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

 Venezuela Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016. Status: Partly Free. Freedom Rating: 5; Political Rights: 5, Civil Liberties: 5. 


After gaining formal independence from Spain in 1821, Venezuela's political history reflected Latin America's political culture of caudillismo (strongman rule). Starting in 1958, Venezuela emerged as a strong democracy during a period in Latin America when military dictatorship was prevalent. But in the 1980s and ‘90s, Venezuela’s two-party system was discredited by increasing corruption and growing economic inequality. In December 1998, Hugo Chávez, an ex-military officer whose coup attempt six years earlier had ended in failure, was elected president on a platform of radical change. Under Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” the country moved away from democratic standards and Chavez centralized power in the presidency. After 14 years in power, Chávez died of cancer in early 2013, leaving a legacy of political confrontation, authoritarianism, and overall economic decline. In a quickly held and disputed election, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolás Maduro, claimed victory by a narrow margin over an opposition coalition candidate. As Venezuela’s economy continued to worsen, Maduro cracked down on growing protests and imprisoned opposition leaders. Despite the repression, an opposition coalition won an overwhelming victory over Maduro’s Unified Socialist Party in December 2015 parliamentary elections. Maduro, however, has declared himself “in rebellion” against the new National Assembly, setting the stage for continued political conflict in the midst of a growing economic crisis. 

Venezuela, on the northern part of South America, is the continent's sixth largest country by area (and the world's 32nd largest) at 916,455 square kilometers. Its population is around 31 million (44th largest in the world). The economy is dominated by oil (in 2014, it was the twelfth largest oil-exporting nation in the world and the fourth largest oil exporter to the US). In recent years, the overall economy has declined significantly and poverty has greatly increased. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), from 2011 to  2014 Venezuela dropped from 33rd to 50th in world ranking in nominal GDP (from $382 billion to $202 billion), while per capita gross national income (GNI) had dropped to 102nd to $4,263 per annum. The collapse in world oil prices since then has put Venezuela’s economy in even further decline. Freedom House ranks Venezuela as “partly free” and over recent years its ratings have worsened in both political freedoms and civil liberties due to selective government enforcement of laws, increased control over the media, infringements on freedoms of association, assembly and expression, targeted prosecution of opposition members, and the lack of any checks on governmental power. 



The Garden of Eden 

When Christopher Columbus landed on Venezuela’s northern 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 the coast was the tip of a large land mass, used it to set out to explore South America. In 1522, Venezuela became the site of the first permanent Spanish settlement in South America, but the territory held little interest for the Spanish authorities since it lacked the mineral riches found further south. By the late 16th century, however, Venezuela had become a key agricultural producer of wheat and tobacco. In the early 17th century, the introduction of more labor-intensive cocoa production led to the increased importation of African slaves. Venezuela's agricultural productivity helped to establish the colony as a key trading post. As the colony's prosperity grew, Spanish authorities made Venezuela a separate Captaincy General in 1777, with Caracas as its capital. Like most Spanish colonies, Venezuela developed a stratified social structure: peninsulares (Spanish settlers) and criollos (descendants of Spanish heritage), who were the dominant class; white Canary Islanders who were brought to Venezuela as laborers; pardos or mestizos (those of mixed race) who comprised half the population; African slaves and their descendants, who were 20 percent of the population; and Indians, who were 10 percent.

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

The Fight for Independence 

White Venezuelans, especially in the capital, chafed for a century at Spain’s control over their governance and trade, but landowners in many of the regions remained loyal to the monarchy. In response to the installation of Napoleon’s brother Joseph on the Spanish throne, members of the Caracas City Council overthrew the governor in 1810, declared themselves a ruling junta loyal to the imprisoned King Ferdinand VII, and established home rule. In 1811, other members of the Council led by Simón Bolívar, wanting to go further, seized control of the junta, declared full independence from Spain and established Venezuela’s First Republic. This action began the wars of independence in Latin America. Initially, loyalists to Spain and then the forces of the restored King Ferdinand VII took the upper hand, until Bolívar led inspiring military victories in a neighboring colony (comprising Columbia, Equador, and Panama) and then Venezuela itself. He was elected “dictator” of the united territories, the Republic of Gran Columbia, whose independence Spain recognized in1823. As Bolívar continued the wars of liberation in Peru and Bolivia, the Republic of Gran Columbia was divided politically (between Bolivarians and liberals who opposed the “Liberator’s” insistence on a strong executive leader) and territorially (Venezuela sought to break free of the alliance). As Bolívar retreated from politics and died from tuberculosis, General Jose Paez, another hero of the wars of independence, withdrew Venezuela from Gran Columbia in 1830. 

The Century of Caudillismo

General Paez initiated a period of caudillismo, or strong-man rule. Under a system of limited suffrage, General Paez was elected president twice. After the devastation of the wars for independence, Paez returned some economic stability to Venezuela with the introduction of coffee as the country's chief crop. Hoping to encourage stability, Paez chose his Liberal Party rival, General Jose Tadeo Monagas, as his successor in 1846. Monagas promptly exiled Paez. Monagas abolished slavery in 1854, but he otherwise reinforced caudillismo and sought to name his brother as his successor, but he was soon ousted. Paez returned in 1861 to take control of the government for two years, but was exiled again in a coup and died in New York.

