The pre-Hispanic Indian cultures of Venezuela, which arose from approximately
14,000 BC, did not form part of the better-known Andean or Central American civilizations,
and were primitive in comparison. From around 2,000 BC, the isolated tribes settled
extensively in the coastal and Llanos (plains) regions, and developed into culturally
distinct groups of different ethnic origin. Formerly nomadic, their now settled
lifestyle brought about a significant increase in population, and on the eve
of the Spanish conquest, it is estimated that about half a million Indians inhabited
what we now know as Venezuela.
It was on his third voyage of discovery that Christopher Columbus sighted Venezuela,
and, on discovering the mouth of the Orinoco river, realized he had come across
something far greater than another island. The following year, Spanish explorers
sailed up to the western tip of the country and into Lake Maracaibo. There, observing
Indian houses sitting on wooden stilts above the waters’ edge, they christened
the land ‘Venezuela’, meaning ‘little Venice’.
After its discovery, Venezuela became a colony run by Spanish bureaucrats and
the clergy. The earlier colonists originally searched for gold, but soon turned
their attention to agriculture, using Indian labor and imported black slaves.
Rebellions against colonial rule were few, and for the next 300 years Venezuela’s
history was not characterized by any major events.
Between 1820-1825, Simón Bolívar led the South American independence movement
previously started by Francisco de Miranda, which resulted in the defeat of the
Spanish and liberation of Venezuela in 1821. Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador
then unified into one state: Gran Colombia. Its leaders, however, were unable
to control such a vast region and by 1830, Gran Colombia had divided into three
independent republics. From 1830-1858, Venezuela found itself controlled by a
succession of military dictatorships, and underwent a period of political strife
and civil war. Internationally, too, there were problems. In the 1840s, Venezuela
laid a claim to two thirds of British Guyana territory, giving birth to a long
running border dispute that was to put a heavy strain on the relations between
the two countries. Today, Venezuela still claims this land and modern Venezuelan
maps mark this region as a ‘zona en reclamación’ (territory to be reclaimed).
Military rule continued into the 1900s, and under the regime of General Juan
Vicente Gómez the country became stabilized, thanks mainly to the discovery of
oil. Venezuela soon became the world’s leading oil exporter, and prospered. Little
money, however, reached the people and much of the nation remained poor. Oil
production boomed in the 1940s and 50s, and enabled President Marcos Pérez Jiménez
to reward members of his government with large sums of money and modernize the
country. However, opposition to the Jiménez regime began to grow. After his overthrow
in 1958, the country found its way to democracy with Rómulo Bertancourt elected
President. The first Venezuelan president to serve a full term, he enjoyed popular
support and his programs marked the beginning of economic and political stability.
Five presidents took office over the next 25 years, all constitutionally elected.
Today, Venezuela is under the presidency of Hugo Chavez Frías, who won the
elections in December 1998.