the actual control of Venezuela was held mainly by caudillos from the landholding class. After Páez, José Tadeo Monagas and his brother entrenched (1846) themselves in power, but not before a bitter struggle was waged to prevent the refractory Páez from keeping a large measure of political control.

guzman blanco click on the image to enlarge


The Monagas brothers were overthrown in 1858, and civil war among caudillos became chronic. A brief liberal regime under Juan Falcón created the decentralized United States of Venezuela in 1864. From 1870 to 1888, Guzmán Blanco dominated Venezuela. He improved education, communications, and finances, crushed the church, and enriched himself. He was overthrown in 1888, but dictatorship was resumed four years later under Joaquín Crespo. During Crespo's regime began the Venezuela Boundary Dispute with Great Britain over the border with British Guiana (now Guyana). Cipriano Castro, a new dictator, came to power in 1899. The financial corruption and incompetence of his administration helped to bring on a new international incident, that of the Venezuela Claims.

Juan Vicente Gomez click on the image to enlarge


The year 1908 marked the beginning of the rule of one of the longest-lasting of all Latin American dictators, Juan Vicente Gómez, who stayed in power until his death in 1935. His regime was one of total and absolute tyranny, although he did force the state (with the help of foreign oil concessions) into national solvency and material prosperity. His death was followed by popular celebration. Eleazar López Contreras became president (1935–41) and increased Venezuela's share of the oil companies' profits; under his legally elected successor, Isaías Medina Angarita, Venezuela sympathized with the Allies and finally entered World War II on the Allied side in 1945.

Romulo Gallegos click on the image to enlarge

Later in 1945, a military junta committed to democracy and social reform gained control of the government, which was then headed by Rómulo Betancourt of the Democratic Action party. A new constitution promulgated in 1947 provided, for the first time in Venezuelan history, for the election of a president by direct popular vote. The first president elected under the new constitution was the eminent novelist Rómulo Gallegos. His administration, however, was short-lived.

Marcos perez Jimenez click on the image to enlarge

A military coup in November 1948, overthrew the Gallegos government, and a repressive military dictatorship was established. By 1952, Marcos Pérez Jiménez had become dictator, and he made wide use of police state techniques. A popular revolt, supported by liberal units of the armed forces, broke out early in 1958; Pérez Jiménez fled. Elections held that year restored democratic rule to Venezuela. Rómulo Betancourt adopted a moderate program of gradual economic reform and maintained friendly relations with the United States despite the association of U.S. interests with Pérez Jiménez. A new constitution was adopted in 1961.

rafael caldera rodriguez click on the image to enlarge

The country, long out of debt because of the oil revenues, reached a peak of prosperity, but the new administration was nevertheless gravely challenged. Left-wing groups, particularly the Communists, bitterly opposed the administration, and their activities, combined with the restiveness of the poorer classes and the dissidence of leftist elements in the military, led to numerous uprisings. Extreme right-wing elements also plotted against the Betancourt regime. Betancourt was succeeded in 1964 by Raúl Leoni. In 1968 the Social Christian party came to power when Rafael Caldera Rodríguez won a close presidential election. The boundary dispute with Guyana flared up again in the 1960s, with Venezuela laying claim to some 60% of Guyana's territory.

Luis Herrera click on the image to enlarge

The 1973 presidential election was won by Carlos Andrés Pérez Rodríguez of the Democratic Action party. That same year Venezuela joined the Andean Group, an economic association of Latin American nations. In 1976, Venezuela nationalized its foreign-owned oil and iron companies. Luis Herrera Campíns replaced Pérez in 1978. A decrease in world oil prices during the early 1980s shocked the Venezuelan economy and massively increased Venezuela's foreign debt.

Carlos Andres Perez click on the image to enlarge

Democratic Action candidate Jaime Lusinchi defeated Campíns in 1983. He renegotiated the national debt and introduced austerity budgets and cuts in social services, but inflation and unemployment continued to plague the country. Pérez was returned to office in 1989 amid demonstrations and riots sparked by deteriorating social conditions. In 1992, Pérez survived two attempted military coups, but the following year he was removed from office on corruption charges; he was later convicted and sentenced to jail for misuse of a secret security fund. In 1994, Rafael Caldera Rodríguez again became president, this time under the banner of the National Convergence party. He unveiled austerity measures in 1996 and privatized some state-run companies.