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. 

The century of caudillismo had few respites. The long military rule of General Juan Vicente Gomez (1908–35) was particularly severe. He brooked no political opponents, appointed all members of a puppet legislature, and made the constitution a personal tool for control. During this time, the discovery of oil resources propelled Venezuela’s economy to be the most successful on the continent.

Juan Vicente Gomez

From Democratic Revolution Back to Dictatorship

A student revolt in Caracas in 1928, although easily crushed, became an important touchstone for a group of young leaders whose imprisonment and exile forged common bonds. Gomez's death in 1935 led to a more liberal period with more competitive politics. A new constitution in 1936 was adopted and political prisoners were freed. A new president, General Eleazar López Contreras, soon tried to stifle political opposition, but the former student leaders formed a new social democratic party, Acción Democrática (AD), and achieved strong showings in municipal and congressional elections in 1943 and 1944. When López Contreras tried to alter the congressional results, a reform-minded group in the military called the National Patriotic Union carried out a coup and asked Acción Democrática's leader, Rómulo Betancourt, to head a new junta having the aim of transitioning to full democracy. Local, parliamentary, and presidential elections were held in 1946 and 1947 under a new electoral law that guaranteed universal suffrage for the first time in Venezuela’s history. AD candidates won large majorities at all levels running on a radical platform that included a 50 percent tax on oil profits, land reform, and introducing universal public education. Feeling threatened by the AD’s far-reaching agenda, Venezuela's conservative political forces organized another coup in 1948, led by General Marcos Evangelista Perez Jimenez, who reversed the progressive changes and plunged the country into a 10-year period of brutal dictatorship. 


As noted above, Venezuela’s history was dominated by caudillismo. Until the precedent-setting national and municipal elections of 1946–47, which established universal suffrage, elections for public office had limited the franchise through property and other restrictions. In 1958, after ten years of renewed dictatorship under General Pérez Jiménez, an aborted coup set off a nationwide general strike under the leadership of the National Patriotic Union, which encompassed liberal-minded military members, the opposition social democratic party Acción Democrática, and other groups. President Jimenez was forced into exile to the Dominican Republic, setting the stage for a return to democracy. 

A New Lease on Democracy

Venezuela’s Fourth Republic was established and restored the previous democratic constitution adopted in 1945. Free elections with universal suffrage were held under an agreement called the Punta Fijo Pact that required all of the country's parties, left and right, to work together regardless of the outcome. Rómulo Betancourt won the presidential election and was inaugurated early in 1959, initiating an unprecedented period of democratic civilian rule. Mindful of the previous backlash to its program, the AD leadership tried to achieve a political consensus around wide-ranging policies that included nationalizing the oil industry, modest agrarian reform, public works and welfare programs, universal public education, and initiating public-private industrial initiatives. Betancourt pointed to these achievements against the repressive left-wing and right-wing dictatorships imposed in neighboring Cuba by Fidel Castro and the Dominican Republic by Rafael Trujillo, both of whom made attempts to overthrow his government. He established what became known as the Betancourt Doctrine by which Venezuela refused to recognize regimes that came to power by violence or by coup.

From Strong Democracy to Weak 

The Acción Democrática candidate, Raul Leoni, easily won the 1964 presidential election, but a split by 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. From 1969 to 1993, power alternated between AD and COPEI. Both parties used periodic increases in oil prices to expand public sector spending, but oversight was not strong enough to stem the rise of public sector corruption. The issue became 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 during a period of oil-price reduction to implement an IMF-driven austerity policy. There were two coup attempts during his second administration, one in 1992 by a low-level military officer named Hugo Chávez. Neither succeeded, but both damaged the president's legitimacy. In 1993, near the end of his term, Perez was impeached for corruption and removed from office. Former president Rafael Caldera of COPEI 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 fueled by triple digit inflation and increasing levels of poverty.

Hugo Chavez

The "New" Bolivarian Revolution 

In the mid-1990s, Hugo Chávez re-emerged to lead a new radical party and he was elected president in December 1998 on an anti-establishment platform championing the poor. He claimed a mandate against puntafijoism (referring to the 1958 Punta Fijo pact establishing the Fourth Republic), which he said had created a rigged system benefitting the two main parties. He ushered in what he called the Fifth Republic Movement with the stated aim of creating a socialist state. Upon assuming office, he called elections to form a new constitutional assembly that were won by his supporters (known as “Chavistas”). A new constitution, approved in a referendum later that year, added a sixth year to the presidential term and allowed re-election. It also replaced the bicameral legislature with a unicameral one. The new legislature gave the president increased power to enact laws by decree, which over time Chávez used to take firm control of the state administration, judiciary, electoral commission, and ultimately much of the economy and broadcast media.

