Archaeologists and anthropologists believe people have lived on the land now known as Venezuela for about fifteen thousand years. When the Spanish colonized in 1522 the local people, who were well used to ruling themselves, rebelled. Only three hundred years later, in 1811, did anti-colonialist Venezuelans formally out the Spanish, setting up a series of republics. They only achieved real sovereignty in 1823 when Simon Bolivar and his anti-colonial armies secured it.
The discovery of oil in Venezuela during World War I brought unprecedented wealth. It also tied political and economic power in the country closely to the petroleum industry, especially to American companies like Standard Oil which effectively wrote Venezuela’s petroleum laws. Since then, history of Venezuela has been a series of pendulum swings between autocracy and democracy, as well as between oil-induced economic boom and bust. Venezuelan governments developed a reputation for being corrupt puppets of oil interests.
In 1992 an army paratrooper named Hugo Chavez staged a military coup, failed, and spent some years in jail. In 1998 he ran for president and won. He named his program of
political reforms the “Bolivarian Revolution” and declared the public goal of redistributing Venezuela’s oil wealth more equitably. He then survived a 2002 coup, an all-out national strike in 2002/2003, a 2004 recall referendum and several other elections.
Chavez, who passed away in 2013, was an outspoken critic of international economic and political interests and the dominating role they often play in nations like Venezuela. He was especially critical of the United States and the role it plays in global capitalism; he directed some of his most colorful criticism at former President Bush. Despite intense international and domestic opposition Chavez continued to consolidate political power, and in 2009 celebrated a successful popular referendum that changed Venezuela’s constitution to abolish term limits for elected officials. Whether one viewed him as a legitimate champion of the people or a harsh, power-grabbing autocrat — or both — Hugo Chavez was a giant in Latin America.
As of this writing (the end of 2016), Venezuela’s post-Chavez, post-high-oil-prices economy is in freefall and Venezuela’s society is teetering on the brink of disaster. Whatever you think of the politics of Chavez, send your most hopeful thoughts to people of Chavez’s Venezuela.