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Venezuela Since 1830

Venezuela Since 1830

Venezuela's insertion into the world economy came through a sequence of events that followed in general design the pattern of all of the Spanish American republics born at the beginning of the nineteenth century. As elsewhere, various uprisings, protests, and incidents throughout the latter years of the eighteenth century and the first few years of the nineteenth marked Venezuela as a society uneasy about its future and dissatisfied with its political, economic, and social relationships. Much can be made of these indications of unrest, from the enthusiasm of young intellectuals for the writings of various French and Spanish Enlightenment authors to the abortive revolution sponsored by Francisco de Miranda during his ill-fated invasion of the Venezuelan coast at Coro in 1806. Slave rebellions and uprisings related to race and class conflict also preoccupied Venezuelans of the period. Although these incidents clearly indicated a state of unrest, the impetus for major change came, as it always had, from Spain.


In 1808 the Napoleonic invasion of Spain precipitated the abdication of Charles IV in favor of his son Ferdinand VII. Ferdinand fell into the hands of Napoleon's troops, who, holding him captive, placed Joseph Bonaparte on the Spanish throne. These events led to the creation in Spain of a supreme central junta dedicated to the restoration of the legitimate monarch Ferdinand VII and committed to the government of Spain in the name of the captive king. In the face of advancing Napoleonic forces, the junta moved to Seville and then to Cadiz. Finally, in 1809 the Spanish junta dissolved in favor of a regency council.

The news of these events produced a constitutional crisis in Caracas as well as elsewhere in Spanish America. In response, on April 19, 1810, the Caracas cabildo held an open session to assert its right to govern the captaincy general of Venezuela. It removed the French-imposed captain-general and organized the Junta Conservadora de los Derechos de Fernando VII. This action formally marks the beginning of the independence movement in Venezuela, although for the participants, the determination of actual independence would not come for more than a decade. In retrospect, this tentative assertion of local control led directly to a full declaration of independence and the successful construction of an independent republic. For those involved in the events of 1810 to 1820, these decades appeared turbulent and uncertain.

Who knew, in 1810, whether Napoleon would send his armies to America to wreak vengeance on the colonials who refused to accept his designated king? Who knew whether Ferdinand VII would return to the throne as an absolutist monarch and send his troops to America to wreak vengeance on those colonials who had ousted his royal officials in favor of a junta or a French pretender? Faced with this uncertain future, the colonials followed the Spanish peninsular model, hoping that the formula of a junta to conserve the rights of Ferdinand VII would protect them from charges of treason should the restoration of the Spanish king come quickly.

Events, of course, often moved faster than the participants could anticipate, and by 1811 the Venezuelan patriots, as those pursuing independence called themselves, succeeded in convening a general congress of the United Provinces of Venezuela that declared the country independent of Spain on July 5, 1811. The congress, recognizing the extensive European military experience of one of its most famous native sons, Francisco de Miranda, placed the country's defense in his hands. Spain, again, intervened, and when the Spanish Cortes of Cadiz approved a liberal constitution in March and restored Ferdinand VII to the throne, the Venezuelan patriots lost ground and Miranda surrendered to the Spanish captain, Domingo Monteverde, in July 1812.

Whatever the events in Spain that reinforced the success of Spanish rule, the Venezuelan experiment in independent self-government proved a dismal failure. Called the patria boba, or infant republic, the Venezuelans proved better at the theory than at the practice of government. A weak executive and a timid congress were unable to mobilize the necessary resources. Miranda had better credentials as a European general than as a Latin American military chieftain, and even when he finally received dictatorial powers, he could not rally the masses. Coro, the former capital of Venezuela, along with Maracaibo and Guayana, refused to join Caracas in the independence effort, fragmenting the united American front necessary to liberate Venezuela. Young radicals such as Simón Bolívar had too little experience at the time to provide the local leadership the republic needed. So the first effort at independence failed, and Venezuela remained in the hands of loyal Spanish forces.

Even though defeated in Caracas and elsewhere in Venezuela, the patriots refused to give up, and Bolívar and his colleagues reentered the fight from Colombia by way of Cartagena and then up the Magdalena into the Andes, from where they launched a lightning campaign north along the Andes in what has come to be known as the Campaña Admirable (Admirable Campaign). The Mérida town council recognized the force of this patriot chieftain and awarded Bolívar the title of Liberator in June 1813, a title he kept above all others.

In the rapid advance on Caracas, Bolívar issued a decree of war to the death against Spanish rule. Much discussed by contemporaries and historians, this decree declared everyone in America who had been born in Spain an enemy unless he worked actively for independence, and everyone born in America a friend even if he worked for Spain. Regarded by some as a barbaric example of republican excess, others recognized this decree as a wartime effort to create a national identity for a country as yet unsure of itself. In search of adherents, desperate for recruits and supporters, the decree of war to the death served to polarize the population around the independence-campaign. The Campaña Admirable succeeded quickly, and in August Bolívar entered Caracas, where his title of Liberator was confirmed.

The short-lived triumph collapsed at the hands of the Spanish loyalist commander, a native Venezuelan named José Tomás Boves. Out in the llanos (plains) south of Caracas he declared his own war to the death against the patriots and succeeded in mobilizing the plainsmen cavalry against them. Little inclined to fight for the interests of the urban elite represented by the patriots of Bolívar's class, the llaneros at Boves's direction fought fiercely on behalf of the king. By mid-July 1814 Bolívar and his colleagues found themselves on the run, and on July 16 Boves entered Caracas triumphant in the name of the king. Bolívar fled Venezuela for Cartagena in September; with the irony of historical fate, Boves, now triumphant, died from wounds received in battle. His royalist cause appeared secure nonetheless, for by 1815 a Spanish army of some ten thousand men under Pablo Morillo, an able Spanish captain, arrived in Venezuela. This marked the end of the Second Republic in the nomenclature of Venezuelan independence historiography.

In the Caribbean, the Venezuelan patriots in exile continued planning and developing their agenda for independence. One of the most celebrated documents of the period, Bolívar's so-called Jamaica Letter, offered a political philosophy for the independence of Venezuela designed to attract the attention of British and other European sympathizers. By 1816 Bolívar had found a strong American supporter in President Alexandre Pétion of Haiti, who sponsored his failed attempt to invade Venezuela in 1815 and then his successful invasion farther east at Barcelona in 1817. From there, Bolívar marched toward Angostura, where he joined forces with other independence caudillos maintaining a successful guerrilla presence in Guayana. He joined Manuel Piar in the successful siege of Angostura (1817). Moving quickly to establish a republican presence and institutionalize the military efforts into a government initiative, Bolívar established a newspaper in 1818, the Correo de Orinoco, and convened the second national congress in 1819 in Angostura, which elected him president of Venezuela.

Drawing on this base of support, Bolívar organized an army and crossed the Andes into New Granada (now Colombia), where, in August 1819, he defeated the royalist army at Boyacá outside of Bogotá. This action effectively liberated New Granada; the congress then created the Republic of Colombia from the provinces of Ecuador, New Granada, and Venezuela and elected Bolívar president. This assertion of authority, of course, required a military campaign to actually liberate central and western Venezuela, still held by the royalists.

