Map of Venezuela

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A Brief Histiry of Venenezuela (from the Lonely Planet)

Pre 20th Century History

At the time of the Spanish Conquest of Venezuela, the region was inhabited by an estimated 500,000 indigenous peoples belonging to three principal ethnolinguistic groups - the Caribs, Arawak and Chibcha. Columbus was the first European to set foot on the soil of what is now Venezuela, and the country was given its name (meaning 'Little Venice') a year later by the explorer Alonso de Ojeda. The first Spanish settlement on the mainland was established at Cumaná in 1521.

The indigenous tribes put up a valiant struggle against the colonial depredations of both the Spanish and the Germans, who left a swathe of death and destruction behind them as they pushed onward in search of the chimerical El Dorado. In the end, though, their resistance was subdued when many tribal communities fell victim to European diseases such as smallpox, which wiped out two-thirds of the population in the Caracas Valley alone.

However, the lack of lootable wealth in Venezuela soon led to colonial neglect, which in turn prompted dissatisfaction and resentment among the American-born Spanish elites. The Spanish rulers were eventually thrown out by the young Simón Bolívar, known locally as 'El Libertador'. He seized Venezuela from Spain in 1821 with a decisive victory at Campo Carabobo, near Valencia, aided by British mercenaries and an army of horsemen from Los Llanos. Bolívar had already brought independence to Colombia, and went on, with his lieutenant Antonio José de Sucre, to liberate Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. His dream of a united state of Gran Colombia, which would unify Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, did not survive his death in 1830, when Venezuela declared full independence under a new constitution.


Modern History

The post-independence period was marked by a succession of military dictators, political coups and economic instability, until the discovery of huge oil reserves in the Maracaibo basin in the 1910s brought a degree of prosperity to the country. By the late 1920s, Venezuela had become the world's largest oil exporter, but little of this newfound wealth found its way to the common people. With poverty rife and educational and health facilities in a deplorable state, a series of popular uprisings took place, culminating in the country's first democratic elections in 1947.

Despite recent political stability, Venezuela's political climate continues to be marred by corruption scandals and the threat of a military coup. The country's economy, which was hit hard by the 1988 drop in world oil prices, remained shaky. Then-president Caldera's unconstitutional crackdown on economic speculation and civic freedoms in 1994 incensed civil libertarians, but it took until early 1996 for popular opinion to swing against him. The government's tough measures were designed to bring Venezuela's rampant inflation and alarming currency slump under control, but the bloated public service resisted attempts to put it on a lo-cal diet.


Recent History

In December 1998, Venezuelans signalled their impatience with the government's impotence, electing an army colonel, Hugo Chávez, to the presidency with the largest vote margin in 40 years. Just six years earlier, Chávez had attempted a coup against the government and had spent two years in jail. Chávez was re-elected by a comfortable margin again in 2000.

Chávez is a charismatic and extremely energetic populist who hosts his own television show, during which he takes calls from the public. He also travels all over the country and personally visits labor unions, indigenous communites and the country's poorest ghettos. Key national institutions, including the media, banks, the church, sections of the armed forces and the petrol industry, have defied Chávez's brand of socialism. In April 2002, following widespread demonstrations, a coup blessed by the US and Spain landed Chávez in detention. Being a military man, he was back in power within three days when the interim government collapsed.

National politics continued to be shaky until Chávez won a 2004 referendum and consolidated his power, eventually positioning himself to stay in the presidency, possibly until 2020. The opposition has remained feckless, while Chávez has reached out to other Leftist leaders in Bolivia, Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil. He hopes to establish a Latin American political bloc to offer an alternative to US hegemony in the region. Regardless of his seeming lock on Venezuelan political power and regional influence, Chávez remains the continent's most controversial political figure both inside and outside of Venezuela.
 

 

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