When Columbus was the first European to see the Venezuelan coast around 500 years ago, the region had been populated for more than 4,000 years. The oldest ceramic finds in the Maracaibo Basin refer to this time. Influences from Colombia, especially in the west of Venezuela and from the West Indies in the east, point to the first millennium BC. When the Europeans arrived, the tribes in the Andean regions were the most developed.
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The actual colonial history of the country began with the arrival of Amerigo Vespucci on the Gulf of Maracaibo in 1499. According to sources, he gave the country the name Venezuela given the Indian stilt houses on the coast (for “Little Venice”, German: Little Venice). Pearl fishing and slave fishing were the focus of the first decades of the 16th century. After a small interregnum financed by the Welser banking house in Augsburg, the Spaniards took possession of the northwestern region of what is now Venezuela in 1546. Caracas was founded in 1567 and by 1600 there were already more than 20 Spanish settlements, some on the coast and some in the Andes. Roman Catholic missionaries followed during the 17th and 18th centuries and began primarily in the Llanos and Maracaibo region, Christianize the Indian tribes. As a colony, Venezuela was of little importance for the Spanish mother country. Sugar cane, coffee, cotton and cocoa were grown first with local slaves and later with slaves from Africa.
At the end of the 18th century, a conflict between two powerful interest groups emerged in the colony. On one side were creoles, white Venezuelan landowners whose ancestors had immigrated from Europe. They held economic power in the country and headed the lawless Indian slaves. On the other side were officials of the Spanish king and Spanish church leaders. In between, without land, social status and political influence, lived the growing group of mestizos, Indian-European hybrids.
Against this background, the Creoles made their first attempts to break away from Spanish rule in 1797 and 1806. They were led by Sim¨®n Bol¨ªvar, who was born in Caracas and came from a wealthy Creole family. He liberated Caracas and declared the former colonies to be independent. The struggle against colonial power continued until 1821, when an army led by Bol¨ªvar liberated Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia at the Battle of Carabobo. The Republic of Greater Colombia, founded by Bol¨ªvar in 1819, disintegrated only a few days after Bol¨ªvar’s death in 1830. In 1864 Venezuela became a federal republic.
The years until the middle of the 20th century were characterized by dictatorships and civil wars. According to AbbreviationFinder, so-called caudillos (Spanish for leaders) mostly governed the country more for their own benefit than for the benefit of Venezuela. This phase ended with the death of Vicente G¨®mez in 1935. Rich oil deposits had previously been found which opened up promising economic opportunities for the country. In addition, the political landscape began to change after the death of G¨®mez: parties emerged and one of them came to power in 1945 with the Democratic Action. Although she was disempowered by a coup in 1948, she was still the country’s strongest political force after the fall of dictator M. P¨¦rez Jim¨¦nez (1958) and, in 1959, was able to provide an elected president with R¨®mulo Batancourt. In cooperation with Christian Democrats, social laws and an agricultural reform were passed. In 1963 another candidate for Democratic Action won and the government continued with the left-wing Democratic Republican Union. Oil prices rose and an economic upswing came, which, however, could not reduce the political dissatisfaction with the incumbent President Ra¨²l Leoni. The election of Christian Democrat Rafael Caldera in 1968 led to the first democratically legitimate change of government. In the 1960s, social unrest was resolved and guerrilla movements were curbed. In 1973, with the newly elected President Carlos Andr¨¦s P¨¦res, power returned to democratic action. The oil industry was nationalized and Venezuela, along with other oil-producing countries, founded OPEC, which managed to quadruple the price of oil. However, the wealth created in this way benefited only a small elite in Venezuela, and there were no upcoming social reforms.
At the end of the 1970s, Venezuela was hit by recession, inflation and capital flight. In the years that followed, Democratic Action and the Christian Social Party alternated in government. High foreign debts overshadowed both the term of office of Christian Democrat Herrera Campins, who was elected in 1978, and that of Jaime Lusinchi, who was elected in 1983. Lusinchi tried to reduce dependency on oil exports through reform programs, but was unable to solve the economic problems fundamentally. A drastic drop in the oil price in 1988 made it even more difficult to reduce foreign debt. In the same year, the former President P¨¦rez was re-elected. But his attempts to solve the economic and social problems were also overshadowed by serious unrest that claimed hundreds of lives. An attempted coup in 1992 failed, P¨¦rez was dismissed from parliament in 1993 for allegations of corruption, and the independent R. Caldera, a candidate for a leftist party alliance, came to power. The government tried in vain to privatize the oil sector to reduce government spending.
