New Granada: AD 1740-1810
The second half of the 18th century is a time of considerable progress in the region. Spain relaxes the long-standing mercantilist restrictions on trade with its colonies, resulting in a rapid increase in prosperity. An educated and professional class of Creoles begins to emerge, self-confident and increasingly resentful of the privileges of the peninsulares. In these circumstances New Granada is a natural region for the first resistance to imperial rule. There is a brief uprising in Ecuador as early as 1809. But sustained opposition begins elsewhere a year later.
Bolívar and Gran Colombia: AD 1810-1822
Simón Bolívar, Venezuelan by birth and the central figure in the story of the independence movements of Latin America, is a young officer in Caracas in 1810. He is part of the conspiracy by which a junta expels the Spanish governor of the province of Venezuela, on April 19, and takes control. For the next twelve years Bolívar’s efforts are directed single-mindedly towards liberating the whole of New Granada from Spanish rule. There are many reverses on the way.
The optimism of July 1811, when a national assembly in Caracas formally declares Venezuela’s independence, is followed by a complete reversal a year later. The Spanish authorities rally, recover a military initiative, and by July 1812 regain control of the entire province.
Bolívar escapes to Cartagena, the main seaport of neighbouring Colombia. The city is in rebel hands, and here he pens a powerful political pamphlet, the Manifesto de Cartagena, addressed to the citizens of New Granada. In it he offers the inspiring vision of a united effort to expel the Spaniards.
He soon proves his own abilities in this great enterprise. In 1813, at the head of an army of liberation, he returns to Venezuela and wins six successive engagements against Spanish forces. On 6 August 1813 he enters Caracas. Welcomed as the Liberator, he takes political control with dictatorial powers.
Again success is short-lived. By July 1814 Bolívar has once more lost Caracas. He marches instead to Bogotá, which he succeeds in recapturing from the Spanish. He makes this capital city his base for a while, but soon the Spanish recover it yet again. Bolívar flees into exile, in Jamaica and Haiti. But by the end of 1817 he is back in Venezuela, building up a new army in an inaccessible region on the Orinoco river.
Here he conceives a bold plan. He will not make another attempt on Caracas. Instead he will strike at the capital city of New Granada by a route which is considered impossible – along the waterlogged plain of the Orinoco and then over the Andes for a surprise attack on Bogotá.
In 1819 Bolívar’s small force, of only about 2500 men, uses cowhide boats to cross a succession of flooded tributaries of the Orinoco (one of his men claims later that for seven days they marched in water up to their waists). This ordeal is followed by one even worse, a mountain crossing during which a considerable number of the rebel band die of cold.
But the surprise holds. They descend from the high passes upon an unsuspecting enemy. In an engagement at Boyacá, on 7 August 1819, the Spanish army surrenders. Three days later Bolívar enters Bogotá. On December 17 the Republica de Colombia is proclaimed. It covers the entire region of modern Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
As yet the republic is little more than a notion, for Venezuela and Ecuador are still securely in Spanish hands. But the Liberator soon puts this right. In Venezuela on 24 June 1821 he wins a battle at Carabobo which yields to him once again his native city of Caracas. And in Ecuador on 24 May 1822 Bolívar’s favourite general, the young Antonio José de Sucre, wins a victory at Pichincha and brings the patriots into Quito.
With this liberation of Ecuador, the Republica de Colombia becomes a reality as a free republic. (To avoid confusion with later republics of Colombia, Bolívar’s pioneering state has subsequently been given the name Gran Colombia by historians, and this now common anachronism is followed here.)
Gran Colombia: AD 1822-1830
Gran Colombia only has eight years as a functioning state, and they are increasingly turbulent. Bolívar technically remains president even during the period (1823-6) when he is away controlling the campaign in Peru. In his absence the acting president is one of his trusted commanders, Francisco de Paula Santander, a native of Colombia.
Unfortunately another close colleague of Bolívar’s is increasingly discontent with the attempted rule of the entire region of Gran Colombia from the capital at Bogotá. The Venezuelan patriot José Antonio Páez leads a rebellion in 1826 demanding independence for Venezuela.
The crisis of 1826 brings Bolívar back from Peru to Gran Colombia. He appeases Páez, allowing him a degree of autonomy in Venezuela, but in doing so he provokes opposition in Colombia – where he assumes dictatorial powers in 1828 (and later in the same year is lucky to survive an assassination attempt).
Meanwhile Ecuador, the third part of Gran Colombia, has been in political turmoil since independence was first achieved in 1823; and its valuable southern port of Guayaquil has remained a bone of contention with Peru. The Peruvians invade in 1829. They are only driven back when Sucre emerges from his recent retirement and defeats them, against heavy odds, on the plain of Tarqui.
By 1830 Bolívar is isolated, ineffective and increasingly ill. Santander has been exiled after the 1828 attempt on Bolívar’s life (in which he was not directly implicated). And in 1829 Páez has launched a renewed separatist movement demanding Venezuelan independence.
In May 1830 Bolívar decides to leave Bogotá, resigning as president and planning to retire to Europe. He only gets as far as Santa Marta, on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, where he dies of tuberculosis – but not before hearing of two final blows. In September both Ecuador and Venezuela secede formally from Gran Colombia. And June has brought news of a more personal loss.