Once again, events in Spain influenced the development of Venezuelan affairs. In 1820 the Spanish liberals succeeded in forcing Ferdinand VII to accept their constitution of 1812, a document that curbed his absolutist powers. As part of the liberal success, Pablo Morillo in Venezuela received orders to negotiate with the patriots, leading to an armistice. The patriots, seeing an opportunity, broke the truce after two months, and in January captured Maracaibo. While a congress of Cúcuta continued the task of forming a republic for Colombia, complete with its own liberal constitution, the military effort led by Bolívar and made possible in Venezuela by the armies of Santiago Mariño and José Antonio Páez finally defeated the main royalist army in Venezuela at the second battle of Carabobo (June 1821).

Over the next few years, Bolívar and the Venezuelan and Colombian armies continued to defeat various royalist strongholds. In 1822 the United States recognized the Republic of Colombia, and later in that year Bolívar held a famous Guayaquil meeting with Agustín de San Martín, the liberator of Argentina and Chile. This meeting apparently persuaded San Martín to leave control of Ecuador and Peru to Bolívar's Colombian forces. The patriots captured Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, in November 1823, concluding the military phase of the Venezuelan independence movement.

Between 1824 and 1829 Venezuela and the rest of greater Colombia remained preoccupied with the problems of inventing a country. The notion of Gran Colombia, a brilliant concept drawn from Bolívar's clear recognition of the weakness of individual Spanish American jurisdictions and based on the models of the Spanish colonial period, could not withstand the interests of the local elites. The centrifugal forces splintering Spanish America into independent republics based on the colonial jurisdiction of the audiencias overcame even the charismatic leadership of as effective a general and statesman as Simón Bolívar. By 1829 the task of keeping greater Colombia together exceeded Bolívar's capabilities. In Venezuela, José Antonio Páez led the separatists. Building on the resentment against a government as remote and unconnected to Caracas as was Bogotá's, Páez supported a separatist rebellion in 1829 and led Venezuela out of Gran Colombia, marking the state's emergence as a separate and independent republic.

Population: 26,023,528 (2007 est.)
Area: 352,144.48 sq mi
Official language(s): Spanish
Language(s): Spanish; indigenous languages
National currency: bolivar (VEB)
Principal religions: Roman Catholic 96%, Protestant 2%, other 2%
Ethnicity: mestizo (mixed race), 68%; European (primarily Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German), 21%; African, 8-10%; indigenous people, 2%
Capital: Caracas (pop. 3,226,000, 2005 est.)
Other urban centers: Valencia, Maracaibo, Maracay, Barquisimeto
Principal geographic features: Mountains: Andes; Pico Bolíavar, the highest peak in Venezuela (16,427 ft)
Lakes and rivers: Lake Maracaibo; Orinoco River
Other: Guiana Highlands; Angel Falls (3,212 ft high), the highest waterfall in the world
Economy: GDP per capita: $149.9 billion (2006 est.)
Principal products and exports: Agricultural: corn, sorghum, sugarcane, rice, bananas, vegetables, coffee; beef, pork, milk, eggs; fish
Industries: petroleum, construction materials, food processing, textiles; iron ore mining, steel, aluminum; motor vehicle assembly
Government: Independence: 1811; constitution: 1999; federal republic; five branches of government; the legislative branch (a unicameral National Assembly), the judiciary, the electoral branch, the citizens' branch, and the presidency. President elected by popular vote for a six-year term. Venezuela has 23 states, the Federal District, and 72 offshore islands grouped under a federal dependency.
Armed forces: In 2005, 82,300 active personnel in armed forces, in addition to 23,000 members of the Fuerzas Armados de Cooperacion, an internal security force. Army: 34,000 regulars; Navy: 18,300, including an estimated 7,800 Marines, 1,000 Coast Guard members, and 500 naval aviation personnel; Air Force: 7,000 personnel.
Transportation: Cities and towns of the remote regions are linked principally by air transportation. Three hundred sixty-nine airports (2004 est.); 128 had paved runways (2005 est.); 1 heliport. Three main airlines, the government-owned Aerovías Venezolanas S.A. (AVENSA), Línea Aeropostal Venezolana (LAV), and Venezolana Internacional de Aviación, S.A. (VIASA). Nine thousand nine hundred mi of navigable inland waterways; 59,751 mi of highway, of which 20,076 mi were paved. In 2003 there were 1,480,000 passenger cars and 1,157,138 commercial vehicles; railway system totaled 424 mi.
Media: Estimated 344 commercial radio stations and over 150 FM and AM community radio stations, as well as 31 television channels (2004 est.); 192 radios and 186 television sets for every 1,000 people (2003 est.). Fifteen national newspapers, 77 regional newspapers, and 89 magazines and weekly journals. Leading daily Venezuelan newspapers published in Caracas are: Ultimas Noticias, 200,000; El Universal, 120,000; El Nacional, 100,000; and Diario 2001, 100,000 (2004 circulations).
Literacy and education: Total literacy rate: 93%
Free public education from kindergarten through university; compulsory education for children ages 5 through 17. Fourteen universities, both national and private, including the University of Venezuela (founded in 1725), Los Andes University (1785), Simón Bolívar University (1970), and the Open University (1977), and the Open University (1977).


The years from 1830 through the 1870s fall into two major periods named by Venezuelan historiography as the Conservative Oligarchy (1830–1847) and the Liberal Oligarchy (1848–1865). During this time Venezuela passed through the transition required to become a full participant in the expanding world economy, especially the segment dominated by northern Europe (England, Germany, and France), and later on including the United States. Venezuela's economic and political development depended almost entirely on exporting primary agricultural products into this world market.

Although these years saw considerable controversy and various rebellions, changes in the terms of trade and rules of economic life generated the greatest tensions within Venezuela. Driven by world markets for its various commodities, principally coffee and cacao, Venezuelans often found their plans for political and economic development abruptly derailed or substantially diverted by events outside their borders. A bitter controversy over an 1834 law that favored the rights of creditors over the rights of debtors permitted a glimpse into the changes affecting Venezuelan affairs. Formerly, most credit in Venezuela, and especially agricultural credit, came from long-term loans provided by the church with low interest. Independence brought an influx of European capital, delivered in the form of short-term com mercial loans with relatively high interest rates.

The April 10, 1834, law made it easier for creditors to foreclose on Venezuelans caught without funds in the short time frames of these loans. When the price of coffee or chocolate declined in Europe, the optimistic estimates of Venezuelan landowners collapsed and they would default on their loans. Used to longer-term relationships, Venezuelan planters found the adjustment to short-term, high-interest-rate loans difficult, and they looked to the political process to protect them. Issues of this nature helped polarize Venezuelan politics between a group calling itself the Conservatives, whose political philosophy appeared to be primarily liberal in its favor of free trade and minimal government restrictions, and a group called the Liberals, which looked to the rural landowners for its support and championed policies that appeared to recall Spanish colonial values.

