A short history of Venezuela

A century of resistance

1. Conquest

There were no great monumental cultures, like the Aztec, Maya or Inca, among the original inhabitants of Venezuela. Instead, there was a great variety of independently minded peoples. Some were nomadic, others practised advanced agricultural techniques. The Timoto-Cuica in the Andes built roads and traded with the llanos (central plains) and Maracaibo. Christopher Columbus, who sighted the Orinoco Delta on his third voyage to the ‘New World’ in 1498, believed that he had discovered the Garden of Eden. One year later, Amerigo Vespucci was reminded of Venice by houses built on stilts over Lake Maracaibo.

Venezuela’s value to Spain lay in its long Caribbean coastline, which offered protection for the imperial gold-bullion fleet. Slave-raiding by the Spanish provoked intense hatred among the indigenous peoples, fuelling more than a century of warfare. After a decade of fierce fighting, forces under Diego de Losada finally established the settlement of Santiago de León de Caracas in 1567. Franciscan and Capuchin missionaries evangelized to the east and west of Caracas during the 17th and 18th centuries. Much of the western llanos and the south bank of the Orinoco remained unknown to the Spanish even at the close of the colonial period.

Brutal conquest

2. Empire

In 1528 a consortium of German bankers, searching for the fabled riches of El Dorado, was granted by the Spanish Crown a concession to govern western Venezuela. The bankers were so ruthless – even by Spanish standards – that in 1556 the concession was withdrawn. Rich farmlands made Venezuela self-sufficient in food. From the early 17th century cocoa cultivation and export flourished. Its profits attracted immigrants from Spain, including relatively poor Canary Islanders. Africans enslaved on the cocoa plantations did the work.

Slavery in action

These two groups completed a hierarchy resembling a caste system. On top were the white peninsulares (born in Spain) and criollos (born in America of Spanish parentage). Below them were the white Canary Islanders, who typically worked as wage labourers. Then came a large group of racially mixed pardos, followed by African slaves and, at the bottom, the indigenous peoples, decimated by slavery and disease. In 1728 the Spanish Crown granted exclusive trading rights to a Basque corporation, the Real Compaña Guipuzcoana de Caracas. Cocoa growers were angered by its monopoly, and in 1749 an immigrant cocoa grower from the Canary Islands, Juan Francisco de León, led a rebellion. It was crushed by troops from Santo Domingo and Spain. Caracas became the seat of the Captaincy General of Venezuela in 1777 – the first recognition of Venezuela as a political entity. A slave uprising led by José Leonardo Chirinos in 1795 was also crushed.

The comfort of cocoa growers

3. Ploughing the sea

After almost three centuries on the periphery of the Spanish Empire, Venezuela found itself at the centre of the independence movement. Inspired by the French Revolution and the North American War of Independence, Francisco de Miranda spent most of his life abroad, seeking support for Latin American independence. In 1811 the criollo élite in Caracas declared the First (‘Boba’ or ‘Silly’) Republic. Miranda assumed command of the army. A racially defined civil war underlay the early wars of independence. In 1812 Miranda was defeated by Spanish troops and later died in prison in Spain.

Simón Bolívar, already prominent in the movement, escaped to Colombia. In 1813 he returned to recapture Caracas. He was proclaimed ‘Liberator’ of the Second Republic. However, the llaneros (people of the central plains) fought for José Tomás Boves, a royalist caudillo (‘strongman’ – usually military). In 1814 Boves drove Bolívar out of Caracas. Bolívar fled to Jamaica, while local caudillos kept the movement alive in Venezuela. One, Manuel Piar, encouraged black and pardo troops to assert themselves, and was promptly executed at Bolívar’s behest. With help from revolutionary Haiti, Bolívar returned to eastern Venezuela. In 1819 a congress established the Third Republic and named Bolívar President. He marched back across the Andes into Colombia, routing the royalist forces of New Granada. In June 1821 the decisive Battle of Carabobo liberated Caracas. In August, the Constitution of the Republic of Gran Colombia, with its capital in Bogotá, was signed, with Bolívar as its President. He went on to liberate Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

Miranda admires the French Revolution

Together with Colombia and Venezuela, all these ‘Bolivarian’ regions were briefly under his sometimes dictatorial control. They met at a ‘Bolivarian’ conference in Panama 1826. But the Caracas élite demanded a separate state. In 1829 General José Antonio Páez led a successful separatist bid and ordered Bolívar into exile. Shortly before his death in 1830 Bolívar famously likened his dream of a united Latin America to ‘ploughing the sea’. Two decades of warfare had cost the lives of between a quarter and a third of the Venezuelan population, which in 1830 numbered no more than 800,000.

4. Democratic Caesarism

General Monagas

A century of caudillismo (rule by ‘strongmen’) followed. In 1848 General José Tadeo Monagas precipitated a decade of dictatorial rule with his brother. Ezequiel Zamora, who advocated ‘hatred of the oligarchy’, organized peasants and slaves into the Army of the Sovereign People. In 1854 slavery was abolished. In 1870 Antonio Guzmán Blanco took control of the presidency. He lived in great luxury in Caracas and in Paris, where he stayed after rioting broke out in Caracas in 1888. Years of political chaos followed. In 1899 General Cipriano Castro occupied Caracas with a private army. Castro was likened to ‘a crazy brute’ even by Elihu Root, US Secretary of State.

