Evidence exists of human habitation in the area now known as Venezuela from about 15,000 years ago. Leaf-shaped tools from this period, together with chopping and planoconvex scraping implements, have been found exposed on the high riverine terraces of the Rio Pedregal in western Venezuela. Late Pleistocene hunting artifacts, including spear tips, have been found at a similar series of sites in northwestern Venezuela known as "El Jobo"; according to radiocarbon dating, these date from 13,000 to 7,000 BC.
It is not known how many people lived in Venezuela before the Spanish conquest; it has been estimated at around one million. In addition to indigenous peoples known today, the population included historical groups such as the Kalina (Caribs), Auaké, Caquetio, Mariche, and Timoto-Cuicas. The Timoto-Cuica culture was the most complex society in Pre-Columbian Venezuela, with pre-planned permanent villages, surrounded by irrigated, terraced fields. They also stored water in tanks. Their houses were made primarily of stone and wood with thatched roofs. They were peaceful, for the most part, and depended on growing crops. Regional crops included potatoes and ullucos. They left behind works of art, particularly anthropomorphic ceramics, but no major monuments. They spun vegetable fibers to weave into textiles and mats for housing. They are credited with having invented the arepa, a staple in Venezuelan cuisine.
After the conquest, the population dropped markedly, mainly through the spread of new infectious diseases from Europe. Two main north-south axes of pre-Columbian population were present, who cultivated maize in the west and manioc in the east. Large parts of the llanos were cultivated through a combination of slash and burn and permanent settled agriculture.
In 1498, during his third voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus sailed near the Orinoco Delta and landed in the Gulf of Paria. Amazed by the great offshore current of freshwater which deflected his course eastward, Columbus expressed in a letter to Isabella and Ferdinand that he must have reached Heaven on Earth (terrestrial paradise):
Great signs are these of the Terrestrial Paradise, for the site conforms to the opinion of the holy and wise theologians whom I have mentioned. And likewise, the [other] signs conform very well, for I have never read or heard of such a large quantity of fresh water being inside and in such close proximity to salt water; the very mild temperateness also corroborates this; and if the water of which I speak does not proceed from Paradise then it is an even greater marvel, because I do not believe such a large and deep river has ever been known to exist in this world.
His certainty of having attained Paradise made him name this region 'Land of Grace', a phrase that has become the country's nickname.
Spain's colonization of mainland Venezuela started in 1522, establishing its first permanent South American settlement in the present-day city of Cumaná. In the 16th century, Venezuela was contracted as a concession by the King of Spain to the German Welser banking family (Klein-Venedig, 1528–1546). Native caciques (leaders) such as Guaicaipuro (circa 1530–1568) and Tamanaco (died 1573) attempted to resist Spanish incursions, but the newcomers ultimately subdued them; Tamanaco was put to death by order of Caracas' founder, Diego de Losada.
In the 16th century, during the Spanish colonization, indigenous peoples such as many of the Mariches, themselves descendants of the Kalina, converted to Roman Catholicism. Some of the resisting tribes or leaders are commemorated in place names, including Caracas, Chacao and Los Teques. The early colonial settlements focused on the northern coast, but in the mid-18th century, the Spanish pushed farther inland along the Orinoco River. Here, the Ye'kuana (then known as the Makiritare) organized serious resistance in 1775 and 1776.
Spain's eastern Venezuelan settlements were incorporated into New Andalusia Province. Administered by the Royal Audiencia of Santo Domingo from the early 16th century, most of Venezuela became part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada in the early 18th century, and was then reorganized as an autonomous Captaincy General starting in 1777. The town of Caracas, founded in the central coastal region in 1567, was well-placed to become a key location, being near the coastal port of La Guaira whilst itself being located in a valley in a mountain range, providing defensive strength against pirates and a more fertile and healthy climate.
