• Colombia!

    Colombia: Caribbean Sea coast. Go Now!

    Although most of the people live inland, Colombia also has its share of coastline along the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea (pictured). Go Now!

  • Ecuador!

    Ecuador: Sally Lightfoot Crab. Go Now!

    The Galapagos Islands and Ecuador are home to incredible wildlife, such as the famous Galapagos Turtle and the lesser known, but more common Red Rock or Sally Lightfoot crab (pictured). Begin Your Journey!

  • Chile!

    Chile: Torres del Paine National Park. Go Now!

    The Andes dominate much of Chile, including the breath-taking Torres del Paine National Park (pictured). However, the country also hosts the world's driest desert and a thriving metropolis. Begin Your Journey!

  • Venezuela!

    Venezuela: Los Roques. Go Now!

    Rooted in Europe, Venezuela boasts an impressive history, culture, and beauty, including the Caribbean Coast (pictured). Explore Venezuela!

  • Bolivia!

    Bolivia: Salt flats. Go Now!

    This hidden gem is full of surprises, from the impressive salt flats (pictured) to the migrating flamingos. It also clings to the most historic indigenous culture on the continent. Explore Bolivia!

History of Venezuela

WARNING: Violence is common in Venezeula, please read this travel warning before going!

The first people to arrive to present day Venezuela arrived thousands of years ago via the Isthmus of Panama. They liked arrived sometime between 13,000-7,000 BC. It took a couple thousand years before the people developed a more complex culture. Before these changes occurred the people seem to have lived off the land by hunting, gathering, and fishing as simple stone tools existed. The people seem to have been divided with very little organization or focus beyond that of survival.

In about 5,000 BC the people began farming and organizing politically. Despite these major changes, little else changed as the people primarily lived off the land and had small tribal groups. Transportation was limited due to the mountains in Venezuela's south, but the rivers and Caribbean Sea encouraged travel and communication from group to group. Sadly, little else is known of the people's early history as these people had no written language. Due to this, most of what is known about these people and their culture comes from the Spanish and other European settlers, who destroyed much of this past.

The first European to spot Venezuela was probably Christopher Columbus in 1498, although he didn't stop on the mainland. His discovery later led to Spanish settlement and economic exploitation of the land and its many resources.

The Spanish didn't begin settling the land until the early 1500s, with the first permanent settlement being Cumana, which was established in 1522. This arrival forever altered the indigenous culture and way of life. The people continued to live off the land, but European diseases killed a huge percentage of the population and later enslavement killed many more people.

Despite Spanish colonization in the 1500s, Venezuela was almost wholly neglected under the Spanish. Nearby lands of Panama, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru were considered much more valuable to the Spanish government so their power was focused in those regions. Venezuela just shifted hands during this time, falling under the sphere of influence of multiple Spanish colonies.

Despite having little political control over the region, the Spanish still controlled Venezuela as many Europeans, primarily Spanish arrived seeking economic riches. The Spanish, and other Europeans, arrived in ever increasing numbers through the 1500s as the Spanish controlled the pearl industry in the Caribbean Sea (although it didn't last long) and they founded gold and silver mines. These industries provided little money or sustainability, but they did attract Europeans seeking fortune; in fact many Germans came looking for the mythological city of El Dorado. Once in Venezuela, many people failed in the mines and in the seas so turned to farming and raising cattle, which soon became the base of the region's economy.

These settlers and explorers truly exposed the indigenous people to the Europeans. However, it was the shift from seeking quick riches to cattle ranching and farming (over time cocoa proved to be the most valuable of these plants) that ended the historic culture of the people and this settlement brought in many Europeans as these settlers took most of the fertile land in the region.

As farming and herding took control over the Spanish-led economy, primarily in the 1600s-1700s, many indigenous people were used as labor, while others fled to the jungles and mountains. The settlers needed more labor though so began bringing in slaves from Africa. This time created an odd culture in the region that has significantly led to today's culture. The indigenous people sought freedom and retreated to maintain their way of life, the African population increased while bringing with them new foods, music, and clothing, and the Spanish settlers became the dominant force in politics and economics.

Through trade and settlement, in addition to Venezuela's location, the people became closely tied, economically, with the Caribbean in addition to other Spanish colonies. In many ways, the region became a median between the Spanish colonies of South and Central America and the British and French colonies of the Caribbean. This expanded trade, knowledge, education, political beliefs, and even settlement as Europeans (and not just of Spanish origin) continued to settle Venezuela.