The ideological and programmatic content of these parties may have had less to do with their cohesion than their personalist ties. Liberals tended to draw on the strength of the military heroes of independence and especially those associated with the Bolivarian faction. The Conservatives tended to cluster around individuals who had rejected Bolívar's Gran Colombia and had either encouraged Venezuelan separatism or had not participated much in the independence epic itself.

The Conservatives had as their champion José Antonio Páez, the hero of independence whose vision for Venezuela never lost its focus in pursuit of grand designs. This great llanero warrior turned out to be a careful, canny, and effective caudillo, and as long as his personal strength remained intact, he kept the Conservatives in power. Although labeled Conservative, Páez's regimes had their difficulties with the church until 1832, when the archbishop of Caracas and the bishop of Mérida returned from their exile and swore to uphold the state. In 1833 Congress accepted a solution to the question of patronage and then abolished the tithe. In 1834 Congress granted freedom of worship to all citizens. These changes did not satisfy the church; in 1836 the archbishop of Venezuela, Ramón Ignacio Méndez, refused to recognize civil jurisdiction, and the state exiled him.

Throughout this period, Páez governed either directly or through intermediaries, emerging from retirement to put down this or that rebellion or to guarantee the continuation of policies and individuals that met with his approval. The sequence of administrations began with the first administration of Páez (1831–1835). Then, at the request of the civilians in Congress, Páez ceded power to Venezuela's first civilian president, José María Vargas, an intellectual with no military or significant political experience and no participation in independence wars.

As soon as Vargas took office he found himself at war with the pro-Bolívar separatists from eastern Venezuela led by General Santiago Mariño. This Revolution of the Reforms, as it was called, had a mixed set of objectives, but in addition to resentments over the reduced influence of the independence Bolivarian heroes, the reformistas had a separatist agenda that would have set up eastern Venezuela as a republic, perhaps under the leadership of Mariño. Páez, called out of retirement, defeated the rebels but prevented the government from imposing severe penalties for their actions. Vargas, unable to insist on punishment for the rebellion's leaders, resigned in favor of Vice President Andrés Narvarte (1836–1837) and then Vice President Carlos Soublette (1837–1839), who completed his term in close collaboration with Páez.

These years saw continued growth of the economy, with a prospering cacao industry and a boom in the coffee sector, but at the same time Soublette had to suppress various uprisings, notably a popular revolt led by Ezequiel Zamora. In 1847 Páez, thinking his fellow general José Tadeo Monagas suitably loyal to the Conservative cause but nonetheless a representative of the eastern caudillos, allowed him to become president for the 1847–1851 period. Within a year, however, Monagas had given amnesty to Liberals convicted of treason and conspiracy, and the Conservatives withdrew their support from the government. A subsequent popular revolt in 1848 gave Monagas an opportunity to dissolve the Congress, and a Páez effort to overthrow Monagas and return the country to the Conservatives failed. This marked the beginning of what Venezuelans call the Liberal Oligarchy.


The next national election brought José Gregorio Monagas to the presidency (1851–1855), continuing the policies of his brother. Congress passed the first mining code in 1854, followed by a revision in 1855 that reaffirmed the Spanish rule that subsoil rights belong to the nation and not to private owners of the surface land. Also in 1854 José Gregorio Monagas signed the law abolishing slavery in Venezuela. In 1855 José Tadeo returned to the presidency. His second term saw the beginnings of modernization in Venezuela, with the installation of a telegraph line between Caracas and the port of La Guaira. A new constitution in 1857 strengthened the powers of the presidency at the expense of the powers of the states. A rebellion against Monagas for his abuses of power forced him to resign the presidency in 1858.

The end of the Monagas era of the Liberal Oligarchy signaled the end of the first era of independent government in Venezuela. The country had succeeded in defining its national territory, establishing a functioning government that could handle the task of linking Venezuela into the Atlantic export economy, and enhancing its colonial agricultural structures sufficiently to continue to provide increased quantities of coffee and stable amounts of cacao to that market. Venezuela did not resolve the question of legitimate political power, failing to find a mechanism that could manage and transfer power. Unable to rely on constitutional legitimacy, the country continued to depend on caudillos backed by force to maintain the authority of its governments.

Although effective for short periods in times of prosperity, this system had too little popular support to survive hardship or contentious disputes over the disposition of the benefits of power. The resulting political and military instability, enhanced by considerable social instability, led to a sequence of uprisings that eventually ended the Páez era and plunged the country into a five-year destructive cycle of rebellion and civil war called the Federal Wars (1859–1863).

Ostensibly fought over the question of central versus state authority and power, the Federal Wars represented a dispute over the management of the country's foreign commerce and trade. A provisional government of General Julián Castro sponsored a constitutional convention in Valencia that produced the constitution of 1858, designed to reconcile federalist and centralist ideas about the relative authority of states and the central government. The Federalists, unwilling to accept this compromise, went to war in 1859 under the leadership of General Ezequiel Zamora against the administration of Dr. Manuel Felipe Tovar, who had been named president for the 1859–1861 period.

Zamora won a major victory in this war in 1859, but in 1860 an assassin killed him and the government's troops defeated the Federalist forces at Coplé, ending this period of Federalist rebellion. Tovar's administration gave way to the administration of Dr. Pedro Gual in 1861; Gual had presided for less than a year when General José Antonio Páez returned once again to lead the Centralists. The Caracas merchants supported Páez's presidency, hoping for stability, but by 1863 the Centralists lost the Federalist Wars, and the Treaty of Coche signified the end of the Páez era.

In time-honored fashion, a new constituent assembly met from late 1863 to mid-1864 to establish the priorities of the triumphant Federalist forces and draft a new constitution. This group elected General Juan C. Falcón, the victorious leader of the Federalists, as provisional president, with General Antonio Guzmán Blanco as vice president.


Between 1864 and 1870 Venezuela experimented with the governmental structure established in the 1864 constitution. A newly federalized Caracas welcomed the leadership of General Falcón, first as provisional president from 1863 to 1865 and then as president from 1865 to 1868. The Federalists suffered economic difficulties and constant political and military disturbances in the various states. Finally, Liberals and Conservatives joined together in a coalition to overthrow the Federalist government. General José Tadeo Monagas returned to lead this revolution, and Falcón resigned into exile in 1868. For two years the coalition of Liberals and Conservatives tried to control the states from the central government within the boundaries of the constitution of 1864, but this effort generally failed. General Antonio Guzmán Blanco, a Federalist vice president under Falcón, organized a Liberal Union opposition to the coalition, and in 1870, supported by elements of all parties, Guzmán Blanco occupied the capital, ending the experiment with a decentralized federalist government.

Between 1870 and 1908 Venezuela experienced considerable economic and political progress with a more or less strong, stable central government. Much of the transportation and communications infrastructure was modernized. Similar to the positivist movements in Mexico, Argentina, and elsewhere in Spanish America, the Venezuelans in this Guzmanato, as it was called, placed a strong emphasis on positivist values of effective hard work, conservative social values, strong support for order and progress, and little concern for the underclasses. Committed to the pursuit of a Venezuela tightly coupled to Europe and to a lesser extent North America, these leaders organized their country to be responsive to the economic, social, and intellectual interests of the leading overseas countries of France, England, Germany, and the United States.

