At the time of Spanish discovery, the natives in Venezuela were mainly agriculturists and hunters living in groups along the coast, the Andean mountain range, and the Orinoco River. The first permanent Spanish settlement in South America--Nuevo Toledo--was established in Venezuela in 1522. Venezuela was a relatively neglected colony in the 1500s and 1600s as the Spaniards focused on extracting gold and silver from other areas of the Americas.
Toward the end of the 18th century, the Venezuelans began to grow restive under colonial control. In 1821, after several unsuccessful uprisings, the country succeeded in achieving independence from Spain, 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 Venezuela separated and became a separate 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. In addition, the Venezuelan economy shifted after the First World War from a primarily agricultural orientation to an economy centered on petroleum production and export.
Since the overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958 and the military's withdrawal from direct involvement in national politics, Venezuela has enjoyed an unbroken tradition of civilian democratic rule. This earned Venezuela a reputation as one of the more stable democracies in Latin America. Until the 1998 elections, the Democratic Action (AD) and the Christian Democratic (COPEI) parties dominated the political environment at both the state and federal level.
The Caracazo and Popular Dissatisfaction
Venezuela's prevailing political calm came to an end in 1989, when Venezuela experienced riots in which 200 people were reportedly killed in Caracas. The so-called “Caracazo” was a response to an economic austerity program launched by then-President Carlos Andres Perez. Three years later, in February 1992, a group of army officers led by then-Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez mounted an unsuccessful coup attempt, claiming that the events of 1989 showed that the political system no longer served the interests of the people. Chavez was convicted of rebellion and jailed for his role in the coup, but was released in 1994. A second unsuccessful coup attempt by other officers affiliated with Chavez followed in November 1992, while Chavez remained in jail. A year later, Congress impeached Perez on corruption charges.
Deep popular dissatisfaction with the traditional political parties, income disparities, and economic difficulties were some of the major frustrations expressed by Venezuelans following Perez's impeachment. In December 1998, Hugo Chavez Frias won the presidency on a campaign for broad reform, constitutional change, and a crackdown on corruption.
President Chavez also had campaigned for the election of a National Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. The National Constituent Assembly (ANC), consisting of 131 elected individuals, convened in August 1999 to begin rewriting the Constitution. Venezuelans approved the ANC's draft in a national referendum on December 15, 1999. The political system described below is that defined by the 1999 Constitution.
The president is elected by a plurality vote with direct and universal suffrage. The term of office is 6 years, and subsequent to a national referendum to amend the constitution on February 15, 2009, there are no term limits for elected officials. The president appoints the vice president. He decides the size and composition of the cabinet and makes appointments to it, in consultation with the National Assembly. Legislation can be initiated by the executive branch, the legislative branch (either a committee of the National Assembly or three members of the latter), the judicial branch, the citizen branch (ombudsman, public prosecutor, and controller general) or a public petition signed by no fewer than 0.1% of registered voters. The president can ask the National Assembly to reconsider portions of laws he finds objectionable, but a simple majority of the Assembly can override these objections.
The National Assembly is unicameral, consisting solely of the Chamber of Deputies. Deputies serve 5-year terms, and may be re-elected indefinitely. These legislative agents are elected by a combination of party list and single member constituencies. When the Congress is not in session, a delegated committee acts on matters relating to the executive and in oversight functions. In December 2005 pro-government parties took all 167 seats in the National Assembly after opposition parties boycotted the election over concerns with electoral conditions. When President Chavez created the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in 2007, the “Podemos” party, previously affiliated with the government, refused to join the new umbrella party. Consequently, Podemos, with its 7 seats, is the only caucus in the National Assembly not affiliated with the government.
The Constitution designates three additional branches of the federal government--the judicial, citizen, and electoral branches.
The judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), which may meet either in specialized chambers (of which there are six) or in plenary session. The National Assembly appoints justices, who serve 12-year terms. Under the 1999 Constitution, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice is composed of 20 justices. The 1999 Constitution was amended in 2004, and the total number of justices was expanded by 12 to a total of 32. In December 2004, the National Assembly selected new judges to fill these new positions. The judicial branch also consists of lower courts, including district courts, municipal courts, and courts of first instance.
The citizens branch consists of three components--the attorney general ("fiscal general"), the "defender of the people" or ombudsman, and the comptroller general. The holders of these offices, in addition to fulfilling their specific functions, also act collectively as the "Republican Moral Council" (RMC). The RMC challenges actions they believe are illegal before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, particularly those which violate the Constitution. The holders of the "citizen power" offices are selected for terms of 7 years by the National Assembly.
The "Electoral Power," otherwise known as the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral or CNE), is responsible for organizing elections at all levels. Its five members are also elected to 7-year terms by the National Assembly. In the event of a hung vote in the National Assembly, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice can be called on to appoint the members.