Independence and 19th century
After a series of unsuccessful uprisings, Venezuela, under the leadership of Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan marshal who had fought in the Revolution and the French Revolution, declared independence on July 5, 1811. This began the Venezuelan War of Independence. A devastating earthquake that struck Caracas in 1812, together with the rebellion of the Venezuelan llaneros, helped bring down the first Venezuelan republic. A second Venezuelan republic, proclaimed on August 7, 1813, lasted several months before being crushed, as well.
Sovereignty was only attained after Simón Bolívar, aided by José Antonio Páez and Antonio José de Sucre, won the Battle of Carabobo on June 24, 1821. On July 24, 1823, José Prudencio Padilla and Rafael Urdaneta helped seal Venezuelan independence with their victory in the Battle of Lake Maracaibo. New Granada's congress gave Bolívar control of the Granadian army; leading it, he liberated several countries and founded Gran Colombia.
Sucre, who won many battles for Bolívar, went on to liberate Ecuador and later become the second president of Bolivia. Venezuela remained part of Gran Colombia until 1830, when a rebellion led by Páez allowed the proclamation of a newly independent Venezuela; Páez became the first president of the new republic. Between one-quarter and one-third of Venezuela's population was lost during these two decades of warfare, which by 1830, was estimated at about 800,000.
The colors of the Venezuelan flag are yellow, blue, and red: the yellow stands for land wealth, the blue for the sea that separates Venezuela from Spain, and the red for the blood shed by the heroes of independence.
Slavery in Venezuela was abolished in 1854. Much of Venezuela's 19th-century history was characterized by political turmoil and dictatorial rule, including the Independence leader José Antonio Páez, who gained the presidency three times and served a total of 11 years between 1830 and 1863. This culminated in the Federal War (1859–1863), a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died in a country with a population of not much more than a million people. In the latter half of the century, Antonio Guzmán Blanco, another caudillo, served a total of 13 years between 1870 and 1887, with three other presidents interspersed.
In 1895, a longstanding dispute with Great Britain about the territory of Guayana Esequiba, which Britain claimed as part of British Guiana and Venezuela saw as Venezuelan territory, erupted into the Venezuela Crisis of 1895. The dispute became a diplomatic crisis when Venezuela's lobbyist, William L. Scruggs, sought to argue that British behavior over the issue violated the United States' Monroe Doctrine of 1823, and used his influence in Washington, D.C., to pursue the matter. Then, US President Grover Cleveland adopted a broad interpretation of the doctrine that did not just simply forbid new European colonies, but declared an American interest in any matter within the hemisphere. Britain ultimately accepted arbitration, but in negotiations over its terms was able to persuade the US on many of the details. A tribunal convened in Paris in 1898 to decide the issue and in 1899 awarded the bulk of the disputed territory to British Guiana.
In 1899, Cipriano Castro, assisted by his friend Juan Vicente Gómez, seized power in Caracas, marching an army from his base in the Andean state of Táchira. Castro defaulted on Venezuela's considerable foreign debts and declined to pay compensation to foreigners caught up in Venezuela's civil wars. This led to the Venezuela Crisis of 1902–1903, in which Britain, Germany and Italy imposed a naval blockade of several months before international arbitration at the new Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague was agreed. In 1908, another dispute broke out with the Netherlands, which was resolved when Castro left for medical treatment in Germany and was promptly overthrown by Juan Vicente Gómez.
The discovery of massive oil deposits in Lake Maracaibo during World War I proved to be pivotal for Venezuela and transformed the basis of its economy from a heavy dependence on agricultural exports. It prompted an economic boom that lasted into the 1980s; by 1935, Venezuela's per capita gross domestic product was Latin America's highest. Gómez benefited handsomely from this, as corruption thrived, but at the same time, the new source of income helped him centralize the Venezuelan state and develop its authority.
He remained the most powerful man in Venezuela until his death in 1935, although at times he ceded the presidency to others. The gomecista dictatorship system largely continued under Eleazar López Contreras, but from 1941, under Isaías Medina Angarita, was relaxed. Angarita granted a range of reforms, including the legalization of all political parties. After World War II, immigration from Southern Europe (mainly from Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France) and poorer Latin American countries markedly diversified Venezuelan society.