Guzmán Blanco, the first Venezuelan strongman with no ties to the independence generation, displayed a ruthless effectiveness. His administrations, textbook liberal regimes, made education free and obligatory and reduced the power and prerogatives of the church to the extent that he exiled Archbishop Silvestre Güevara y Lira in 1870, closed the seminaries, and gave the university jurisdiction over religious studies. He later established civil marriages and a civil registry of births and deaths (1873) and closed convents and other religious communities. A rebellion in 1872 against his government not only resulted in the defeat of the rebels but the unprecedented execution of the rebel leaders. A final uprising against Guzmán Blanco in 1874–1875 involving General León Colina and General José Ignacio Pulido also failed, marking the end of major resistance until Guzmán Blanco chose to leave power near the end of the nineteenth century.

Even though Antonio Guzmán Blanco remained the most powerful force behind the government during this generation, he often acted through presidential surrogates. From 1877 to 1878 General Francisco Linares Alcántara served as his hand-picked successor. Linares Alcántara turned against Guzmán Blanco, but a counterrevolution in 1879 led by General Gregorio Cedeño and General Joaquín Crespo restored Guzmán Blanco to power as the Supreme Director of the Republic.

Guzmán Blanco's second major period of direct government, 1879 to 1884, known in Venezuelan historiography as the Quinquenio, represented a period of economic change and prosperity with considerable railroad and telegraph construction and a renovation of public works in Caracas and other major cities. As did other Spanish American states at the time, Venezuela modernized at least the surface elements of its society to more closely match European models. It invested heavily in infrastructure to make the colonial export economy compete effectively in world markets with such commodities as coffee. Guzmán Blanco consolidated political and economic power in the central government in Caracas with a reduction in the number of states and the assignment of presidential elections to a federal council (constitution of 1881).

In the 1884–1886 period, Guzmán Blanco turned over the presidency to General Joaquín Crespo, whose two-year term ended with the reelection of Guzmán Blanco for a third administration, known as the Aclamación. This period proved to be the least successful of the Guzmán Blanco presidencies, either because changing circumstances no longer matched his style or, more likely, because the accumulated resentments against his repressive political tactics made it impossible for him to govern.

Guzmán Blanco's success in negotiating large foreign loans for Venezuela had made him rich, and in his later years he became virtually an expatriate. He spent such a large portion of his time in Europe that he clearly lost the personal commitment to local Venezuelan affairs so necessary for the control of a fractious and still highly personalist government apparatus. He was elected president again in 1886, but faced with substantial opposition, he turned over the government to General Hermógenes López, president of the federal council, and returned to Europe for good (1888).

Elected as the first civilian president since 1834, Dr. Juan Pablo Rójas Paúl disassociated himself from Guzmán Blanco, but his short term (1888–1890) provided only a transition to the administration of Raimundo Andueza Palacio (1890–1892). Andueza tried to hold onto the presidency for a second term by dismissing the congress and calling a constituent assembly in 1892, but General Joaquín Crespo led what he called the Legalist Revolution and took control of the government for a second time (1892–1898).

Crespo continued the constitutional reform movement, and a national assembly returned the country to a constitution similar to that of 1864. The Crespo administration also revived the Guayana boundary dispute with Great Britain that led to an arbitration demanded by U.S. president Grover Cleveland.

A serious economic crisis in 1895 paralyzed commerce and produced a mass action of Caracas workers and artisans protesting the lack of jobs. As happened elsewhere in Spanish America, the economic difficulties encouraged European-inspired workers' parties. Venezuela's Popular Party appeared in these years, dedicated to improving the education of workers and the creation of cooperatives.

General Ignacio Andrade's short administration (1898–1899) continued with additional constitutional reforms that reestablished the states as they were in the 1864 constitution and gave the president the right to name provisional presidents of each state. Venezuela lost the arbitration hearing with Great Britain over the Guayana boundary dispute, and President Andrade's administration fell to the so-called Liberating Revolution, which brought General Cipriano Castro into power.

Cipriano Castro's tenure (1899–1908) marks the transition from Guzmán Blanco's nineteenth-century administration to the modern bureaucratic authoritarian regimes of twentieth-century Venezuela. His ascendancy also asserted the strength of the Andean region in Venezuelan political life. Recognizing that Caracas and its sophisticated bureaucratic apparatus had the skills and the knowledge required to connect Venezuela into the Atlantic trading world, the Andean ascendancy showed that the Caraqueño elites did not have the political tools needed to manage a poorly integrated national governing system that barely organized the country sufficiently to produce the goods Venezuela traded. So the transaction between Caracas and its hinterland used the Andinos' authority of force to manage the countryside and used the Caraqueño elites' technical sophistication to manage world markets, credit, trade, and diplomacy. This bargain began with Cipriano Castro but did not reach its full development until the subsequent regime of Juan Vicente Gómez.

The two presidencies of Cipriano Castro (1899–1905, 1905–1909) were dominated by internal dissension, international conflict, and a growing recognition that hydrocarbon deposits would become an ever larger part of the Venezuelan export business. A revolution led by General Manuel Antonio Matos between 1901 and 1903, supported by international interests, attempted to oust Castro but failed. Castro then refused to pay European creditors, which resulted in a blockade of the Venezuelan coast by English, German, and Italian ships. This crisis, resolved in 1903 by the Washington Protocol, required Venezuela to allocate 30 percent of its customs receipts to pay the European claims and represented a considerable loss of prestige for Venezuela. The growing importance of hydrocarbons in the Venezuelan economy led to a 1904 mining code and then a 1905 law that permitted hydrocarbon concessions for periods of up to fifty years. A regulation the subsequent year reaffirmed the right of the president to grant and administer these hydrocarbon concessions without intervention by the congress.

Cipriano Castro proved to be a poor national leader and a petty tyrant. As his support declined along with his health, he relied more and more on his vice president, General Juan Vicente Gómez, an Andean colleague who had accompanied him on the campaigns of prior years. Gómez, recognizing the declining health and effectiveness of Castro, encouraged him to go to Europe for a cure. Once Castro was safely out of the way, Gómez deposed him at the end of 1908 and took over the presidency.


The era of Juan Vicente Gómez inaugurated the contemporary history of Venezuela. During the generation of his control (1908–1935), Venezuela became one of the world's foremost exporters of petroleum products. Based on the substantial revenues generated from this export, Gómez modernized and controlled Venezuela, transforming it from an agricultural into a petroleum export economy. He also transformed the political process. Gómez took advantage of improvements in transportation and communications, seen first during the years of Cipriano Castro but institutionalized during the Gómez regime. With a telegraph in every hamlet and village in Venezuela, the central government knew within minutes or hours about any hostile political activities. With the improvements in roads and railroads, the central government moved troops around the republic with much more efficiency.