The Chavez era
In the 1998 presidential election, H. Ch¨¢vez Fr¨ªas, a former putschist who had since been released in 1992, achieved an overwhelming victory. Already the day after his election, Ch¨¢vez proclaimed a referendum that should decide on the establishment of a constituent assembly bypassing the parliament. In April 1999, 90% of voters voted for the assembly and the first step towards a new constitution was taken. In July 1999 the voters again decided directly on the composition of the assembly and gave a large majority to the supporters of the president. Immediately after the election, the assembly called for a judicial emergency to review all courts for abuse of office and corruption. The opposition spoke of a coup d’¨¦tat and the situation threatened to escalate. A blockade of the parliament building triggered street battles. The situation was only mitigated by the mediation of Catholic bishops. On the one hand, a compromise guaranteed the existence of Parliament until the new constitution was passed, and on the other hand, Parliament agreed to the review of the judiciary. By November 1999, more than 200 judges had been suspended in this way. An approach that was seen by large sections of the people as a just punishment for the often corrupt courts, but was rejected by observers as a levering out of the principle of innocence. On the one hand, a compromise guaranteed the existence of Parliament until the new constitution was passed, and on the other hand, Parliament agreed to the review of the judiciary. By November 1999, more than 200 judges had been suspended in this way. An approach that was seen by large sections of the people as a just punishment for the often corrupt courts, but was rejected by observers as a levering out of the principle of innocence. On the one hand, a compromise guaranteed the existence of Parliament until the new constitution was passed, and on the other hand, Parliament agreed to the review of the judiciary. By November 1999, more than 200 judges had been suspended in this way. An approach that was seen by large sections of the people as a just punishment for the often corrupt courts, but was rejected by observers as a levering out of the principle of innocence.
On December 17, 1999, with the approval of the people, a new constitution entered into force. In memory of the freedom hero Bol¨ªvar, the country was renamed “Bol¨ªvarian Republic of Venezuela”. The constitution strengthened the power of the president, who is now elected for six years and can be re-elected. At the same time as these political changes in December 1999, Venezuela suffered devastating floods that cost tens of thousands of lives.
In February 2000, the President formed a 21-member “mini-congress” consisting primarily of his own supporters and legislating until the new parliamentary elections. In July 2000, Ch¨¢vez won the presidential election by a clear majority. Chavez’s intentions in February 2002 to decouple the Bolivar national currency from the dollar and drastically cut the state budget led to mass public protests and eventually to the military coup on April 12; however, Ch¨¢vez returned to his office as President two days later.
Ch¨¢vez puzzled the political observers because on the one hand he named Gerhard Schröder and Tony Blair as role models, and on the other hand his authoritarian style and left-wing national vocabulary brought him close to Fidel Castro. He owed his success largely to voters in the lower income brackets by promising to tackle corruption that has been ruling in the country for decades. At the beginning of 2003 there was a two-month general strike in Venezuela, which was to bring about Ch¨¢vez’s resignation. In the middle of the following year he won a referendum on his future as president and was confirmed in office in the 2006 presidential election. From the beginning of 2007, a law grants him almost comprehensive special powers for one and a half years, which he used, among other things, for the nationalization of companies. However, at the end of 2007, Ch¨¢vez narrowly failed in the referendum on a constitutional reform with which he wanted to fundamentally reform the country according to his ideas of a “socialism of the 21st century”. Venezuelan society continues to be highly polarized politically.
In 2008 Venezuela, along with the other eleven independent states of South America, founded the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) based on the model of the European Union. The global financial crisis from 2007/2008 had a strong impact on Venezuela’s economy. GDP fell by 3.3% in 2009, largely due to the decrease in oil exports (40% in 2009).
Since a constitutional referendum in 2009, there has been unlimited freedom to re-elect the president. After half of his term of office, however, he can be removed by referendum. Ch¨¢vez prevailed in the presidential elections in October 2012. In March 2013, he succumbed to his cancer, which he first made public in June 2011. In April 2013, the former Vice President N. Maduro Moros was elected as his successor, who had been responsible for Ch¨¢vez’s illness. High inflation, widespread corruption and high levels of crime in the country led to a wave of protests against the new president in February 2014, which resulted in numerous deaths and injuries.