At the time of the Spanish exploration of Venezuela in the 15th century, the region was inhabited by Carib and Arawak Indians. The coast of Venezuela was first sighted by Columbus in 1498 during his third voyage to the New World. He reached the region of the Orinoco River delta and explored the coast to the north, where he found pearls. Alonso de Ojeda in 1499 sailed along the coast and into Lake Maracaibo. He called the region Venezuela.

The Spanish established a few coastal settlements in the early 16th century. Methodical exploration was begun by Germans in 1529 after Charles I of Spain granted a charter for much of the region to a German banking firm. The Germans killed many Indians and enslaved others. The charter was revoked in the 1550's, and the Spaniards resumed colonization. Santiago de Léon de Caracas, founded in 1567, soon became the capital of the colony.

The colony became the captaincy-general of Caracas in 1731. In 1740 it became part of the viceroyalty of New Granada, which also included Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador. Venezuela remained part of New Granada until 1777, when it was made an independent captaincy-general, directly under the Spanish monarchy.

Agitation for independence from Spain began early in Venezuela. An unsuccessful revolt in 1806 was led by Francisco de Miranda of Caracas. In 1810 the citizens of Caracas deposed the governor because he recognized Napoleon's brother as king of Spain. With Miranda as supreme military commander, Venezuela proclaimed its independence in 1811, but Spain regained control in 1812.

Venezuela's permanent freedom from Spain was assured when Simón Bolívar, also of Caracas, defeated Spanish forces at Carabobo in 1821. Venezuela for a time was part of Greater Colombia, Bolívar's confederacy, but peaceably separated from it under the leadership of José Antonio Páez. Venezuela declared its independence from Greater Colombia on September 22, 1830. Páez, elected Venezuela's first president, retained effective political control until 1846. The country was then ruled by a succession of dictators and was often torn by revolt.

Meanwhile, Venezuela and Great Britain were disputing the boundary separating Venezuela and British Guiana (now Guyana). British colonists pushed into territory west of the Essequibo River (claimed by Venezuela as the boundary), and in 1841 Britain declared that its colony reached to the mouth of the Orinoco River. In 1894 Venezuelan troops marched into the disputed territory. In 1899 an arbitration tribunal awarded a major portion of the territory to Britain, but granted the area around the mouth of the Orinoco to Venezuela.

Juan Vicente Gómez became dictator in 1908 and ruled for 27 years. Although ruthless in suppressing opposition, he established internal peace. Gómez restored economic prosperity, aided the development of the oil industry, and paid all foreign debts. After his death Eleazar López Contreras served as president, 1935–41. Under his democratic regime prosperity increased and improvements were made in education and public health.

A revolution in 1945 brought Rómulo Betancourt to power as provisional president. A constitution adopted in 1947 provided for the election of the chief executive by direct popular vote. In 1948 a military junta seized power. One of the army leaders was proclaimed president in 1952. A revolution in 1958 forced the junta out of power.

Elections were held in December, 1958, and Betancourt was returned to the presidency for a five-year term. He introduced an agrarian reform program in 1960. The new administration was plagued by political unrest and Communist terrorist activities. Nevertheless, peaceful elections were held in 1963. In the late 1960's, the country became politically and economically stable. In the 1970's, the government nationalized many industries, and oil production brought prosperity. The election of 1983 marked 25 years of democratic rule in Venezuela; then one of the longest such periods in Latin American history.

Coups staged in February and November, 1992, were quickly put down. The leader of one coup, Hugo Chavez, was briefly jailed but was elected president in 1998, promising to make populist changes to the economy and to write a new constitution. Chavez's party swept elections for the constitutional assembly in 1999. A coup in 2002 only briefly removed Chavez from power.