In 1945, a civilian-military coup overthrew Medina Angarita and ushered in a three-year period of democratic rule under the mass membership Democratic Action. Initially, under Rómulo Betancourt, until Rómulo Gallegos won the Venezuelan presidential election, 1947 (generally believed to be the first free and fair elections in Venezuela). Gallegos governed until overthrown by a military junta led by Marcos Pérez Jiménez and Gallegos' Defense Minister, Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, in the 1948 Venezuelan coup d'état.
Pérez Jiménez was the most powerful man in the junta (though Chalbaud was its titular president) and was suspected of being behind the death in office of Chalbaud, who died in a bungled kidnapping in 1950. When the junta unexpectedly lost the election it held in 1952, it ignored the results and Pérez Jiménez was installed as President, where he remained until 1958.
The military dictator Pérez Jiménez was forced out on January 23, 1958. In an effort to consolidate the young democracy, the major political parties (with the notable exception of the Communist Party of Venezuela) signed the Punto Fijo Pact. Democratic Action and COPEI would dominate the political landscape for four decades.
In the 1960s, substantial guerilla movements occurred, including the Armed Forces of National Liberation and the Revolutionary Left Movement, which had split from Democratic Action in 1960. Most of these movements laid down their arms under Rafael Caldera's presidency (1969–74); Caldera had won the 1968 election for COPEI, being the first time a party other than Democratic Action took the presidency through a democratic election.
The election of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1973 coincided with the 1973 oil crisis, in which Venezuela's income exploded as oil prices soared; oil industries were nationalized in 1976. This led to massive increases in public spending, but also increases in external debts, which continued into the 1980s when the collapse of oil prices during the 1980s crippled the Venezuelan economy. As the government started to devalue the currency in February 1983 to face its financial obligations, Venezuelans' real standards of living fell dramatically. A number of failed economic policies and increasing corruption in government led to rising poverty and crime, worsening social indicators, and increased political instability.
Economic crises in the 1980s and 1990s led to a political crisis in which hundreds died in the Caracazo riots of 1989, two attempted coups d'état in 1992, and the impeachment of President Carlos Andrés Pérez (re-elected in 1988) for corruption in 1993. Coup leader Hugo Chávez was pardoned in March 1994 by president Rafael Caldera, with a clean slate and his political rights reinstated.
Bolivarian government: 1999–present
The Bolivarian Revolution refers to a left-wing populism social movement and political process in Venezuela led by the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, the founder of the Fifth Republic Movement and later the United Socialist Party of Venezuela. The "Bolivarian Revolution" is named after Simón Bolívar, an early 19th-century Venezuelan and Latin American revolutionary leader, prominent in the Spanish American wars of independence in achieving the independence of most of northern South America from Spanish rule. According to Chávez and other supporters, the "Bolivarian Revolution" seeks to build a mass movement to implement Bolivarianism—popular democracy, economic independence, equitable distribution of revenues, and an end to political corruption—in Venezuela. They interpret Bolívar's ideas from a populist perspective, using socialist rhetoric.
Hugo Chávez: 1999–2013
A collapse in confidence in the existing parties led to Chávez being elected president in 1998, and the subsequent launch of a "Bolivarian Revolution", beginning with a 1999 Constituent Assembly to write a new Constitution of Venezuela. Chávez also initiated Bolivarian missions, programs aimed at helping the poor.
In April 2002, Chávez was briefly ousted from power in the 2002 Venezuelan coup d'état attempt following popular demonstrations by his opponents, but he was returned to power after two days as a result of demonstrations by poor Chávez supporters in Caracas and actions by the military.
Chávez also remained in power after an all-out national strike that lasted from December 2002 to February 2003, including a strike/lockout in the state oil company PDVSA. The strike produced severe economic dislocation, with the country's GDP falling 27% during the first four months of 2003, and costing the oil industry $13.3 billion. Capital flight before and during the strike led to the reimposition of currency controls (which had been abolished in 1989), managed by the CADIVI agency. In the subsequent decade, the government was forced into several currency devaluations. These devaluations have done little to improve the situation of the Venezuelan people who rely on imported products or locally produced products that depend on imported inputs while dollar-denominated oil sales account for the vast majority of Venezuela's exports. The profits of the oil industry have been lost to "social engineering" and corruption, instead of investments needed to maintain oil production.
