The Venezuelan people comprise a combination of European, indigenous, and African heritages. About 85% of the population lives in urban areas in the northern portion of the country. While almost half of Venezuela's land area lies south of the Orinoco River, this region contains only 5% of the population.
The indigenous people ranged from agriculturists to less advanced groups living on islands offshore. The first permanent Spanish settlement in South America--Nuevo Toledo--was established in Venezuela in 1522. However, Venezuela was a relatively neglected colony in the 1500s and 1600s as the Spaniards focused on extracting gold from other areas of their empire in the Americas.
The Venezuelans began to grow restive under colonial control toward the end of the 18th century. After several unsuccessful uprisings, the country achieved independence from Spain in 1821 under the leadership of its most famous son, Simon Bolivar. Venezuela, along with what are now Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador, was part of the Republic of Gran Colombia until 1830, when it separated and became a sovereign country.
Much of Venezuela's 19th century history was characterized by periods of political instability, dictatorial rule, and revolutionary turbulence. The first half of the 20th century was marked by periods of authoritarianism--including dictatorships from 1908-35 and from 1950-58. The Venezuelan economy shifted from a primarily agricultural orientation to one centered on petroleum production and export after the first world war.
Since the overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958, Venezuela has enjoyed an unbroken tradition of civilian democratic rule marked by the military's withdrawal from direct involvement in national politics. Until 1993, when Rafael Caldera won the presidential election on a coalition "Convergence" ticket, the presidency had passed back and forth between the country's main political parties, Accion Democratica (AD) and the Christian Democratic (COPEI) Party.