Venezuela was among the first countries colonized by the Spaniards due to Christopher Columbus’ voyages into the Americas in 1492. A Spanish expedition conducted along the country’s northern coast in 1499 caused them to name it “Venezuela”, because the explorers compared it to Venice (particularly because many of the indigenous tribes’ homes were built over water).
Formal Spanish colonization of Venezuela began in 1522. Slaves were eventually brought in from Africa, gold and silver mines were developed in the country’s interior, and in time, agriculture (especially cacao beans and livestock) became income producers (cacao becaming the country’s major export by the 1700s).
With turmoil in Spain (triggered by Napoleon’s conquest of that country in the early 1800s), revered Venezuelan leader Simón Bolívar won independence for that country from Spain in 1821 (along with neighboring countries Colombia, Panama and Ecuador). Throughout the 19th century, Venezuela, like other Latin countries went through periods of turmoil and rebellions.
By 1918, the country’s agriculturally-based economy was transformed when oil was discovered, and became the country’s leading export by 1929. In time, oil helped modernize the country, with democracy taking hold by the late 1950s (after periods of military dictatorship). After more economic ups and downs (including IMF-imposed reforms in the 1980s, a coup attempt in 1992, and a banking crisis in 1994), leftist military leader Hugo Chávez (a former paratroop lieutenant-colonel) was elected into the presidency in 1999.
During his tenure, which lasted until his death in 2013, Chávez nationalized a number of local industries; aligning his government politically with countries like Cuba, Libya, Iran, and Russia; and used state-controlled oil revenues to fund social programs that benefitted the poor. Between 2004 and 2010, for example, the state oil company PDVSA contributed $61.4 billion to the government’s social development projects. In addition, Chávez launched an agreement called Petrocaribe – which provided oil to various Latin and Caribbean countries under generous payment terms. Perhaps the largest beneficiary of Petrocaribe is Cuba, which uses the cheap oil provided by Venezuela to shore up its beleaguered economy.
With Chávez passing away in March 2013 due to his lost bout with cancer, his Vice President, Nicolás Maduro temporarily took power until he was formally elected president himself a month later. Due to questionable economic policies carried out by both Chávez and Maduro, coupled with relatively low oil prices and high inflation, the country’s fiscal stability is anything but certain. Over 780,000 tourists visited the country in 2012, which is dwarfed by neighboring Colombia (which had over 2 million visitors that same year), and the Caribbean island of the Dominican Republic (which attracted over 4 million tourists in 2012). Those who visit the country tend to go to Caracas (the country’s business center) and Margarita Island (a popular Caribbean tourist enclave). With oil production long being a priority to the Venezuelan government, there is much room for growth in the country’s tourism sector (especially within its lengthy Caribbean coastline).