Chávez survived several further political tests, including an August 2004 recall referendum. He was elected for another term in December 2006 and re-elected for a third term in October 2012. However, he was never sworn in for his third period, due to medical complications. Chávez died on 5 March 2013 after a nearly two-year fight with cancer. The presidential election that took place on Sunday, 14 April 2013, was the first since Chávez took office in 1999 in which his name did not appear on the ballot.
Venezuela under Hugo Chávez suffered "one of the worst cases of Dutch Disease in the world" due to the Bolivarian government's large dependence on oil sales. Poverty and inflation began to increase into the 2010s. Nicolás Maduro was elected in 2013 after the death of Chavez. Chavez picked Maduro as his successor and appointed him vice president in 2013. Maduro was elected President in a shortened election in 2013 following Chavez’s death. Despite the demand for a recount and claims of manipulation by his competitor, Maduro was announced victorious. Venezuela devalued its currency in February 2013 due to the rising shortages in the country, which included those of milk, flour, and other necessities. This led to an increase in malnutrition, especially among children. In 2014, Venezuela entered an economic recession. In 2015, Venezuela had the world's highest inflation rate with the rate surpassing 100%, becoming the highest in the country's history. Economic problems, as well as crime and corruption, were some of the main causes of the 2014–2018 Venezuelan protests, which left hundreds of protesters killed.
Nicolás Maduro: 2013–present
Nicolás Maduro has been the President of Venezuela since April 14, 2013, after winning the second presidential election after Chávez's death, with 50.61% of the votes against the opposition's candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski who had 49.12% of the votes. The Democratic Unity Roundtable contested his election as fraud and as a violation of the constitution. However, the Supreme Court of Venezuela ruled that under Venezuela's Constitution, Nicolás Maduro is the legitimate president and was invested as such by the Venezuelan National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional). Opposition leaders and international media consider the government of Maduro to be a dictatorship.
Beginning in February 2014, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have protested over high levels of criminal violence, corruption, hyperinflation, and chronic scarcity of basic goods due to policies of the federal government. Demonstrations and riots have left over 40 fatalities in the unrest between both Chavistas and opposition protesters, and has led to the arrest of opposition leaders such as Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma. Human rights groups have strongly condemned the arrest of Leopoldo López.
In the 2015 Venezuelan parliamentary election, the opposition gained a majority.
The following year, in a July 2016 decree, President Maduro used his executive power to declare a state of economic emergency. The decree could force citizens to work in agricultural fields and farms for 60-day (or longer) periods to supply food to the country. Colombian border crossings have been temporarily opened to allow Venezuelans to purchase food and basic household and health items in Colombia in mid-2016. In September 2016, a study published in the Spanish-language Diario Las Américas indicated that 15% of Venezuelans are eating "food waste discarded by commercial establishments".
In October 2016, Fox News Latino reported that during a month-long riot at the Táchira Detention Center in Caracas, 40 inmates dismembered and consumed three fellow inmates. There have been close to 200 prison riots in Venezuela in 2016, with the cause being attributed to a worsening social situation, increasing poverty, and food shortages leading to overcrowded prisons.
In March 2017, opposition leaders branded President Nicolas Maduro a dictator after the Maduro-aligned Supreme Tribunal, which had been overturning most National Assembly decisions since the opposition took control of the body, took over the functions of the assembly, pushing a lengthy political standoff to new heights. However, the Supreme Court quickly backed down and reversed its decision on April 1, 2017. A month later, President Maduro announced the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly election, 2017 and on August 30, 2017, the 2017 Constituent National Assembly was elected into office and quickly stripped the National Assembly of its powers.
In December 2017, President Maduro declared that leading opposition parties will be barred from taking part in next year's presidential vote after they boycotted mayoral polls.