Of his many devoted followers Bolívar has always favoured the talented but unassuming Antonio José de Sucre, treating him almost as a son and seeing him as his likely successor. Early in 1830 Bolívar asks Sucre to preside over a congress in Bogotá, in a final attempt to hold Gran Colombia together. When the congress fails, Sucre sets off to ride home to Quito. He is assassinated on his journey, probably by agents of a political rival.
Bolívar and his associates have won independence for the nations of Spanish America. But the republics begin their separate histories in a lethal atmosphere of mistrust and political gangsterism.
A republic of caudíllos: AD 1830-1945
The newly independent republic of Venezuela is profoundly affected, from the earliest decades of its existence, by the Latin American tradition of caudíllos. First of these caudíllos, and one of the most efficient in his rule, is the man who has done more than anyone to win Venezuela’s final independence, José Antonio Paez.
Paez is elected president in 1831 and remains the real power in the country until 1848. He is seen as acting in the conservative interest, though his policies are far from conventional in that respect (under his rule the church loses both its tax immunity and its monopoly of education). When an opposition group is founded in 1840, it calls itself the Liberal party.
By 1848 the liberal cause is strong enough to force Paez into exile, but the country never settles into the lasting Liberal and conservative clash which characterizes other nations in Latin America.
Instead it is the caudíllo tradition which prevails for nearly a century, with a succession of corrupt dictators seizing power. Local strong men, anarchistic and uncontrollable, reflect the same pattern at a provincial level. Their ability to do so is increased by the extremely violent Federalist Wars of 1858-63, in which the liberal side eventually prevails. It is thus able to insist on the principle of greater local autonomy, which coincidentally gives carte blanche to the regional warlords.
With its long coastline on the Caribbean, Venezuela has more developed foreign contacts than other south American countries. Its connection with European bankers involves the nation in an international crisis in 1902. In that year Venezuela defaults on interest payments due to British, German and Italian creditors. It also fails to pay compensation for property damaged in local riots. The three countries send warships to threaten Venezuela, prompting in turn the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt.
Twelve years later, in 1914, there is even more significant foreign involvement. The British and the Dutch, in the form of Royal-Dutch Shell, begin to pump oil near Lake Maracaibo.
The Maracaibo region proves to be one of the world’s richest oil resources. By the end of the 1920s Venezuela exports more oil than any other nation, and is second only to the USA as a producer.
As yet this unexpected gush of wealth enriches mainly the foreign oil companies (working in large numbers in the region from 1918) and the ruling military clique. The dominant caudíllo in the early 20th century is Juan Vicente Gómez, a particularly ruthless and rapacious dictator who is in power from 1908 until his death in 1935. Known in his time as the ‘tyrant of the Andes’, Gómez is unusual among caudíllos in being an almost full-blooded American Indian.
Oil revenues help Venezuela through the depression years of the 1930s. After the death of Gómez, in 1935, they also allow his successors in the presidency to undertake extensive investment in the infrastructure of transport, water supplies and electricity.
During this period Gómez’s many political enemies are allowed to return from exile. They begin to organize political parties. The result is a major turning point in the modern history of Venezuela. In 1945 civilian politicians and the military join forces to overthrow the government. They put in its place an interim junta, with the promise of elections to follow.
Mainly democracy: from AD 1945
When democracy comes to Venezuela, the leading political party is Acción Democrática. Left-wing but anti-Communist, it is founded in 1941 by Rómulo Betancourt. After the coup of 1945 Betancourt becomes provisional president.
During his presidency Betancourt introduces moderate reforms but concentrates on preparing a new democratic constitution. It is adopted in 1947. Elections at the end of that year bring Acción Democrática into full democratic power, whereupon a thoroughgoing programme of left-wing measures is introduced. The result is a military coup in 1948 by alarmed conservatives. Betancourt escapes again into exile.
The renewed military dictatorship lasts for nearly ten years, most of them under the rule of the spectacularly oppressive and corrupt Marcos Pérez Jiménez. When he is finally toppled, in a coup in 1958, he escapes to the United States with an estimated $200 million as his personal fortune (he is subsequently extradited, in 1963, and serves five years in a Venezuelan gaol).
Betancourt returns and is elected president for a five-year term in 1958. His term places Venezuela securely back on the democratic track. Power has changed hands peacefully every five years since then. In 1968 a Christian Democrat candidate wins for the first time. He is Rafael Caldera, who is again successful, twenty-five years later, in 1993.
The elections of 1998, however, bring a dramatic new change of direction. Hugo Chavez, a charismatic former paratrooper who has served two years in gaol for his part in a failed military coup in 1992, wins the presidency with a large popular majority on a nationalist left-wing programme.
Chavez, who sees himself as leading a new revolution, borrows the mantle of the liberator of Venezuela, Bolívar. He renames the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and appears on platforms with Bolívar’s jewel-encrusted ceremonial sword as a prop.
Using army officers to run his administration, Chavez sets out to reverse the free-market economic policies of the 1990, so as to benefit of the millions of Venezuelans living in poverty.
Under a new constitution, limiting presidents to two six-year terms, he is re-elected in 2000 and again in 2006. By now – to the alarm of many who see ominous signs of a return to the plague of Latin America, military dictatorship – he is proposing a change to the constitution to allow a president unlimited terms of office. But when these proposals are put to a referendum in December 2007, they are narrowly defeated (with 51% of the votes against).