The area we call Venezuela has been inhabited for more than 15,000 years. The earliest indigenous residents were predominantly nomadic; these peoples, descendents of the Carib, Arawak, and Chibcha tribes, left few traces and no major ruins. The most significant archaeological evidence left behind is some well preserved, although largely undeciphered, petroglyphs found in various sites around the country.
In 1498, on his third voyage, Christopher Columbus became the first European to set foot in Venezuela. One year later, Amerigo Vespucci and Alonso de Ojeda, leading another exploration to the New World, dubbed the land Venezuela, or "Little Venice," in honor of (or perhaps making fun of) the traditional indigenous stilt-houses along Lake Maracaibo, which called to mind the namesake city.
Lacking readily apparent gold and silver stores, Venezuela was never a major colonial concern for the Spanish crown. The first city still in existence to be founded was Cumaná, established in 1521. Caracas, the current capital, was founded in 1567. For centuries, the colony was governed from afar by Spanish seats in Peru, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. The relative isolation and low level of development encouraged a certain amount of autonomy. Perhaps this is why Venezuela figured so prominently in the region's independence struggle.
Venezuela's struggle for independence from Spanish rule began in the early 19th century and took nearly 2 decades to consolidate. The principal figure in the fight was Simón Bolívar, El Libertador -- a Venezuelan-born aristocrat considered the "Father of Venezuela" and the person most responsible for ending Spanish colonial rule throughout South America. Taking over in the wake of Francisco de Miranda's death, Bolívar led a series of long and bloody campaigns. In 1819, in the city of Angostura (currently Ciudad Bolívar), the rebel forces declared the independence of Gran Colombia, comprising the current states of Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Still, Royalist forces held on, and fighting continued for several more years, culminating in the decisive 1821 Battle of Carabobo. Nevertheless, both Bolívar's good fortune and the fledgling nation were short-lived. By 1830, El Libertador had died as a poor and pitiful figure, and Gran Colombia had dissolved into separate nation-states, including present-day Venezuela.
Over the next century or so, Venezuela was ruled by a series of strongman dictators, or caudillos, whose reigns were sometimes interspersed with periods of civil war and anarchy. One of the most infamous dictators was General Juan Vincente Gómez, who ruled from 1908 until his death in 1935. In addition to his cruelty and suppression of dissent, Gómez is best known for having presided over the first period of discovery and exploitation of Venezuela's massive oil reserves. Venezuela quickly became the world's number-one exporter of crude oil. However, there was little trickledown, and most of the wealth generated went to international oil companies and a small local elite.
By 1945, the opposition, led by Rómulo Betancourt, was able to take power and organize elections, granting universal voting rights to both men and women. In 1947, Rómulo Gallegos, the country's greatest novelist, became the first democratically elected president of Venezuela. However, the new democracy was fragile, and Gallegos was overthrown in a military coup within 8 months.
The subsequent military dictator, Colonel Marcos Pérez Jiménez, rivaled Gómez in brutality but will forever be remembered as the architect of modern Venezuela. Pérez Jiménez dedicated vast amounts of oil money to public works projects and modern buildings. In 1958, Pérez Jiménez himself was overthrown and a more stable democracy was instituted. Back in the spotlight, Rómulo Betancourt became the first democratically elected president to finish his term. For decades, Venezuela enjoyed a relatively peaceful period of democratic rule, with two principal parties amicably sharing power.
But Venezuela's almost sole dependence on oil revenues, modern ebbs and flows in international crude prices and production, and internal corruption and mismanagement all took their toll. In 1992, there were two unsuccessful coup attempts, one led by brash paratrooper Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías. Chávez spent several years in prison, but was not out for the count. In 1993, President Carlos Andrés Pérez was found guilty of embezzlement and misuse of public funds, was impeached, and spent more than 2 years under house arrest. More economic woe and political turmoil ensued, and in December 1998, Hugo Chávez, back in the spotlight, was elected president in a landslide.
Venezuela Today -- Chávez's folksy populism and leftist rhetoric give him a strong base of support among the poorer classes, although he has faced constant and fierce opposition from much of the political, business, and academic classes, as well as a hostile press. Soon after assuming power, Chávez orchestrated a series of maneuvers, including the dissolution of Congress and the drafting of a new constitution, which have granted him far-reaching powers.
Chávez's early years were marked by frequent public protests both in favor of and against his rule. Several of these protests turned violent, and fatal encounters between opposing sides were not uncommon. This turmoil caused massive capital and intellectual flight. In 2000, Chávez was reelected. However, in 2003, he was briefly ousted in an unsuccessful coup attempt. Soon after, the opposition called for a nationwide referendum on Chávez's rule, which Chávez won in 2004.
Bolstered by these electoral victories, and parallel victories of his party in the legislature, Chávez has been able to further his goals of leading a "Bolívarian revolution," which is an odd amalgam of Marx, Mao, Castro, and Bolívar. However, in December 2007, Chávez suffered a significant setback, with the defeat of constitutional amendments that would have allowed him to be reelected indefinitely.
Nevertheless, Chávez's rhetoric and policies have taken a sharp socialist turn, closely following the Cuban model -- even employing many of the same slogans and programs. This shift has included severe curbs on press freedom, a new national school curriculum, and increased antagonism toward the United States. Part of this antagonism towards the United States has been directed at neighboring Colombia, which Chávez claims is being used as a base for an eventual U.S. invasion. Throughout 2009 Chávez has ratcheted up the rhetoric and tensions, going as far as ordering the population to prepare for war.
Thanks to high oil prices, Chávez has plenty of cash. This petro-dollar bonanza has filtered down some, and the country is still experiencing GDP growth, despite the global economic crisis. Nevertheless, critics claim that the benefits to the poor are far too few and often doled out according to political affiliation. Moreover, the country paradoxically faces energy shortages and rationing. Today, Venezuela remains fiercely divided, predominantly along class lines. Chávez's Bolívarian revolution remains a work in progress, and his current term doesn't expire until 2012.
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