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).
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 cent. the coastline was attacked by English buccaneers, and in the 18th cent. there was a brisk smuggling trade with the British islands of the West Indies.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A military coup in Nov., 1948, overthrew the Gallegos government, and a repressive military dictatorship was established. By 1952, Col. 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 (1961) was adopted.
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.
The 1973 presidential election was won by Carlos Andrés Pérez Rodríguez of the Democratic Action party. That same year Venezuela joined the Andean Group (later the Andean Community), 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.
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.
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 other OPEC members to do the same.
A referendum in Apr., 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 Dec., 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 still 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 (Dec., 2002–Feb., 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 Jan., 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. During the same month relations with Colombia were tense after a Colombian rebel in Venezuela was kidnapped (Dec., 2004) by bounty hunters and turned over to Colombia authorities, but the dispute was resolved by the time both nations' presidents met in Caracas in February. National assembly elections in Dec., 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 designed to 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 was admitted to full membership in Mercosur in mid-2006 (ratifed in 2012); at the same time it withdrew from the Andean Community, whose members included Peru and Colombia.
Chávez was handily reelected in Dec., 2006, benefiting from an economic boom due to high petroleum prices and from the social programs he had instituted for the poor, but the strong win masked the continuing polarization of Venezuelan society along class lines, with the poorer classes overwhelmingly favoring the president. At the same time, however, inflation was increasing, and it continued to grow thoughout 2007 and 2008. Proclaiming "socialism or death" at his inauguration (Jan., 2007), Chávez moved to nationalize all energy and power companies and the country's largest telecommunications firm. He also moved to consolidate some two dozen parties supporting him into a unified socialist party, which was only partially successful, and secured the right to rule by decree for 18 months. Chávez subsequently won passage of constitutional amendments that would have ended presidential term limits, increased the length of the president's term, and enhanced the president's powers generally, but the changes failed (Dec., 2007) to win the voters' approval.
After a Colombian raid (Mar., 2008) against rebels based in Ecuador there were several days of tensions between Colombia and neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela, who mobilized forces to their borders. Colombia said computer files seized in the raid had evidence of ties between the rebels and Chávez's government. Though Venezuela denied that, Chávez, who had succeeded in winning the release of several hostages held by the rebels, expressed public sympathy for the Colombian rebel leader killed in the raid. (The head of the Organization of American States said the following month that no government had presented it with evidence of ties between Venezuela and any terrorist group.) From mid-2009 relations with Colombia were again strained by Colombian accusations of Venezuela support for Colombian rebels, prompted in part by the capture from the rebels of weapons purchased by Venezuela from Sweden; Venezuela alleged that Colombia's allowing U.S. forces to use Colombian bases against drug traffickers was a belligerent move by the United States. In Nov., 2009, Chávez ordered 15,000 troops to the Colombian border; the following month he accused the United States of violating Venezuelan airspace from the Netherlands Antilles, where U.S. antidrug operations are based.
In Apr., 2008, Chávez ordered the nationalization of the cement industry and of Venezuela's largest steelmaker; additional companies and industries, perhaps most notably financial institutions, were nationalized into 2010. As his right to rule by decree expired at the end of July, 2008, Chávez signed a number of decrees that mirrored many of the constitutional amendments that voters had rejected at the end of 2007, and in Jan., 2009, he secured legislative passage of a constitutional amendment that would end term limits for all elected officials. A referendum approved the amendment in Feb., 2009.
Meanwhile, in Nov., 2008, Chávez's allies again won a majority of the posts in local and regional elections, but the opposition increased the number of posts it held and won the Caracas mayorlty. Subsequent government moves stripped significant powers from posts that opposition candidates won, further concentrating power in central government hands, and the government launched corruption investigations or other cases against a number of leading opposition figures and critics. By late 2009, drought and increasing energy demands had led to such low water levels behind the Guri Dam (which supplies nearly three fourths of the country's electricity) that industrial cutbacks and other rationing measures, including rolling blackouts in 2010, were instituted. In Feb., 2010, the government declared an electricity emergency and imposed stricter rationing.
The National Assembly elections in September were won by Chávez's party, but the opposition, which did not boycott the elections, made significant gains, winning 47% of the vote and nearly 40% of the seats and denying the ruling party a constitutionally significant two-thirds majority. In Dec., 2010, there was significant flooding in states along the central and W Caribbean coast, and flood recovery and reconstruction was the pretext for Chávez's seeking legislation to rule by decree. Decried by his critics as an attempt to circumvent the incoming National Assembly, the law gave him decree powers for 18 months in many areas, such as banking and defense, not related to reconstruction. In Mar., 2011, the government adopted rules authorizing the military to arm the nation's militias, a progovernment force made up of militant Chávez supporters; they had previously not been issued firearms.
Chávez was again reelected in Oct., 2012, after having been treated for cancer and declaring himself fully recovered; his margin of victory was much less than in 2006. Subsequently, however, the president was again treated for cancer. This time, complications kept him in a Cuban hospital and led to the postponing of his Jan., 2013, inauguration. In Dec., 2012, Chávez's party made gains in the governors elections. Chávez died in Mar., 2013, after returning to Venezuela; Nicolás Maduro Moros, his vice president, became interim president.
In the April presidential election Maduro was elected, but he only narrowly defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor who had lost to Chávez in 2012 by more than 10%. Capriles called for a recount, but a more limited audit was conducted. There was some post-election violence, and Maduro accused Capriles of attempting a coup. In June, 2013, the Venezuela government said it had foiled a Colombian-based attempt to assassinate Maduro; Maduro had previously accused former Colombian president Uribe of plotting to kill him.
A couple significant power blackouts affected Venezuela's electrical grid in late 2013. The government blamed the blackouts on sabotage, and in October expelled several U.S. diplomats it accused of being involved in one blackout, but no concrete evidence of sabotage was presented by the government. Maduro received the power to rule by decree for 12 months in November, which he said was necessary to fight corruption and regulate the economy; inflation rate meanwhile increased to above 50% in 2013 despite government price controls.