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A brief history of Venezuela

When Columbus landed in present-day Venezuela, at the mouth of the Orinoco, in 1498, about 400,000 aboriginal people lived there. In the latter half of the 16th century the Spanish began effective colonization, producing with indigenous slave labor sugar, tobacco, cocoa, and beef for export. Slaves from Africa were also brought in.

Venezuela was always one of the most autonomous of colonies, due to the power of the local creoles (native-born whites) who owned most land fit for agriculture. The creoles declared independence in 1797 but didn’t finally defeat the Spanish until 1823. Gen. Simón Bolívar received help in the war for independence from the new Republic of Haiti and a foreign legion of British and Irish soldiers.

After independence Venezuela was briefly part of the nation of “Gran Colombia,” which included present-day Colombia and Ecuador, but broke away in 1828. After that and for the next 130 years Venezuela was ruled by a series of caudillos. Powerful warlords with private armies to back them, the caudillos put the government to work for them.

Early this century oil was discovered in Venezuela, and by 1928 Venezuela was the world’s second-largest producer and the leading exporter of petroleum. Venezuela was a founding member of OPEC in 1960 and continued as the world’s largest oil exporter until 1970. Thus the 20th century saw the transformation of a relatively poor, agrarian society to a highly urban and relatively wealthy one. Sadly, the petrodollars raised the standard of living and education of only a small percentage of Venezuelans. By the 1950s 80 percent of the land was owned by 2 percent of the people. Agrarian reform in the 1960s helped, but the agricultural sector remains small and neglected.

Though one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, Venezuela has a large foreign debt. Food riots in 1988 and 1989 and two attempted coups in 1992 put Venezuelan democracy, stable since the 1950s, into jeopardy. The collapse of Venezuela’s second-largest commercial bank in 1994 and the trial of former president Carlos Andrés Pérez for embezzlement in the same year seemed to deepen rather than ameliorate the crisis. The social peace was also threatened by the March 1996 discovery of 68 bodies in a mass grave believed to be people “disappeared” during the food riots.

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