Republic in N South America on the Caribbean Sea, with Brazil to the S, Colombia to the W, and Guyana to the E. People of the Saladero culture lived along the Orinoco River c. 1000 b.c., and the Barrancas dwelt in the area approximately 100 years later. By a.d. 1500 an agricultural population inhabited the Lake Valencia region. Early European explorers met the Carib Indians, ferocious warriors from whose name the word cannibal is derived and after which the sea is named. On his third expedition, in 1498, Christopher Columbus sailed across the mouth of the Orinoco River and knew from the strength and freshness of the current that he had reached a continent, not another island . The following year both Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci sailed for Spain along the northern coast of South America.
Coming upon an island where the Indians built homes on stilts over water, Vespucci named the area Venezuela— Little Venice. Juan de la Cosa also explored the coast in 1504.
Missionaries attempted the first settlements in 1510 but were driven out by the Indians. Another missionary, Bartolome de Las Casas, founded Cumana in 1520. It was destroyed by Indians in 1522 but resettled the next year. Coro was established in 1527. From 1528 to 1546 the region was a commercial concession of a German banking family, the Welsers from Augsburg, who were creditors to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain.
In payment he gave them practical sovereignty over Venezuela. Led by Nikolaus Federmann, the Germans explored the interior, enslaved Indians, and sought unsuccessfully to find gold. Spanish government over the region was established in 1549. In 1717 and again from 1739 Venezuela, along with present Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama, made up the viceroyalty of New Granada. The Guipuzcoa Company, given a monopoly of commerce on the Venezuelan coast in 1728, expand ed the production of cacao, coffee, and cotton.
Revolt against Spanish rule began in 1810, and independence was declared in 1811. However, the struggle, led by Simon Bolivar, went on for some years, and independence was not assured until victory at Carabobo on June 24, 1821. Bolivar became president of Gran Colombia, which included Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama, as well as Venezuela. In 1830 Venezuela seceded from the union, and Jose Antonio Paez became its first president. Jose Tadeo Monagas, who became president in 1847, ended slavery; while Antonio Guzman Blanco, a “benevolent” despot, dominated the country from 1870 to 1888. The longstand ing Venezuela Boundary Dispute marked Joaquin Crespo’s presidency. The dispute concerned the border between Venezuela and British Guiana, and the United States became involved because it felt Great Britain was violating the Monroe Doctrine.
In December 1895 President Grover Cleveland threatened war if Great Britain did not agree to arbitration, which it then did. In 1899 a U.S. commission set a border favorable to Great Britain. The controversy is still going on, with modern Guyana.
The regime of Cipriano Castro (1901–08) was involved in the Venezuela Claims. When the country was unable to pay debts owed to Great Britain, Germany, and Italy, in 1902 those nations sent warships that blockaded and shelled Venezuelan seaports.
Again the United States felt the Monroe Doctrine was involved, but the European nations disclaimed territorial ambitions. A peaceful solution was reached in 1904. From 1908 to 1935 Venezuela was under the thumb of a tyrannical dictator, Juan Vicente Gomez.
Since then power has shifted between democratic and dictatorial regimes. In 1947 Romulo Gallegos became the first president elected by direct popular vote, but his rule was short-lived. In November 1960 Venezuela was one of the founding members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and is now one of the largest oil-exporting nations. In 1968 the Social Christian Party came to power when Rafael Caldera Rodriguez won a close presidential election.
On January 1, 1976, President Carlos Andres Perez nationalized all foreign-owned oil companies. In 1978 Luis Herrera Campins was elected as head of a moderate government and in 1981 began the country’s sixth five-year economic plan. Decreases in world oil prices during the early 1980s hurt the oil dependant Venezuelan economy while increasing the country’s foreign debt.
Jaime Lusinchi of the Democratic Action Party defeated Campins 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. Perez returned to the presidency in 1989 in the midst of demonstrations and riots sparked by deteriorating social conditions.
In 1992 Perez survived two attempted military coups, but in 1993 he was removed from office on corruption charges. In 1994 Rafael Caldera Rodriguez again became president, unveiling austerity measures in 1996 and privatizing some state-run companies. During the late 1990s Venezuela’s economy sagged and its budget deficit grew as oil prices fell. In 1999, Hugo Chavez Frias, a former army colonel who had participated in a failed coup attempt against Perez, won election for president as an independent.
Chavez called for a halt to the privatization of state assets and cut Venezuela’s oil production to force up prices.
A referendum in 1999 called for a national constituent assembly to draft a new constitution. The assembly and Chavez engaged in a power struggle with the congress and judiciary. The assembly declared a national emergency and stripped the congress of its powers. A new constitution strengthening the presidency was approved. A major flood and mudslide on the Caribbean coast delayed plans for new elections, but the congress was replaced with a 21-member interim council. In 2000 Chavez won reelection under the new constitution. In 2002 he was briefly ousted in a coup attempt. Other governments in Latin America refused to recognize the replacement government and Chavez was reinstated with a less extreme government. In 2004 Chavez won a referendum on his government.
Caracas is the capital and largest city; next largest are Maracaibo and Barquisimeto.