No longer could a rural caudillo gather his friends and neighbors, issue a call to arms, and begin a march on Caracas. At the first sign of such activity, reported in detail to the capital on the telegraph run by the state, Gómez mobilized his local supporters and federal troops to quash the incipient revolution. The means of violence, guns and ammunition, became something of a government monopoly. Where earlier caudillos could count on the household armament of every Venezuelan to provide at least the basic military matériel for an uprising, by the end of the nineteenth century, the growing sophistication and expense of rifles, cannon, Gatling guns, and other armaments made them largely inaccessible to individuals. Revolution became a process of subverting government military detachments or of seeking foreign support to launch a rebellion. All of this Gómez used to his advantage to keep his regime free from serious challenge for most of his years in office.

The Gómez period began with a provisional presidency (1908–1910) and a new constitution that led to his first official presidency (1910–1914). When his term concluded, he provoked a political crisis over his intention to seek another term, suspended constitutional guarantees, and imprisoned his opposition. Using loyal place holders to run the details of government, Gómez granted presidential powers to José Gil Fortoul in 1913 and to Victorino Márquez Bustillos in 1914. In 1915 a compliant congress reelected Gómez for the 1915–1922 period, but Gómez retained Márquez Bustillos as provisional president for the entire period.

These early decades of the Gómez era saw the beginning of the petroleum boom that was to remake the political and economic destiny of the country. A subsidiary of the Royal Dutch Shell company (Caribbean Petroleum Company) began commercial operations in Venezuela with the Zumaque-I oil well in the Mene Grande field of the Lake Maracaibo Basin, beginning the full-scale exploitation of petroleum. Petroleum exploration expanded with the construction of pipelines from the Mene Grande field to Venezuela's first oil refinery in San Lorenzo and with the first significant exports of petroleum into the world market.

Throughout this early period, Gómez's regime contended with a variety of plots and attempted revolts, but his government suppressed them all and imprisoned, tortured, or killed various conspirators. Venezuela continued to revise its laws on hydrocarbons, reaffirming its ownership of the subsoil rights as well as the government's right to concede concessions for exploration and exploitation of petroleum. Venezuela passed its first hydrocarbons law in 1920, and in 1921 Gómez permitted foreign oil companies to participate in the drafting of new legislation even more favorable to them.

In 1922 the ever-agreeable congress reelected Gómez for the period 1922 to 1929. Continuous changes in the hydrocarbons law in 1922 improved conditions for foreign oil companies. This law, with provisions for (largely unenforced) benefits for workers, remained mostly in force for more than two decades, with minor alterations in 1925 and 1928. Gómez also created the Venezuelan Petroleum Company (CVP) to serve as the government's vehicle for awarding concessions. American oil companies began buying these concessions from the CVP in 1924. The accelerating pace of oil expansion produced not only great wealth for Venezuela and selected Venezuelans, but it also generated a labor movement and the first labor protest against the high cost of living in 1925 in the Bolívar fields. Government troops suppressed the strike. Although the government approved the first labor law permitting unions and recognizing accident compensation, death benefits, and a nine-hour work day, this law did not take effect until the end of the Gómez era in 1935. By 1926 Venezuela had completed its transformation into an oil export economy, with the value of petroleum exceeding coffee.

Not all Venezuelans approved of the caudillo's dictatorial regime or the selectivity of petroleum prosperity. A student protest in 1928 led to the arrest of student leaders, sympathy strikes, and riots. Student leaders joined with young military officers in a failed effort to provoke a barracks revolt. Gómez retaliated by closing the Central University and the Military Academy. Many among these early revolutionaries later became the principal leaders of the post-Gómez democratic regimes and regarded the 1928 strike as a formative experience.

In 1929, making what was true in practice true in law, congress appointed Gómez chief of the army and appointed Juan Bautista Pérez president of the republic. Gómez, living in Maracay as had become his tradition, continued to run the government. The Juan Bautista Pérez administration (1929–1931) suppressed various antigovernment revolts while the country's petroleum exports grew until Venezuela became the world's largest oil exporter in 1929. Dissatisfied with Pérez, congress in 1931 asked for his resignation, reformed the constitution once again, and then reelected Gómez as president.

In this term (1931–1935), Gómez had his minister of foreign relations, Itriago Chacín, occupy the presidency. Reflecting the influence of international politics on domestic affairs, Venezuelans founded a Communist Party in 1931, although the government refused to make it legal. In December 1935, Juan Vicente Gómez died of natural causes, ending his regime and unleashing a difficult two-decade transition from caudillo government to democratic reforms.

General Eleázar López Contreras (minister of war and marine) had the task of containing the forces unleashed by the death of Gómez. Elected president for the period 1936 to 1941, López encountered a host of new political parties that immediately joined in opposition to the government. A widespread strike in 1936 failed to force the government to adopt democratic reforms, and a variety of leftist parties, including the precursor to Democratic Action, joined together in the National Democratic Party (PDN). The government refused to recognize this party because of its leftist orientation.

Continued turmoil produced an oil workers' strike in 1936–1937, supported by the PDN, that forced López to grant a wage increase, although he dissolved the union and exiled its political leaders. A new hydrocarbons law for the first time appeared to give more control of the petroleum resources to the state, and the government chartered the Venezuelan Central Bank in 1939. Lopez also enacted a social security law.

General Isaías Medina Angarita (1941–1945) served as López's hand-picked successor. Democratic Action (AD), Venezuela's dominant political party after 1958, was formed and gained government recognition under Medina. In 1942, continuing the modernization of Venezuela's social and economic legislation, the government passed the country's first income tax law. A 1943 hydrocarbons law established the first nationalistic petroleum legislation that placed the country's interests first. To counter the growing strength of AD, the government supported the creation of the Venezuelan Democratic Party (PDV). Increased political freedom and discussion spawned other organizations, including a politically powerful and enduring Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Fedecámaras).

In 1945 this political reformism produced a constitutional change that retained an indirect system for the election of the president, instituted the direct election of congressional deputies, and ended restrictions on communist activities. An agrarian reform law, a popular and contentious issue in many other Spanish American countries at about the same period, promised to distribute government land to peasants. These reforms and the gradual opening of the political process, including the grant of legal status to the Communist Party (PCV), failed to forestall revolt, and in October 1945, AD and the Patriotic Military Union (a group of young military officers) succeeded in overthrowing the government of Medina.

Although the period 1945–1948, known as the trienio junta, offered a dramatic promise for democratic reform, the leaders of the civilian-military council could not maintain their reform movement. The seven-man council led by Rómulo Betancourt recognized two major parties, the Democratic Republican Union (URD) in 1945 and the Committee for Political Organization and Independent Election (COPEI), or Social Christian Party, in 1946; these groups played a major role in the subsequent development of Venezuela's democratic tradition. URD came from the perspective of left-of-center reformism and COPEI from a solidly Christian Democratic tradition.

The council approved a new oil company earnings tax designed to gain a true fifty-fifty split between government and private companies in oil profits, and approved a new election law that allowed direct election of the president and of delegates to a national constituent assembly. Along with other reform activities, the oil workers founded a union in 1946 (Fedepetrol), and in the elections for the National Constituent Assembly, Betancourt's party, AD, won a majority. This assembly took over the government from the council and succeeded in suppressing an army revolt. The subsequent elections brought Rómulo Gallegos, the famous Venezuelan author, to office as the first popularly elected civilian president in Venezuelan history.

