The History of Venezuela

From Columbus to Chavez

Venezuela was named by Europeans during the 1499 Alonzo de Hojeda expedition. A tranquil bay was described as "Little Venice" or "Venezuela" and the name stuck. Venezuela as a nation has a very interesting history, producing notable Latin Americans such as Simon Bolivar, Francisco de Miranda, and Hugo Chavez.

Santa Maria, Columbus' Flagship. Andries van Eertvelt , painter (1628)

The First Europeans to see present-day Venezuela were the men sailing with Christopher Columbus in August of 1498 when they explored the coast of northeastern South America. They explored Margarita Island and saw the mouth of the mighty Orinoco River. They would have explored more had Columbus not taken ill, causing the expedition to return to Hispaniola. More »

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1499: The Alonso de Hojeda Expedition

Amerigo Vespucci, Florentine mariner whose name became "America". Public Domain Image

Legendary explorer Amerigo Vespucci did not only give his name to America. He also had a hand in the naming of Venezuela. Vespucci served as a navigator on board the 1499 Alonso de Hojeda expedition to the New World. Exploring a placid bay, they named the beautiful place "Little Venice" or Venezuela - and the name has stuck ever since.

Francisco de Miranda in Prison in Spain. Painting by Arturo Michelena. Painting by Arturo Michelena.

Simon Bolivar gets all the glory as the Liberator of South America, but he would never have accomplished it without the help of Francisco de Miranda, the legendary Venezuelan Patriot. Miranda spent years abroad, serving as a general in the French Revolution and meeting dignitaries such as George Washington and Catherine the Great of Russia (with whom he was, um, intimately acquainted).

Throughout his travels, he always supported independence for Venezuela, and tried to kick-start an independence movement in 1806. He served as the first President of Venezuela in 1810 before he was captured and handed over to the Spanish - by none other than Simon Bolivar. More »

Francisco de Miranda in Prison in Spain. Painting by Arturo Michelena. Painting by Arturo Michelena.

In 1806, Francisco de Miranda got sick of waiting for the people of Spanish America to rise up and throw off the shackles of colonialism, so he went to his native Venezuela to show them how it was done. With a small army of Venezuelan patriots and mercenaries, he landed on the Venezuelan coast, where he managed to bite off a small chunk of the Spanish Empire and hold it for about two weeks before being forced to retreat. Although the invasion did not begin the liberation of South America, it showed the people of Venezuela that freedom could be had, if only they were bold enough to seize it. More »

Venezuelan Patriots Sign the Act of Independence, April 19, 1810. Martín Tovar y Tovar, 1876

On April 17, 1810, the people of Caracas learned that a Spanish government loyal to the deposed Ferdinand VII had been defeated by Napoleon. Suddenly, patriots who favored independence and royalists who supported Ferdinand agreed on something: they would not tolerate French rule. On April 19, leading citizens of Caracas declared the city independent until Ferdinand was restored to the Spanish throne. More »

Simon Bolivar. Painting by Jose Gil de Castro (1785-1841)

Between 1806 and 1825, thousands if not millions of men and women in Latin America took arms to fight for freedom and liberty from Spanish oppression. The greatest of these was no doubt Simon Bolivar, the man who led the struggle to free Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. A brilliant General and tireless campaigner, Bolivar won victories in many important battles, including the Battle of Boyaca and the Battle of Carabobo. His great dream of a united Latin America is often talked about, but as yet unrealized.   More »

Simon Bolivar. Public Domain Image

In April of 1810, leading creoles in Venezuela declared a provisional independence from Spain. They were still nominally loyal to King Ferdinand VII, then being held by the French, who had invaded and occupied Spain. The independence became official with the establishment of the First Venezuelan Republic, which was led by Francisco de Miranda and Simon Bolivar. The First Republic lasted until 1812, when royalist forces destroyed it, sending Bolivar and other patriot leaders into exile. More »

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The Second Venezuelan Republic

Simon Bolivar. Martin Tovar y Tovar (1827-1902)

After Bolivar had recaptured Caracas at the end of his daring Admirable Campaign, he established a new independent government destined to become known as the Second Venezuelan Republic. It did not last long, however, as Spanish armies led by Tomas "Taita" Boves and his infamous Infernal Legion closed in on it from all sides. Even co-operation among patriot generals such as Bolivar, Manuel Piar, and Santiago Mariño could not save the young republic.

Manuel Piar. Public Domain Image

Manuel Piar was a leading patriot general of Venezuela's war for independence. A "pardo" or Venezuelan of mixed-race parentage, he was a superb strategist and soldier who was able to easily recruit from Venezuela's lower classes. Although he won several engagements over the hated Spanish, he had an independent streak and did not get along well with other patriot generals, especially Simon Bolivar. In 1817 Bolivar ordered his arrest, trial, and execution. Today Manuel Piar is considered one of Venezuela's greatest revolutionary heroes. More »

Taita Boves - Jose Tomas Boves. Public Domain Image

Liberator Simon Bolivar crossed swords with dozens if not hundreds of Spanish and royalist officers in battles from Venezuela to Peru. None of those officers was as cruel and ruthless as Tomas "Taita" Boves, a Spanish smuggler-turned-general known for military prowess and inhuman atrocities. Bolivar called him "a demon in human flesh." More »

Simon Bolivar. Public Domain Image

In mid-1819, the war for independence in Venezuela was at a stalemate. Royalist and patriot armies and warlords fought all across the land, reducing the nation to rubble. Simon Bolivar looked to the west, where the Spanish Viceroy in Bogota was practically undefended. If he could get his army there, he could destroy the center of Spanish power in New Granada once and for all. Between him and Bogota, however, were flooded plains, raging rivers and the frigid heights of the Andes Mountains. His crossing and stunning attack are the stuff of South American legend. More »

The Battle of Boyaca. Painting by J.N. Cañarete / National Museum of Colombia

On August 7, 1819, Simon Bolivar's army absolutely crushed a royalist force led by Spanish General José María Barreiro near the Boyaca River in present-day Colombia. One of the greatest military victories in history, only 13 patriots died and 50 were wounded, to 200 dead and 1600 captured among the enemy. Although the battle took place in Colombia, it had major consequences for Venezuela as it broke Spanish resistance in the area. Within two years Venezuela would be free. More »

Antonio Guzmán Blanco. Public Domain Image

The eccentric Antonio Guzman Blanco was president of Venezuela from 1870 to 1888. Extremely vain, he loved titles and enjoyed sitting for formal portraits. A great fan of French culture, he frequently went to Paris for extended periods of time, ruling Venezuela by telegram. Eventually, the people got sick of him and kicked him out in absentia. More »

Hugo Chavez. Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images

Love him or hate him (Venezuelans do both even now after his death), you had to admire Hugo Chavez's survival skills. Like a Venezuelan Fidel Castro, he somehow clung to power in spite of coup attempts, countless squabbles with his neighbors and the enmity of the United States of America. Chavez would spend 14 years in power, and even in death, he casts a long shadow over Venezuelan politics. More »

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Nicolas Maduro.

When Hugo Chavez died in 2013, his hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro took over. Once a bus driver, Maduro rose in the ranks of Chavez' supporters, reaching the post of Vice-President in 2012. Since taking office, Maduro has faced a host of serious problems including crime, a tanking economy, rampant inflation and shortages of basic goods. More »