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Cape Verde was discovered in 1456 by Luigi da Cadamosto, a navigator in the service of Portugal. Four years later, Diogo Gomes, a Portuguese explorer, visited the uninhabited islands, and colonists from Portugal began to settle there in 1462. People from W Africa were soon brought in as slaves, and by the 16th cent. the islands had become a shipping center for the slave trade. Later a Portuguese penal colony was established, and some of the convicts remained after completing their terms. Slavery was abolished on the islands in 1876. Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) was administered as part of the Cape Verde Islands until 1879. In 1951 the status of the islands was changed from colony to overseas province.

Although the nationalist movement appeared less fervent in Cape Verde than in Portugal's other African holdings, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) was founded in 1956 and many Cape Verdeans fought for independence in Guinea-Bissau. After the fall (Apr., 1974) of the Caetano regime in Portugal, widespread unrest forced the government to negotiate with the PAIGC, and independence for Guinea-Bissau (Sept., 1974) and Cape Verde (July, 1975) soon followed. Although the PAIGC was the sole legal party in both nations, a movement to unite the two was hindered by Cape Verde's nationalism and geographic remoteness. Plans for unity came to an abrupt end in 1980 after Guinea-Bissau's government (which was mostly Cape Verdean) was overthrown in a coup.

In 1981 the PAIGC was renamed the PAICV (African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde), a new constitution was adopted, and Arístides Maria Pereira (Cape Verde's first president) was reelected. In 1983, Cape Verde normalized relations with Guinea-Bissau, and in 1986, Pereira was unanimously reelected. Multiparty elections were held in 1991; the centrist Movement for Democracy party (MPD) took a majority of seats in the national assembly, and Antonio Mascarenhas Monteiro, an independent, defeated Pereira for the presidency. The MPD retained its majority in the 1995 assembly elections, and Mascarenhas Monteiro was reelected unopposed in 1996.

In the late 1990s the government continued economic reforms aimed at developing the private sector and attracting foreign investment. However, the nation has been plagued with a prolonged drought that has caused staggering economic problems and large-scale emigration, as well as the need to import most of its food. In 2001 the PAICV regained control of national assembly, and PAICV candidate Pedro Pires narrowly won the presidency. The PAICV retained control of the national assembly after the Jan., 2006, elections, and Pires was reelected the following month.