In July 2000, voters re-elected President Hugo Chavez of the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR). The election occurred under the new constitution in elections that the international community found to be generally free and fair. The MVR and the pro-Chavez Movimiento a Socialismo (MAS) parties won 92 seats in the 165-member legislature. In April 2002, the country experienced a temporary alteration of constitutional order which included the temporary departure of Chavez from the presidency. When an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 persons participated in a march in downtown Caracas to demand President Chavez's resignation, gunfire broke out, resulting in as many as 18 deaths and more than 100 injuries on both sides. Military officers took President Chavez into custody, and business leader Pedro Carmona swore himself in as interim President. Less than two days later, military troops loyal to Chavez returned him to power. A national reconciliation process, with participation by the Organization of American States (OAS), the UN Development Program, and the Carter Center, was unsuccessful in stopping further conflict. Opposition leaders called a national work stoppage on December 2, 2002. Strikers protested the government and called for the resignation of President Chavez. The oil sector joined other sectors of the economy and effectively shut down all economic activity for a month. The OAS Permanent Council passed Resolution 833 on December 16, 2002, calling for a "constitutional, democratic, peaceful, and electoral solution" to the crisis in Venezuela. The strike formally ended in February 2003 as political opponents of Chavez changed tactics, focusing on a recall referendum to revoke the mandate of the president.
The Recall Referendum Process
For a recall to occur, the promoters must obtain signatures for 20% of all registered voters. Preparations for the recall were delayed by the lack of a quorum in the National Electoral Council (CNE). In September 2003, after an impasse in the National Assembly, the Supreme Court resolved the issue by naming a new CNE board of directors. After months of intense deliberations that included two conflictive signature drives overseen by the CNE, deep disagreements and occasional violence over the CNE’s disqualification of signatures on the petition, and the intervention of international electoral observers, the CNE certified that the opposition had obtained sufficient signatures to trigger the vote mechanism and set the date of the recall referendum for August 15, 2004. According to the CNE, President Chavez won 59% of the vote. His opponents immediately contested that electoral fraud marked the results of the referendum. However, international electoral observation missions carried out by the Organization of American States and the Carter Center found no indication of systemic fraud.
From Referendum to Elections
In the wake of the referendum victory, pro-Chávez candidates continued to sweep other electoral contests. Chávez supporters won 20 out of the total 22 state governor positions up for election in October 2004. Chavez supporters also won a majority of the seats in the August 2005 municipal council elections. Pro-Chávez parties won all 167 seats in the December 2005 National Assembly elections, after most opposition candidates boycotted the elections over voter secrecy concerns. The final reports of the European Union (EU) and OAS observer missions to the 2005 legislative elections, which were marked by record-high abstention, noted high levels of distrust in electoral institutions. The reports made specific recommendations to increase transparency and help voters regain the confidence necessary for participation. Most recommendations were not implemented.
A New Term and New Administration
President Chávez was re-elected by an overwhelming majority (63%) in the December 3, 2006 presidential elections. He defeated Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales, whose Un Nuevo Tiempo (UNT) party formed an alliance with several significant opposition parties. Though international observers found no evidence of election fraud, they did note concerns over abuse of government resources used to support the Chávez campaign, voter intimidation tactics, and manipulation of the electoral registry.
In January 2007, President Chávez announced a renewed effort to implement his vision of "21st Century Socialism" in Venezuela. He asked the National Assembly to grant him special constitutional powers via an "enabling law" to rule by decree with respect to a broad range of issues. The all-“chavista” Assembly granted those powers, for a period of 18 months. Chavez used that authority to take major steps to nationalize the telecommunications and electricity sectors, as well as to finalize a majority government share in many oil projects, all sectors with significant foreign investments.
On August 15, 2007, President Chávez proposed a package of reforms to the 1999 Constitution, including measures that allow indefinite presidential re-election, a reorganization of the geographic boundaries of government, and a redefinition of private property. On December 2, 2007, the proposed reforms were narrowly defeated in a public referendum after student groups, traditional opposition leaders, and former Chávez allies urged Venezuelans to reject the package. The vote was the first electoral loss for President Chávez since he assumed office and was seen as a rebuke of his efforts to consolidate greater power in the executive office. President Chavez has since signaled his intent to pass many of the changes defeated in the referendum by presidential decree. Indeed, Chavez organized a vote on a constitutional amendment to end term limits for all elected officials, which was approved on February 15, 2009.
Gubernatorial and mayoral elections were held nationwide in November 2008. These state and local elections were deemed largely free and fair, although electoral nongovernmental organizations noted some irregularities, such as prohibited election-day campaigning and extended polling hours in pro-government neighborhoods.
In the first months of 2009, the Chavez administration passed a series of new laws, including laws to centralize control over ports, roads, and airport; nationalize major industries; and strip the opposition mayor of Greater Caracas of authority and resources. The CNE announced May 27, 2009 that the 2009 elections for community council members would be delayed until at least 2010, as no elections would be held until the passage of a new election law.
Information by U.S. Department of State