First Spanish settlements on the Caribbean coast (in Venezuela and Colombia) in 1523 and 1525, but did not colonize east of Venezuela.
Spanish set up governments to control new colonies. Bogotá became the capital of Colombia, Quito became Ecuador’s capital, and Caracas became Venezuela’s capital.
The Spanish located these cities where Native Americans already had settlements. The settlements were inland, in higher elevations, where the climates are milder than on the tropical coasts.
Venezuela was ruled from Peru.
In the 1700s, Spain placed Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia under a single government located at Bogotá.
Thousands of Native Americans died from European diseases because they had no immunity against illness.
Other Native Americans were forced to work for the Spanish under a system called encomienda.
The encomiendas provided workers for Spanish mines and for large estates called haciendas. Haciendas were plantations that grew coffee, tobacco, sugarcane and other cash crops or were cattle ranches located on the Llanos. The hacienda system included African slaves (most were in Venezuela).
Native Americans in remote regions (Venezuela’s Llanos and the rain forests of eastern Ecuador and Colombia) came under the control of Roman Catholic missionaries who tried to convert them to Christianity.
In 1808, French ruler Napoleon invaded and conquered Spain. Spain was unable to fight the French and rule its colonies in South America. Some of the colonists in South America used this as an opportunity to fight for independence from Spain.
Overthrow of Colonial Rule
Ecuadorans rose up against Spanish rule in 1809, followed by Colombians and Venezuelans. A long war followed between those who wanted to remain loyal to Spain and those who wanted independence.
After Spain regained control from France in 1814, Spain’s King sent troops to South America to try and restore Spanish Control.
Argentine general José de San Martín lead the resistance in the south and Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar led the revolt in the north.
Simón Bolívar united Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador to form an independent republic called Gran Colombia and became its first president.
The Spanish forces were defeated in 1823.
Gran Colombia broke apart after Simón Bolívar’s death in 1830. Ecuador and Venezuela became independent countries, and Colombia and Panama remained united until they each became independent in the early 1900s.
Independence and self-government did not bring democracy and peace. Wealthy landowners competed with wealthy business people to control the government.
Conflict over the role of the Roman Catholic Church added to the unrest.
Colombia and Venezuela fought civil wars.
Throughout history, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela had military or civilian leaders that ruled as dictators.
The political and social challenges that Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela struggled with after independence continued through most of the twentieth century. Venezuela did not see a peaceful transfer of power until 1969. The other countries experienced similar issues and challenges after independence.
In 1891, the British gave limited self-government to Guyana and Suriname. In 1953, all colonists were given the right to vote and allowed to elect a legislature. Guyana became independent in 1966.
The colonists in Dutch Guiana were given the right to vote in 1948 and became self-governed in 1953. The colony became the independent country of Suriname in 1975.
The people of French Guiana became French citizens and were given the right to vote in 1848. French Guiana changed from a colony to an overseas department of the country of France in 1946, and has representatives in France’s national legislature.
The Tropical North’s lack of stable governments caused unrest and conflicts in and between each country.
Colombia: assassinations and other violence between political groups took around 200,000 lives between 1946 and 1964. During the 1960s and 1970s, small rebel groups attacked throughout the country because they wanted to overthrow the government.
Ecuador: government has not maintained control over its remote region, which lies in the Amazon Basin to the east of the Andes. Peru took some land in the 1940s, causing the two countries to fight until a settlement was reached in 1968. Tensions arose again between Ecuador and Colombia after Colombian forces attacked a Colombian rebel camp in Ecuador’s territory. In 2010, Colombia accused Venezuela of allowing Colombian rebels to live in its territory (war almost broke out over this).
Guyana: independence renewed an old border dispute with Venezuela that was finally settled in 2007. Another border dispute arose between Guyana and Suriname that was finally settled in 2007. Years of political and social unrest took place as African and South Asian populations competed for power.
Suriname: unrest when the military removed civilian leaders in 1980 and again in 1990. Rebel groups of Maroons (descendents of escaped slaves) disrupted the county’s bauxite mining in an effort to overthrow the government. The army responded by killing thousands of Maroon civilians, while thousands more fled to safety in French Guiana.