This article is an edited transcript of The Recent History of Venezuela with Professor Micheal Tarver, available on History Hit TV.
Much of the economic crisis engulfing Venezuela today has been blamed on policies first implemented by former Socialist president and strongman Hugo Chávez and subsequently continued by his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
But to understand the power that these men and their supporters have been able to wield in Venezuela and its economy over the past two decades, it is important to understand the country’s historical relationship with authoritarian leaders, starting with its liberation from Spain in the early part of the 19th century.
The rule of the “caudillos”
The nation-state of Venezuela emerged under a strong, authoritarian type of government; even after Venezuelans broke off from the unified Latin American republic of Gran (Great) Colombia and created the Republic of Venezuela in 1830, they maintained a strong central figure. In the early days this figure was José Antonio Páez.
Paez had fought against Venezuela’s coloniser, Spain, during the Venezuelan War of Independence, and later led Venezuela’s separation from Gran Colombia. He became the country’s first post-liberation president and went on to serve in the position two more times.
Throughout the 19th century, Venezuela was ruled by these strongmen, figures who were known in Latin America as “caudillos”.
It was under this model of strongman leadership that Venezuela developed its identity and institutions, though there was some back and forth over how conservative this sort of oligarchy would become.
This back and forth escalated into an all-out civil war in the middle of the 19th century – what became known as the Federal War. Beginning in 1859, this four-year war was fought between those who wanted a more federalist system, where some authority was given to the provinces, and those who wanted to maintain a very strong central conservative base.
That time, the federalists won out, but by 1899 a new group of Venezuelans had come to the political fore, resulting in the dictatorship of Cipriano Castro. He was then succeeded by Juan Vicente Gómez, who was dictator of the country from 1908 to 1935 and the first of the modern 20th-century Venezuelan caudillos.
Democracy comes to Venezuela
And so, until 1945, Venezuela had never had a democratic government – and even when it eventually did get one it only stayed in place fora very brief period of time. By 1948, a military entourage had overthrown the democratic government and replaced it with the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez.
That dictatorship lasted until 1958, at which point a second democratic government came to power. The second time around, democracy stuck – at least, that is, until the election of Chávez as president in 1998. The Socialist leader immediately set about doing away with the old system of governance and implementing an alternative that would come to be dominated by his supporters.