Gallegos entered office in 1948 with high intellectual and cultural prestige, and his administration moved quickly to implement a variety of radical reform measures, including an agrarian reform law that would expropriate private property with compensation and an income tax on companies guaranteeing the government 50 percent of the profit on petroleum exports. Military officers, concerned with the radical nature of these reforms, met with Gallegos in November 1948; soon thereafter a military coup deposed him, ending the democratic experiment.

For the next decade Venezuela operated under the control of various military officers or coalitions of officers. For the 1948–1952 period, a junta headed by three officers, Carlos Delgado Chalbaud, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, and Luis Felipe Llovera Páez, managed the country. They exiled Gallegos, dissolved Democratic Action, suppressed strikes, disbanded the AD-dominated Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), outlawed the Communist Party, and suspended classes at the Central University of Venezuela. Dissension in the ranks of the military produced the assassination of junta president Delgado Chalbaud in 1950.

Conservative forces organized the Independent Electoral Front (FEI) to support the candidacy of Pérez Jiménez for president. When the elections of 1952 gave the victory to the URD party, Pérez Jiménez voided the results, sent URD leaders into exile, and had the armed forces designate him provisional president. Between 1952 and 1958 Pérez Jiménez served as president, naming his brand of authoritarian rule the New National Ideal. This ideal relied, as did many similar Spanish American authoritarian regimes at that time, on extensive public works to generate employment and heavy doses of political repression to maintain the authority of the government and resist radical or reformist initiatives.

The National Constituent Assembly, recognizing the inevitable, named Pérez Jiménez president officially for the 1953–1958 term and approved a new constitution. Two new universities appeared, in part to supplant the radical traditions of the closed Central University of Venezuela. The Universidad Católica Andrés Bello and the Universidad Santa María were to have high academic standards and no political activity. In 1956 the Pérez Jiménez government, responding to its foreign supporters, granted new oil concessions after a lapse of just over a decade. The repressive nature of the Pérez Jiménez regime became so extreme that the archbishop of Caracas, Monsignor Rafael Arias Blanco, issued a pastoral letter in 1957 criticizing labor conditions, and a clandestine Movement for National Liberation (MLN) appeared under the leadership of military officers plotting to overthrow the dictator. Pérez Jiménez, turning to a classic tactic of authoritarian rulers, staged a plebiscite on his presidency for the 1958–1963 period. In response, on January 23, 1958, the air force led a rebellion against the dictator supported by popular uprisings and a general strike. Pérez Jiménez left the country for exile in Miami.


The fall of Pérez Jiménez in 1958 ended the cycle of authoritarian, military regimes begun with Juan Vicente Gómez in 1908. The fifty years of military-sponsored rule left unresolved the issue of legitimacy in Venezuelan political life. No government since independence had survived economic difficulty or political stress without the support of military force, and many of the changes in political power had come only when the military could be persuaded to intervene. Venezuela's democratic era, which began in 1958, marked a radical departure from its political traditions, less because the military ceased to be important than because the civilian leadership found ways to keep the military focused on the maintenance of civilian government rather than the assumption of political power. This change came only at the cost of a difficult struggle, and though in retrospect it is evident that the democratic tradition owes its founding to the ouster of Pérez Jiménez, the stability of this tradition appeared much in doubt during the early years.

In January 1958 a junta of military officers and civilian leaders led by Rear Admiral Wolfgang Larrazábal assumed control of the country, and Venezuela's political exiles returned to begin reconstituting the political parties that had operated in exile or clandestinely in the country. In the turbulent months of 1958, the principal political parties, AD, COPEI, and URD, agreed in the Pact of Punto Fijo to support the winner of the presidential election and, whatever the electoral outcome, to support a coalition government. In the November election, AD and its candidate Rómulo Betancourt won the presidency with a 49 percent plurality. Before Betancourt took office, the government increased its share of petroleum profits to more than 60 percent.

The 1959–1964 administration of Rómulo Betancourt produced a dramatic sequence of events that challenged the stability and viability of democratic government and generated a series of social and political reforms that continue to shape Venezuela. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso, named minister of mines and hydrocarbons, became the Venezuelan government's chief architect of an international petroleum policy through OPEC in collaboration with other world producers. The government passed a new and more effective agrarian reform law in 1960.

Throughout the Betancourt regime, many factions on the left and right attempted to overthrow the government or eliminate the president. An assassination attempt in June 1960 failed, although Betancourt was wounded and the government charged the Dominican Republic's dictator, General Rafael Trujillo, with the attempt and sought sanctions from the Organization of American States (OAS). From the left, the government was challenged by the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), the first of several fragments from the AD party. The coalition government lost URD's support in November 1960 and the MIR and the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) began a campaign against the government.

Within this turmoil, the government moved quickly to push an activist economic agenda with the construction of Ciudad Guayana, a center in eastern Venezuela along the Orinoco River designed by an urban planning team made up of United States educators. OPEC met in Caracas, further establishing Venezuela's leading role in this organization. In 1961 Congress took control of the granting of oil concessions away from the presidency.

By 1962 the moderate reformist tendencies of AD appeared too timid to many, and dissidents from various factions moved into opposition, resulting in several armed rebellions, some involving the military. The government suspended the activities of the PCV and the MIR, and splinter groups, principal among them the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN), began a guerrilla war against the government to disrupt the 1963 elections. These groups operated in a manner similar to other revolutionary groups in Spanish America, many inspired by the example of the Cuban Revolution and all sharing a radical ideology, the rhetoric of which was international but the programs of which addressed local concerns and issues.

Venezuela broke relations with Cuba in 1963 when an arms cache that proved to have originated there was found on a deserted beach. The Venezuelans sought OAS sanctions. In spite of threats of major violence, the 1963 elections took place on schedule, and Raúl Leoni, AD's candidate, became president with 32 percent of the vote.

The Leoni presidency (1964–1969) continued the programs established by the Betancourt regime, although Leoni maintained a somewhat lower political profile. His government struggled to construct a working majority and various coalitions failed to endure throughout his rule. The government succeeded in gaining OAS sanctions against Cuba for its sponsorship of revolution in Venezuela. Continued guerrilla activity led to suspensions of constitutional guarantees, but none of the efforts to overthrow the government succeeded. Venezuela became more active in hemispheric affairs with its participation in the Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA), and was successful in getting an accord with Great Britain that recognized its position on the Guayana boundary dispute (1965). It participated in the Punta del Este conference on Latin American economic integration in 1967, and agreed in the same year to form a regional Andean Common Market with Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru.

Indicative of the growing effectiveness of national institutions, in 1968 the supreme court of justice convicted the former dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez of corruption in office. The Leoni years, less violent than his predecessors but still turbulent, ended with the transfer of power to the opposition Christian Democratic Party (COPEI) with the election of Dr. Rafael Caldera for the 1969–1974 period with 27 percent of the vote.