In 1908 General Juan Vicente Gómez seized power. The ‘Tyrant of the Andes’ claimed that dictatorship suited primitive non-white Venezuelans. The racist notions of the book Democratic Caesarism by Laureano Vallenilla Lanz became official ideology. In 1918 the exploitation of Venezuela’s huge oil reserves began, strengthening Gómez’s financial hand. The Mexican Revolution in 1910 and the Russian Revolution in 1917 eventually prompted students at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas to rebel in 1928. Many died in prison from starvation or torture. The ‘generation of 1928’ that escaped into exile included Rómulo Betancourt and Raúl Leoni – both future Presidents. Gómez’s death in 1935, at the age of 79, was followed by the slaughter of his family members and collaborators.

5. Transition

Strike in 1936 focuses on the oil industry

The worst parts of Gómez’s brutal repressive apparatus were dismantled. In June 1936 there was a general strike. But the military remained dominant: labour unions were outlawed in 1937 and, shortly thereafter, virtually all organized opposition as well. In 1945 the semi-clandestine, social-democratic Acción Democrática (AD) combined with military officers to stage a ‘progressive’ coup, installing Rómulo Betancourt as President and introducing universal suffrage. Congressional elections in October 1946 launched the Christian Democratic Party (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente – COPEI).

When Venezuela’s most celebrated author, Rómulo Gallegos, was elected President in 1948, he agreed to land reform and cuts in military budgets. He was promptly ousted by a military junta. Elections were reluctantly held in 1952, but General Marcos Pérez Jiménez halted the count and declared himself President. ‘Democratic Caesarism’ was revived. Mass immigration by white Europeans was actively encouraged. Oil revenues were used for ostentatious projects, including a replica of New York’s Rockefeller Center and the world’s most expensive officers’ club.

Marcos Pérez Jiménez

In 1957 a united civilian opposition organized an underground movement in the Patriotic Junta, which in early January 1958 staged a massive demonstration in Caracas, followed by a successful general strike. Street demonstrations and fighting erupted across the country. On 23 January Venezuela’s last dictator fled to Miami, carrying with him most of what remained of the national treasury and leaving behind some 300 dead.

6. Fixed point

The Caracazo

The experience of caudillismo had a profound impact on the Patriotic Junta. AD and COPEI agreed a Punto Fijo (‘Fixed Point’) for co-operation after presidential elections in 1958, which were won by Betancourt. After the Cuban Revolution in 1959 the Communist Party (PCV) and Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR) were proscribed and went underground. A Sears Roebuck warehouse and the US Embassy were bombed. Popular support for armed struggle was, however, muted. Major land-reform legislation was passed in 1960. On 11 March 1964, for the first time in Venezuelan history, one elected President succeeded another. In 1967 the presidency switched to COPEI’s Rafael Caldera.

In the 1973 elections AD and COPEI between them registered 86 per cent of the vote, with a majority going to AD’s Carlos Andrés Pérez. The oil industry was nationalized in 1976, as quadrupled world oil prices triggered a spending spree. Per capita consumption of Scotch whiskey became the highest in the world, while 40 per cent of the population remained malnourished. Foreign debts accumulated and corruption in the state bureaucracy became endemic. Within the Punto Fijo the same faces grew older. In 1989 Carlos Andrés Pérez was elected President again on a left-of-centre platform. Immediately he announced economic austerity measures demanded by the IMF. Serious unrest and looting broke out in Caracas on 25 February 1989. Hundreds of civilians – perhaps as many as a thousand – were shot by the armed forces in a traumatic event known as the ‘Caracazo’.

7. Bolivarianism

Rómulo Betancourt.

On 4 February 1992 an obscure colonel, Hugo Chávez Frías, attempted a military coup and was jailed for two years when it failed. In 1993 the octogenarian Rafael Caldera won the presidency again. Financial collapse led to a state take-over of private banks, at a cost of 75 per cent of the national budget. Government fell into a malaise. Out of prison, Hugo Chávez pulled together a loose, anti-imperialist ‘Bolivarian’ alliance for the 1998 presidential elections, which he won convincingly. In 1999 a new ‘Bolivarian’ Constitution was approved by plebiscite. That same year, terrifying mudslides on the mountain range between Caracas and the coast killed as many as 50,000 people.

The opposition fell into terminal disarray. Hardliners – commonly styled escualidos, or ‘squalid ones’ – set out to remove Chávez by any means, including covert US subversion. There was an attempted military coup in April 2002; a strike-cum-lockout in the oil industry later that year; a Presidential recall referendum, easily won by Chávez in 2004. Meanwhile, world oil prices soared. Despite persistent corruption, ‘missions’ began to deliver healthcare, education, water and land rights to the neglected barrios. The election of relatively sympathetic regimes in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Bolivia, combined with Venezuela’s oil, put the ‘Bolivarian’ project onto the Latin American agenda.

Images by the Chilean artist *Ian Pierce*. They are taken from a huge mural, Venezuela – a living memory, which is 75 metres long by 5 metres high and painted on the exterior walls of the Andrés Bello school in central Caracas. Felix Coraspe, Osvaldo Cuicas and students at the school also helped with the project. Sadly, there weren’t enough funds to apply a protective varnish, and the mural is decaying. Reproduced with permission from ENcontrArte, an alterative cultural magazine. The entire mural can be viewed at

New Internationalist issue 390 magazine cover This article is from the June 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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