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Free, Fair, & Regular Elections: Country Studies - Venezuela

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 5 Political Rights, 5 Civil Liberties (Partly Free)


Venezuela, which borders on the Caribbean Sea in the northern part of the South American continent, is the world's 33rd-largest country in terms of area (912,050 square kilometers) and the continent's sixth largest. In 2006, Venezuela's population was 27 million. Venezuela is also a major oil producer (in 2006, it was the world's ninth-largest oil producer and the sixth-largest oil exporter). Trade in oil with the United States has been significant. As of 2006, approximately 11 percent of U.S. oil imports were from Venezuela, constituting 60 percent of Venezuela's oil exports. Its economy has recorded several years of growth due to increases in oil prices, but still reflects a high disparity between rich and poor. In 2006, Venezuela ranked 77th ($6,070) for gross national income (GNI) per capita, but only 108th ($7,440) for GNI measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), which takes into account inflation, among other factors.


Venezuela's history since independence from Spain in 1811 has reflected the region's general political culture of caudillismo (strongman rule). Starting in 1958, Venezuela emerged as one of the region's few strong democracies at a time when military dictatorship was prevalent. As the region moved back toward democracy, however, Venezuela moved in an opposite direction. Hugo Chavez, who was elected president in 1999, instituted a new constitution allowing him to amass a great deal of power. In December 2006, Chavez won a contested presidential election in an atmosphere of expanding authoritarian control.


The Garden of Eden

When Christopher Columbus landed on the Venezuelan coast on his third transatlantic voyage in 1498, he mistook it for an island. Struck by its beauty, he believed that he had discovered the Garden of Eden. A year later, the explorers Alfonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci, realizing it to be terra firma, set out to explore South America. Vespucci called its northernmost territory Venezia (little Venice) because the indigenous practice of building houses on piles above the water reminded him of his native Italian city.

Venezuela's history since independence from Spain in 1811 has reflected the region's general political culture of caudillismo (strongman rule).

In 1522, Venezuela became the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in South America. Yet it held little interest for the Spanish authorities since it had few of the mineral riches they sought. In addition, the small and dispersed indigenous population (unconnected to the major Meso-American civilizations) strongly resisted forced labor. By the late 16th century, Venezuela had become a key agricultural producer, initially of products such as wheat and tobacco. Beginning in the early 17th century, cocoa became Venezuela's chief export, the production of which increased the demand for African slaves. Venezuela's agricultural productivity helped to establish the colony as a key trading post for Spain's principal competitors, the Dutch, English, and French. The colony's growing prosperity led Spanish authorities to establish Venezuela as a captaincy general in 1777, with Caracas as its capital, thus according the colony a greater degree of autonomy. Like most Spanish colonies, Venezuela had a highly stratified social structure, with several main groupings: peninsulares (Spanish settlers) and criollos (descendants of Spanish heritage); white Canary Islanders transplanted to Venezuela as laborers; pardos or mestizos (those of mixed race), comprising half the population; African slaves and their descendants, comprising approximately 20 percent of the population; and last, Indians, comprising approximately 10 percent of the population.

The Fight for Independence

White Venezuelans chafed for a century at the imposition of Spanish control over their trade. In 1810, elites belonging to the Caracas City Council overthrew the governor and declared home rule, establishing themselves as the ruling junta. In 1811, the junta declared Venezuelan independence from Spain, and a constitution was drafted in December of the same year. Yet the First Republic was not widely supported; those in other major cities, and especially the owners of Venezuela's large estates, opposed the revolt. At this point, Simon Bolivar, an orphan of high criollo heritage, took hold of the independence movement and led a successful war for independence. In 1821, the constitution of the Republic of Gran Colombia was signed, joining Venezuela with Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador, and was finally recognized as independent by Spain in 1821. The Republic remained united until 1830, when General Jose Paez, a Venezuelan nationalist, withdrew support and established Venezuela as a sovereign country.

Simon Bolivar, an orphan of high criollo heritage, took hold of the independence movement and led a successful war for independence.

