At the time of the Spanish discovery, the indigenous in Venezuela were
mainly agriculturists and hunters living in groups along the coast, the
Andean mountain range, and the Orinoco River. The first permanent Spanish
settlement in South America--Nuevo Toledo--was established in Venezuela
in 1522. Venezuela was a relatively neglected colony in the 1500s and 1600s
as the Spaniards focused on extracting gold from other areas of the Americas.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the Venezuelans began to grow restive
under colonial control. In 1821, after several unsuccessful uprisings,
the country succeeded in achieving independence from Spain in 1821, under
the leadership of its most famous son, Simon Bolivar. Venezuela, along
with what are now Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador, was part of the Republic
of Gran Colombia until 1830, when Venezuela separated and became a separate
Much of Venezuela's 19th-century history was characterized by periods
of political instability, dictatorial rule, and revolutionary turbulence.
The first half of the 20th century was marked by periods of authoritarianism--including
dictatorships from 1908-35 and from 1950-58. In addition, the Venezuelan
economy shifted after the first World War from a primarily agricultural
orientation to an economy centered on petroleum production and export.
Since the overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958 and the military's
withdrawal from direct involvement in national politics, Venezuela has
enjoyed an unbroken tradition of civilian democratic rule. Until the 1998
elections, the Democratic Action (AD) and the Christian Democratic (COPEI)
parties dominated the political environment at both the state and federal
Venezuela's history of free and open elections since 1958 and its prohibition
of military involvement in national politics had earned it a reputation
as one of the more stable democracies in Latin America.
This prevailing political calm came to an end in 1989, when Venezuela
experienced riots in which more than 200 people were killed--the so-called
Caracazo--in response to an economic austerity program launched by then-President
Carlos Andres Perez. Subsequently, in February 1992, a group of army lieutenant
colonels led by future President Hugo Chavez mounted an unsuccessful coup
attempt, claiming that the events of 1989 showed that the political system
no longer served the interests of the people. A second, equally unsuccessful
coup attempt by other officers followed in November 1992. A year later,
Congress impeached Perez on corruption charges.
Deep popular dissatisfaction with the traditional political parties,
income disparities, and economic difficulties were some of the major frustrations
expressed by Venezuelans following Perez's impeachment. In December 1998
Hugo Chavez Frias won the presidency after campaigning for broad reform,
constitutional change, and a crackdown on corruption.
In July 2000, following a long and controversial process, voters elected
President Hugo Chavez of the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) in generally
free and fair national and local elections. The MVR and pro-Chavez Movimiento
a Socialismo (MAS) party won 92 seats in the 165-member legislature. Subsequent
party splits reduced the pro-Chavez members to 84 seats.
President Hugo Chavez was elected in December 1998 on a platform that
called for the creation of a National Constituent Assembly in order to
write a new Constitution for Venezuela. Chavez's argument that the existing
political system had become isolated from the people won broad acceptance,
particularly among Venezuela's poorest classes, who had seen a significant
decline in their living standards over the previous decade and a half.
The National Constituent Assembly (ANC), consisting of 131 elected individuals,
convened in August 1999 to begin rewriting the Constitution. In free elections,
voters gave all but six seats to persons associated with the Chavez movement.
Venezuelans approved the ANC's draft in a referendum on December 15, 1999.
In April 2002, the country experienced a temporary alteration of constitutional
order. When an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 persons participated in a march
in downtown Caracas to demand President Chavez’ resignation, gunfire broke
out, resulting in as many as 18 deaths and more than 100 injuries on both
sides. Military officers took President Chavez into custody, and business
leader Pedro Carmona swore himself in as interim President. On April 14,
military troops loyal to Chavez returned him to power. In an effort to
promote national reconciliation, the Tripartite Group was formed in August
2002 to facilitate dialogue between the government and the opposition.
The group included representatives from the Organization of American States,
the UN Development Program, and the Carter Center. Formal direct talks
between government and opposition dialogue representatives began in November
2002. Continued dissatisfaction with the Chavez administration led to a
national work stoppage on December 2, 2002. Strikers protested the government
and called for the resignation of President Chavez. On December 4, 2002
the petroleum sector joined the strike. Other sectors of the economy also
joined the work stoppage and effectively shut down all economic activity
for a month. The OAS Permanent Council passed Resolution 833 on December
16, 2002, calling for a “constitutional, democratic, peaceful, and electoral
solution” to the crisis in Venezuela.
In January 2003, the OAS established the Group of Friends of the OAS
Secretary General’s Mission for Venezuela group. The Friends, coordinated
by Brazil, include Chile, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, and the United States.
The Friends met in January 2003 and visited Caracas to facilitate a peaceful
resolution to the political crisis. Despite increased tensions during the
national strike, dialogue facilitated by the Tripartite Group resulted
in a nonviolence pledge by all parties in February 2003 as the strike was
drawing to a close. After months of negotiations facilitated by OAS Secretary
General Gaviria, the Venezuelan Government and the opposition’s Democratic
Coordinating Committee signed an agreement on May 29, 2003 which sets the
framework for a possible recall referendum on President Chavez’ continued
tenure in office. The recall referendum is allowed in the Venezuelan Constitution.
In February 2003, opposition supporters coordinated a nationwide effort
collecting 3.2 million signatures for possible recall referenda, including
constitutional issues and a presidential recall.
Venezuela History Bibliography