Hugo Chavez click on the image to enlarge

Venezuela's economy sagged and its budget deficit grew as oil prices fell again in the late 1990s. Relations with Colombia, long strained over control of offshore oil reserves and the illegal movement of many Colombians into Venezuela to work, deteriorated in the 1990s as Venezuela claimed that Colombian guerrillas were trafficking drugs and arms across the border. In 1999, Hugo Chávez Frías, a former army colonel who had participated in a failed coup attempt against Pérez, became president after running as an independent. He called for a halt to privatization of state assets and approved a law enabling him to rule by decree in economic matters for six months. He also cut Venezuela's oil production to force up prices, and pushed for the other OPEC members to do the same.

A referendum in April 1999, called for a national constituent assembly to draft a new constitution; the assembly was elected in July and convened a month later. The assembly and Chávez engaged in a contest for power with the congress and judiciary; the assembly declared a national emergency and stripped the congress of its powers. A constitution establishing a strong president with a six-year term in office and the ability to run for immediate reelection and a unicameral National Assembly was approved in referendum in December. The new constitution also reduced civilian control of the military and increased the government's control of the economy. In the same month Venezuela experienced its worst natural disaster of the century, as torrential rains caused huge, devastating mudslides along the Caribbean coast; perhaps as many as 5,000 people were killed.

The disaster slowed plans for new elections, but the congress was replaced with a 21-member interim council. In July 2000, Chávez won election to the presidency under the new constitution; his coalition, the Political Pole, won 99 of the 165 seats in the assembly, short of the two-thirds majority needed to rule without constraints. Chávez won approval from the assembly to legislate by decree, and won passage of a December 2000, referendum that ousted Venezuela's labor leaders, a move denounced by the International Labor Organization. Chávez also revived the dormant boundary dispute with Guyana, declaring that a satellite-launching facility being built by an American company in the territory claimed by Venezuela was a cover for a U.S. military presence.

In 2001, Chávez became somewhat more unpopular with the increasingly polarized Venezuelan people, although he retained significant support among the lower classes. His attempts to assert control over the state oil company led to strikes and demonstrations in early 2002, and in April, he was briefly ousted in a coup attempt. Latin American nations refused, however, to recognize a self-proclaimed interim government under business executive Pedro Carmona Estanga, and poorer Venezuelans mounted counter-demonstrations in his support. Chávez was restored to office and called for reconciliation; a subsequent cabinet shakeup gave his government a less ideological cast.

The ongoing political turmoil, which led to a prolonged, polarizing antigovernment strike in the vital oil industry (December 2002–February 2003), sent the country into recession and reduced oil exports. Although Chávez outlasted his striking opponents, the crisis further eroded public support for his government. An agreement between the two sides, negotiated by the Organization of American States in May 2003, called for an end to violence and a referendum on Chávez's presidency later in the year. An opposition petition calling for a referendum on Chávez was rejected in September, however, because of procedural errors.

A new petition for a recall referendum was presented in December, but so many of the signatures were rejected by the electoral commission that the petition was unsuccessful. Negotiations ultimately led to a compromise in which the opposition was allowed three days in May 2004, to reaffirm disputed signatures, and the petition was validated. Also in May, a number of civilians and military officers were arrested on charges of plotting a coup against Chávez. In the referendum, held in August 58% voted to retain Chávez, and despite opposition denunciations of the result, foreign observers strongly endorsed it. Several opposition leaders were later charged (July, 2005) with conspiring to undermine Venezuela's government because their organization, Súmate, which played a major role in the petition drive, had received U.S. funds that were alleged to have been used to fund the referendum effort.

In January 2005, the president signed a decree establishing a national land commission that would begin the process of breaking up the country's large estates and redistributing the land. National assembly elections in December 2005, resulted in a sweep for parties supporting the president, but only a quarter of the electorate voted. Most opposition candidates withdrew from the contest before the vote in protest against what they said were biases and flaws in the electoral process, ceding complete control of the legislature to Chávez.

Chávez has used Venezuela's increased oil revenues to fund social programs, to create a large military reserve and expanded militia, and to establish programs that reduce the effects of high energy prices on Caribbean nations. Chávez also has publicly accused the United States of planning an invasion to overthrow him, while U.S. officials have accused him of supporting antidemocratic forces in Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador. His public support, in 2006, for one candidate in the Peruvian presidential race and criticisms of the ultimate winner, Alan García, led Peru to recall its ambassador. Venezuela became a full member of Mercosur in mid-2006; at the same time it threatened to withdraw from the Andean Community, whose members included Peru and Colombia.

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