The Century of Caudillismo

Under a system of limited suffrage, General Paez was elected president twice under the 1830 constitution. After the devastation of the wars for independence (which killed approximately 800,000 people), Paez returned economic stability to Venezuela with the introduction of coffee as the country's chief crop. He also tried to improve conditions for the lower classes. However, Paez failed to institutionalize his own constitution. Hoping to encourage stability, Paez chose his Liberal Party rival, General Jose Tadeo Monagas, as his successor in 1846, who then promptly exiled Paez. Monagas abolished slavery in 1854, but otherwise he is responsible for reinforcing caudillismo. Monagas's constitution of 1857 sought to establish a family dynasty through his brother, although the regime was soon ousted. Paez returned in 1861 to take control for two years, but also in an authoritarian manner. He was later exiled and died in New York. The century of caudillismo had few respites. The long military rule of General Juan Vicente Gomez (1908–35) was particularly severe. He destroyed all political opponents, appointed all members of the puppet legislature, and made the constitution a personal tool for control.

Juan Vicente Gomez

From Democratic Revolution Back to Dictatorship

A student revolt in Caracas in 1928, though easily crushed, was an important touchstone for a generation of young leaders whose imprisonment and exile forged common bonds. Gomez's death in 1935 led to a brief period of more competitive politics, with a new constitution in 1936 and the freeing of political prisoners. However, the president, General Eleazar Lopez Contreras, feared the loss of political control and soon stifled most organized political opposition. This did not stop former student leaders from forming a new social democratic party, Accion Democratica (Democratic Action, or AD), which achieved a strong showing in municipal elections in 1943. When the government tried to alter the results of the 1944 congressional election, a reform-minded group in the military, called the National Patriotic Union, carried out a coup. It asked Romulo Betancourt, AD's leader, to lead the new junta with the aim of transitioning to democracy. Local, parliamentary, and presidential elections were held under a new electoral law guaranteeing universal suffrage for the first time. AD candidates won large majorities at all levels, and the party adopted a radical reform agenda (such as a 50 percent tax on oil profits, land reform, and universal public education). Threatened by the far-reaching agenda of the AD-led government, Venezuela's strong conservative political forces organized another coup in 1948 that reversed the progressive changes and plunged the country into a 10-year period of brutal dictatorship under General Marcos Evangelista Perez Jimenez.


A New Lease on Democracy

In 1958, an aborted coup, signaled by the bombing of the capital by military dissidents in the air force, set off a nationwide general strike under the leadership of the National Patriotic Union (an umbrella group encompassing AD and other leftist groups), which had organized a united political structure underground. President Jimenez was forced to leave office, although he took with him the entire state treasury.

The democratic constitution of 1945 was restored. Free elections with universal suffrage were held under a pact that required all of the country's parties, left and right, to work together afterward no matter who won. Betancourt won the presidential election and was inaugurated early in 1959, initiating a period of democratic civilian rule that was unprecedented in the country. Initially, AD's reform agenda was tempered by the experience of 1946–48. Instead of radical measures, it sought to maintain a consensus. Still, that consensus included nationalizing the oil industry, instituting agrarian reform, carrying out public works and welfare programs, introducing universal public education, and initiating public-private industrial initiatives. Betancourt pointed to these achievements against the violent and brutal regimes imposed in neighboring Cuba by Fidel Castro and in the Dominican Republic by Rafael Trujillo, both of whom made attempts to overthrow his government. Betancourt's commitment to democratic rule resulted in a policy known as the Betancourt Doctrine, which stated that Venezuela would not recognize regimes that came to power by violence or by coup.

From Strong Democracy to Weak

The AD candidate, Raul Leoni, easily won the 1964 presidential election, but a split of more left-leaning members in the party allowed Rafael Caldera, the longtime leader of the Social Christian Party (COPEI), to win the presidency in 1968. He is known for breaking with the Betancourt Doctrine and establishing relations with Soviet bloc and Latin American dictatorships. From 1969 to 1993, power alternated between AD and COPEI.