Throughout the 1600s and 1700s the culture in Venezuela continued to change dramatically, however most of those changes came on the side of the European settlers. The indigenous people continued to live primarily in the jungles and mountains, maintaining a fairly loyal culture to their past as they lived off the lands. The European settlers created a culture very distinct from that of Spain and the indigenous people. Due to heavy European influences from the Caribbean, due to settlers from numerous countries, in particular Germany, due to the slaves, and even due to the contacts and marriages the people had with the local people, the culture and people were transformed from living a "Spanish" lifestyle to something entirely unique to Venezuela.

These differences in culture became very apparent in 1811 when Venezuela declared independence from Spain (which came with the help of France invading Spain at the time). The early years of independence were slow as internal conflict and wars continued for a number of years. After their initial declaration of independence, but not full independence, Simon Bolivar led battles for full independence in 1812 and again in 1820.

This independence was not sought by everyone and the wars killed a huge percentage of the population. There seemed to be a divide between the people regarding economic standing and education. The educated and wealthy population generally sought independence to lift trade restrictions and for intellectual and cultural growth. Most of the people in the lower economic classes wished to remain under the control of Spain, hence making a divided country and a very brutal war. Once independence was gained, Venezuela was joined with modern day Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador as an independent country called Gran Colombia.

In 1826 Venezuela then declared that it was going to separate from Gran Colombia to form its own country. Bolivar, who ruled over Gran Colombia and was from Venezuela, fought this separation and declared himself dictator, but the movement was already too far along and the people wanted independence, which they gained in 1831.

While the move to separate from Gran Colombia was primarily economic in nature, it also had cultural implications as each of these new countries continued to form very distinct societies. First as a separation from Spanish culture, and later as a separation from each other as each had different lifestyles. For example, Venezuela was well educated, had large pasturelands, and was home to a very diverse population.

Despite the changing culture, Venezuela was more concerned about the changing political scene and the rest of the 1800s was a time when the country was filled with a series of rotating leaders often referred to as caudillos (strongmen). This led to incredible political turnover, as a new leader (or dictator) took over the country every few years. This instability meant Venezuela fell behind many countries in terms of economic growth and social issues.

Most of these numerous leaders were ethnic Europeans who had enough power and money to raise an army personally and take power. This didn't mean they had to have any experience or know what they were doing, which was one of many reasons for the regular changes. Among these many leaders, the first and one of the most influential in the 1800s was Jose Antonio Paez. Paez had strong support and used numerous puppet leaders to rule the country from about 1829-1847 then again as a dictator during the Federal War of 1858-1863.

From 1847-1858 the Monagas brothers, Jose Tadeo and Jose Gregorio, ruled the country. These brothers abolished slavery in 1854 and ended capital punishment, which, in a way, encouraged later coups as the worst a potential dictator could face was prison or exile. Again their rule was short-lived and the Federal War broke out in 1858, ending in 1863 when the Federalists came to power.

Guzman Blanco came to power in 1887 and tried to implement numerous social changes, such as education and an expanding infrastructure. The attempts had some success, but the country didn't have the money to finance these projects and the people remained divided. As in the past, change and turnover was regular as the people struggled to unite as one people. This disjointed country continued after Blanco's rule with civilian presidents, who ruled until nearly 1900.

In 1895 and again in 1908 the country faced international conflicts, first with the United Kingdom over their border with Guyana and then with the Netherlands. As this second war was breaking out, Venezuela's president, Cipriano Castro fell ill and went abroad for treatment. As soon as he left Juan Vicente Gomez, his general, took over and held power until 1935.

The early 1900s were a huge change from the past century as stability was guaranteed and oil was discovered. This led to the country paying off their foreign debts, building infrastructure, and it allowed the former general to build a standing army to prevent another coup or foreign invasion. While he vastly improved the economic and military states, social rights lagged behind during his rule and most of the population remained poor and uneducated.

In 1945 the Democratic Action party led a coup and took over the country. They initiated universal suffrage and were legally voted into office, but by 1948 another coup had removed them from power. This new coup led to a military-styled dictatorship, which lasted until 1958. This political instability continued through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Many people took control for long periods of time, but the economic situation rarely improved as the country began to rely almost entirely on oil production.

In 1992 an attempted coup failed as one soldier in this coup, Hugo Chavez, was captured by the government. Although not the leader of this coup, he wisely negotiated between the government and those involved in the coup. During these talks he proved himself an excellent negotiator and spokesman, making him a well-known figure throughout the country. Despite this, the government in control maintained power until the next election, at which time Chavez and other coup members were released from prison.

In 1998 Chavez won the presidential election in Venezuela and he undertook major changes to the government as a new constitution was introduced and the country became very socialist in many regards. Chavez has continued to make changes to the government and has maintained control over the government since this time, although there have been regular protests against him and numerous foreign countries have openly protested his actions.

This page was last updated: February, 2013