Caldera, with a weak mandate, had difficulty with his program in the legislature as AD refused to participate in a coalition, creating a stalemate. Caldera lifted the ban on the Communist Party but eliminated the autonomy of the university. OPEC met again in Caracas, and a new income tax law continued increasing the Venezuelan share of oil company profits. Splinter political parties continued to form, including the Movement to Socialism (MAS), which emerged out of the PCV in 1971. Expanding the growing government control of Venezuelan oil, congress passed a Hydrocarbons Reversion Law in 1971 that prepared for government control of existing concessions when their terms expired. The government nationalized the natural gas industry in the same year. In 1973 Venezuela formally joined the Andean Pact, bringing its economy into closer collaboration with others in its region.

Carlos Andrés Pérez, AD's candidate, won the election of 1973 with a 49 percent share, reversing the decline in winning pluralities and representing another peaceful transition of power from one party to another in Venezuela's new democratic tradition. The first Pérez administration (1974–1979) saw a great increase in government intervention in the economy and an increase in economic prosperity, based mostly on the growth of petroleum revenues. Pérez's government nationalized the iron industry in 1974 and the steel and petroleum industries in 1975. This ambitious program of change produced its detractors, and in the 1978 elections Luis Herrera Campíns, the COPEI candidate, won the presidency with 46 percent of the vote, in yet another peaceful change of governing parties.

Herrera Campíns (1979–1984) struggled with economic difficulties as the oil boom and the extravagant expansion of Venezuela based on the revenues derived from petroleum appeared to come to an end. Although COPEI had strong political support at the beginning of this period, the economic decline of Venezuela brought about by the decline in the world price for petroleum and the general crisis of international debt provided the most serious challenges. Venezuela worked with OPEC to try to freeze the price of petroleum in 1981, but this effort failed and the government found itself with an inflation rate of 8 percent (high for Venezuela) and an unemployment rate of at least 8 percent. The Venezuela oil company became part of a controversy over its management, and the government, in search of new sources of revenue in 1982, launched a program to develop the tar sand belt north of the Orinoco, a long-term project that would require high oil prices to be profitable.

Faced with rumors of an imminent devaluation of the bolívar, Venezuela's reserves declined because of large amounts of capital flight from the country, and the government took control of dollar accounts of state businesses. Inflation in 1982 reached 8.3 percent, and about $5 billion apparently fled the country as a result of speculation against the bolívar. By 1983 about 70 percent of the exterior debt of Venezuela, calculated at about $30 billion, came due, and in February the government introduced a new system of controls on foreign exchange to stop capital flight, froze prices for sixty days, and stopped paying interest on the national debt.

While the economic news during the Herrera Campíns period went from bad to worse, diplomatic and political activity continued apace. Congress declared former president Pérez responsible for the inflated price of a refrigerator ship that exceeded its cost by some $10 million, and this conviction served as a symbol of the widespread corruption and profiteering that characterized the Venezuelan boom of the late 1970s. Venezuela lost one of its most prominent founders of the democratic era when Rómulo Betancourt died in 1981 at the age of seventy-three. On the diplomatic scene, the dispute between Venezuela and Guyana revived when the truce between the two countries ended in 1982. Elsewhere in the hemisphere, Venezuela sided, diplomatically and verbally, with Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas War with Great Britain.

Clearly, the increased economic uncertainty and Venezuela's unaccustomed inflation and currency instability contributed greatly to the defeat of COPEI and the election of Jaime Lusinchi of AD as president for the 1984–1989 period with a large margin of 57 percent and control of congress. The Lusinchi regime continued to cope with economic difficulties derived from the decline in the world price of oil and the general international economic difficulties of world trade. It introduced a variety of austerity measures with the hope that growth would restore the country to its traditional stability and prosperity. However, inflation continued to rise and reached an unprecedented 20 percent in the Lusinchi period. The government made an agreement with its principal international bankers on a refinancing plan and resisted the approach of the International Monetary Fund involving major changes in the country's economic structure.

In search of a prosperous past, Venezuelans turned once again to Carlos Andrés Pérez (1990–1994) to help them resolve the Venezuelan version of the Latin American economic readjustment crisis. In his first incarnation, Pérez had spent freely and nationalized liberally, but with the changing times, his policies changed also. Imposing strong austerity measures, his regime promptly triggered a violent street riot for four days beginning on February 27, 1989, that almost toppled his presidency and left many dead and much property destroyed. Even the fury of the populace could not deter the necessary readjustments demanded by the world market and especially by the continued low price of oil. Pérez continued carefully but systematically to privatize the economy (returning as much of the public sector as possible into private hands), opened up Venezuelan opportunities to foreign investment, and reduced the high subsidies paid for a wide range of consumer goods.

Although this policy produced considerable improvement in economic statistics (inflation at 80 percent in 1989 fell to around 30 percent by 1994 and the country's growth rate in the early 1990s exceeded most other Latin American countries), too many Venezuelans found themselves worse off than a decade earlier, with more than 40 percent of the population living in poverty, perhaps half of these, by some calculations, in extreme poverty. The continued drumbeat of inflation and unemployment, accompanied by rising resentment against suspected profiteering in high places, including the presidency, led Congress to bring corruption charges against the president. In May, Carlos Andrés Pérez stepped down to answer the charges, and Congress appointed the noted historian Ramón J. Velásquez to serve out the rest of the term (1993–1994).


Velásquez, relieved of at least the controversy over corruption, proceeded with the privatization plans, the economic reforms, and especially with the imposition of a value-added tax to address a growing government deficit. Implemented against great public protest and with much controversy and speculation, the tax continued to dominate political and popular discourse throughout the period of the presidential campaigns. With the economy stagnating at an expected growth rate of only 2 or 3 percent, the country struggling with continued capital flight, and inflation sticking stubbornly to around 30 percent, the December 1993 electoral battle focused on issues of the economy but turned on the personal qualities of the candidates. The old political parties of AD and COPEI, both seriously weakened by internal strife and splintering factions, and in AD's case by the fall from grace of former president Carlos Andrés Pérez, ran weaker campaigns against upstart parties and coalitions.

The winning party, led by disaffected COPEI founder and former president Dr. Rafael Caldera, combined a heterogeneous group of left-of-center, Christian Democrats and conservative or reformist splinter groups into a coalition called the Convergencia. Trading on the magic of Caldera's name, his reputation for personal honesty, and the echoes of the prosperous and dynamic period of his previous presidency, the Convergencia argued for a new approach, different from the Pérez austerity, more just in its distribution of the pain of economic readjustment, and free from the corruption of past regimes. Caldera's coalition won the election with about 30 percent of the vote, with about 40 percent of the electorate abstaining (a new high), ending the era of two-party government that had prevailed from 1959 to 1994.

The Caldera presidency (1994–1999) served to mark the transition between the era of two-party government and the emergence of a new, populist political regime. At the same time, it marked another shift in the nation's approach to the exploitation of Venezuela's petroleum resources and the distribution of the benefits of oil exports. Although the character of this shift did not appear immediately during the second Caldera presidency, in retrospect the gradual disintegration of the governing elite, the growing disparity between middle and upper class on one side of the income divide and the relatively disenfranchised urban poor on the other, and the fundamental economic difficulties caused by low international oil prices all combined to undermine the remaining authority of the traditional party system and the political, economic, and governing infrastructure that supported it.