AD and COPEI used the periodic increases in oil prices to carry out a huge expansion of the public sector, including state-owned industry. Oversight was not strong enough to stem the rise of public sector corruption. The issue of corruption was particularly salient during the presidential terms of AD leader Carlos Andres Perez, first in the mid-1970s, when he nationalized foreign oil and steel companies, and then from 1989 to 1993, when he reversed course and implemented a conservative IMF-driven economic policy during a time of economic downturn. There were two coup attempts during his administration, one by Hugo Chavez, then a low-level military officer. Neither succeeded, but both damaged the president's legitimacy. In 1993, Perez was impeached for corruption and removed from office. Former president Rafael Caldera won the next election as the leader of a broad coalition called National Convergence, but he was unable to quell a growing political tide of discontent.

Hugo Chavez

The "New" Bolivarian Revolution

In the political vacuum of the mid-1990s, Hugo Chavez reemerged and was elected president in December 1998 on an antiestablishment, anticorruption, and antipoverty platform, which he called the Fifth Republic Movement (intended to succeed the Fourth Republic initiated in 1959). After assuming office in February 1999, he quickly called for elections to form a new constitutional assembly, filled with mainly his supporters, to revise the constitution. The new 1999 constitution, which was approved in a referendum in December 1999 and entered into effect in December 2000, broadened the president's powers by increasing the presidential term from five to six years and allowing for a second presidential term. It also replaced the bicameral legislature with a unicameral one. Controlled by Chavez supporters, the legislature gave the president increased power to enact laws by decree, without parliamentary approval or debate. In effect, Chavez has used his powers to take control of the state, the judiciary, the economy, and, of course, the electoral commission.

Opposition to Chavez's regime grew. In April 2002, between 400,000 and 600,000 protesters marched in Caracas to demand Chavez's resignation, during which time nearly 20 people were killed when gunfire erupted.

Chavez's recent reelection has emboldened him to announce the nationalization of the electricity and communications industries (heavily invested in by American companies) and to declare his intention to build a socialist regime under the Cuban banner of "socialismo o muerte" (socialism or death).
Chavez was taken into military custody, and Pedro Carmona, a business leader, became the interim president. On April 14, however, military personnel sympathetic to Chavez returned him to power. In the end, Chavez resumed his post strengthened. After Chavez's reinstatement, the opposition called for a referendum to determine his tenure in office. Chavez won over 50 percent of the vote in the referendum, and civic organizations charged the electoral commission with manipulating the process and significantly altering the vote. Most opposition members boycotted the December 2005 parliamentary elections in the belief that there could not be a fair vote, causing pro-Chavez parties to dominate the legislature. In the December 2006 presidential election, Chavez won reelection easily over a candidate who was supported by several opposition parties. International monitors expressed concern over instances of voter intimidation and the manipulation of the voter registry.

The Entrenchment of Populist Dictatorship

As Chavez's powers have become more and more consolidated, he has more and more openly threatened his opponents. Leading political and civic leaders now face charges of treason and plotting to overthrow the republic for documenting human rights and electoral law violations. Their fate is in courts presided over by judges sympathetic to Chavez. Chavez has tried, unsuccessfully so far, to take over the Confederation of Venezuelan Labor—one of the country's most important independent institutions—by bribing members and allowing non-members to vote in internal union elections for leadership. The president and his allies publicly attack the independent media critical of Chavez as serving foreign interests. Recently, the government denied the renewal of a license to a popular independent television station in favor of a pro-Chavez one.

Chavez's recent reelection has emboldened him to announce the nationalization of the electricity and communications industries (heavily invested in by American companies) and to declare his intention to build a socialist regime under the Cuban banner of "socialismo o muerte" (socialism or death). Indeed, his main model is the Communist dictator Fidel Castro, whom he openly emulates and hopes to succeed as Latin America's leading revolutionary and anti-American figure. Chavez has thus poured money into elections in other Latin American countries, hoping to gain allies (Evo Morales of Venezuela has joined Chavez's alternative trading bloc, for example).

While Chavez's antipoverty efforts enjoy a high level of popularity, and independent polling confirms that his presidency is supported by the majority of the citizenry, his pose harkens back to the period of caudillismo politics. More important, the current level of abuse of presidential power means that Venezuelans' democratic rights have been diminished and that voters will not be given a real chance to change their minds.