Caldera, in search of political peace, pardoned the participants in the previous (1992) coup attempt, allowing some to return to the country from political exile abroad and others to exit the prison system. Reentering political life, these leaders began a populist mobilization effort that soon saw the emergence of former coup leader Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías as spokesman and eventually caudillo leader of the movement. The message of these populist groups, focused on the economic difficulties of the country, the growing poverty and shrinking opportunities for the urban poor, the high levels of visible government corruption especially in the pre-Caldera era, and the general dissatisfaction with ineffective government bureaucracies found a sympathetic audience.


In the elections of 1998, Hugo Chávez Frías and his Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR) party won against a weak and fragmented opposition, inaugurating a new era in Venezuelan political history. The subsequent Chávez regimes have been characterized by multiple challenges, in particular an aggressive opposition movement that provoked exceptionally contentious political mobilizations among supporters and opponents of the government. Each cycle of crisis concluded with some form of electoral contest in which the Chávez coalition of supporters and the opposition parties attempted to use the electoral process to determine which group would control the country. Since 1998 the Chávez parties have continuously revised and reformed the formal rules of government through constitutional change (approving a new constitution in 1999) and legislation, each cycle increasing the control of the government and the president over economic, social, and political structures, enterprises, and policies. Although an attempted coup in 2002 almost succeeded, after a brief interlude Chávez loyalists in the military returned the caudillo to power. By the close of 2006, the Chávez regime had captured all of the legislative seats in the national congress, virtually all of the state and local political positions, and almost all of the significant appointments in the judiciary and other significant government agencies.

The key aspects of this early twenty-first-century transformation of Venezuela included a redistribution of government revenue toward the poor, especially in the main urban centers, through an extensive network of social, educational, health, and nutrition programs, each designed to provide opportunities or subsidies to the less economically self-sufficient sectors of the population. Although much controversy surrounded the effectiveness of these programs, they succeeded in demonstrating the commitment and engagement of the Chávez government with the popular classes and distributed a variety of tangible benefits to a significant proportion of the less privileged sector of the population. At the same time, as has been characteristic of earlier Venezuelan regime changes, the new Chávez government removed much of the top level of middle-class technocrats, bureaucrats, and political appointees and replaced them with Chávez loyalists, thereby creating a new group within the highly prosperous upper-middle class. In addition, the Chávez administration favored those economic enterprises (public or private) that supported the regime and its objectives and punished the less supportive. The Chávez government also focused on control of all significant sectors of the economy through the nationalization of previously privatized enterprises such as the national telephone company (CANTV) and Caracas' privately held electric utility (Electricidad de Caracas). In addition, international companies operating in Venezuela have found regulations and various forms of profit sharing increasingly burdensome. In the case of international petroleum companies, the participation of the Venezuelan government in the ownership and profits of the enterprises grew dramatically.

Opposition actions such as the work stoppages in December 2001, an attempted coup in April 2002, and another work stoppage focused on PDVSA (the state oil monopoly), though effective for short periods, succeeded mostly in damaging the economy and creating an opportunity for the Chávez regime to take control of key economic institutions. A recall referendum in August 2004 designed to remove Chávez from office failed in spite of strong mobilization by anti-Chávez forces, as Chávez achieved a 59 percent endorsement in the voting. However, the controversy over voting irregularities and possible reprisals against those signing the petition in favor of a referendum further divided the population between pro- and anti-Chávez forces. In the elections of December 2006, Chávez won about 60 percent of the vote over a strong candidate with consolidated support from the main opposition parties. As each of the cycles of challenge and response to the Chávez regime has played out, the victorious Chávez forces have followed their victories with continued expansion of controls over most aspects of Venezuelan political and economic life, including the media, labor, education, universities, agriculture, and both domestic and international business enterprise. At the end of January 2007, the Chávez-controlled legislature authorized the president to rule by decree for eighteen months. The Chávez regime soon took control of the political process, the courts, most of the media, the central bank, foreign trade and commerce, and the national oil company. Many observers commented on the authoritarian style of governance; nonetheless, the Chávez regime preserved all the forms, if little of the substance, of democratic government.

The transformations in Venezuela initiated by the Chávez regimes in the early twenty-first century built on two primary elements: The first resulted from the country's extreme dissatisfaction with the exceptionally weak administrations in the latter years of the twentieth century, as the coalition of political parties and economic interests that had sustained the democratic system established in 1958 fragmented. The second relied on the rapid rise in oil prices during the first years of the twenty-first century, which created windfall revenue to support the wide-ranging program of nationalizations, subsidy programs for the poor, reorganization of government agencies, extensive public works, and an aggressive nationalist foreign policy built primarily around anti-Americanism and hostility to the free-trade globalization agenda promoted by the United States. The ambitious international policies pursued by the Venezuela government during these years often involved substantial investments in subsidized oil sales to ideologically aligned partners in Latin American and Cuba, as well as an aggressive anti-American campaign to realign Venezuela with countries in the Middle East hostile to the United States, U.S. trading rivals such as the Soviet Union and China, and Latin American coalitions opposed to U.S. free trade initiatives. These efforts, though garnering some sympathy from those nations benefiting from Venezuelan oil subsidies and other commercial transactions, did not create the international leadership position the Chávez regime sought. Although the Chávez revolution appeared well established by early 2007, its long-term success remained in question as the dramatic program initiatives and major reorganization of the economy remained somewhat ad hoc, relying on the continued availability of large surplus revenue from historically high international petroleum prices. This remarkable inflow of revenue gave Venezuela strong financial reserves, but at the same time created a rapid consumer boom, significant and persistent inflation, a need for price and currency controls, a decline in international investment, and concerns about the sustainability of the many initiatives and programs launched by the Chávez regimes.

See alsoAndueza Palacio, Raimundo; Betancourt, Rómulo; Bolívar, Simón; Boves, José Tomás; Cabildo, Cabildo Abierto; Caldera Rodríguez, Rafael; Caudillismo, Caudillo; Chávez, Hugo; Crespo, Joaquín; Delgado Chalbaud, Carlos; Federal War (Venezuela 1859–1863); Ferdinand VII of Spain; Gallegos, Rómulo; Gil Fortoul, José; Gómez, Juan Vicente; Gran Colombia; Guyana; Guzmán Blanco, Antonio Leocadio; Herrera Campins, Luis; Larrazábal Ugueto, Wolfgang; Latin American Free Trade Association (LAFTA); Leoni, Raúl; Liberalism; Llanos (Venezuela); López Contreras, Eleázar; Lusinchi, Jaime; Medina Angarita, Isaías; Miranda, Francisco de; Monagas, José Gregorio; Monagas, José Tadeo; Páez, José Antonio; Pérez, Carlos Andrés; Pérez Jiménez, Marcos; Soublette, Carlos; Spain; Universidad Central de Venezuela; Vargas, José María.


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                                         John V. Lombardi

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