When large public demonstrations were organized in April 2002 to protest Chávez’s growing control, police repression prompted several military leaders to establish a temporary junta. A few days later, however, military officers sympathetic to Chávez returned him to power. After Chávez's reinstatement, the opposition gathered 3.2 million signatures in a petition campaign to force a referendum on his presidency. Held in August 2004, Chávez claimed victory with a reported 58 to 42 percent margin, but domestic and international monitoring organizations charged the electoral commission with significantly manipulating voter registries and altering the vote. Most opposition members boycotted the subsequent December 2005 parliamentary elections in the belief that there could not be a fair vote. Pro-Chávez forces, now consolidated in the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV),gained full dominance of the legislature. In the regularly scheduled December 2006 presidential election, Chávez claimed an easy re-election victory over a divided opposition.

Over time, Chávez took firm control of the state administration, judiciary, electoral commission, and ultimately much of the economy and broadcast media.

The Entrenchment of Populist Dictatorship 

Chávez’s stated model for governance was the communist dictator Fidel Castro, whom he emulated in both his revolutionary rhetoric and anti-American stances. Chávez allied Venezuela with Cuba and other countries with left-wing leaders from Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua to create the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas. Chávez also used increased oil revenues to fund election campaigns of left-wing candidates in other Latin American countries and to provide Cuba with large oil and financial subsidies. Domestically, Chávez consolidated his presidential powers, nationalized the communications and electricity industries by decree, and carried out large government subventions for the poor, including large housing projects. He also used control of the judiciary and national media to threaten and repress opponents. A December 2010 decree expanded broadcast restrictions to the internet and allowed government interception and monitoring of internet communications. A Law on Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination threatened non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with sanctions for receiving foreign money and hosting foreign visitors who criticized the government. With less success, Chávez tried to take over the Confederation of Venezuelan Labor — one of the country's last independent institutions — by bribing members and allowing non-members to vote in internal union elections for leadership. When this failed, Chávez supported the establishment of a rival front union federation.

Opposition Gathers Force

In the face of large student protests in 2009, Chávez brought 66 constitutional amendments to a public referendum. They included the elimination of presidential term limits and the institutionalization of key powers to rule without legislative authority. For the first time, Chávez lost a ballot, 51 to 49 percent (it was suspected the margin was larger). While he accepted the outcome, Chávez went about passing many of the provisions as laws in the rubber-stamp legislature. Chavez’s growing willfulness led the opposition, made up of diverse political parties and constituencies, to coalesce in a Unity Roundtable (MUD) ahead of parliamentary elections held in 2010. Tapping growing sentiment against the government for its authoritarianism and a declining economy, the MUD won 47 percent of the vote to 48 percent for the pro-Chávez PSUV.  But the PSUV was awarded a large majority of the seats in parliament, 98 out of 165, due to the structure of the electoral law, thwarting any challenge to Chávez’s presidential power.

For the 2012 presidential elections, the opposition MUD stayed intact. Henrique Capriles, a popular governor of the province encompassing Caracas, the capital, was chosen to challenge Chávez, who was seeking a third six-year term. The usual tactics were employed. Chávez increased public subsidies and programs for the poor, encouraged mob attacks on opposition rallies, and limited pro-Capriles advertising on national television to 3 minutes daily (while hours of news were devoted to the president). In the end, Chávez claimed a 55 percent to 44 percent victory, but international and domestic monitors continued to lodge complaints, as previously, about voter intimidation and electoral manipulations.

Soon after the election, Chávez announced he had a recurrence of stomach cancer, which was originally diagnosed in 2010. He went to Cuba for treatment in early December 2012, but his condition worsened. He returned to Venezuela but remained incapacitated and died on March 5, 2013. Prior to his death, Chávez publicly named his vice president, Nicolas Madura, to be his designated successor. But since his position as vice president was an appointed office, he was required to hold a new presidential election.

The election was held quickly on April 14 pitting Maduro against Capriles. Maduro used similar authoritarian tools as his predecessor during the campaign. The economy, however, was failing and the Maduro government had to devalue the currency by a third to combat triple-digit inflation. Capriles campaigned on a platform to fix the economy, reduce escalating crime rates, and end authoritarian rule. Maduro claimed a narrow victory over Capriles by 50.5 to 49.5 percent (a margin of 225,000 out of nearly 15 million votes cast). Large-scale protests challenged the outcome but were violently suppressed by police, resulting in seven deaths and hundreds injured. Although both domestic and international observers severely criticized the electoral process, the Electoral Commission and the Supreme Court confirmed the results and Maduro was inaugurated as Chávez’s successor six days after the election. The narrow victory, however, set the stage for the next 2015 parliamentary elections.

Current Issues

Despite the narrow margin of Maduro’s election and subsequent losses by the PSUV in key municipal elections, Maduro continued his confrontational stance towards the opposition. Two opposition members were expelled from the National Assembly on questionable election finance and corruption charges to give the PSUV a three-fifth majority to grant Maduro additional decree powers. The economy continued to worsen, however, with high rates of inflation, increasing unemployment, and widespread shortages of basic goods. Most public servants, such as teachers, earned just $15 a month. Crime rates also soared (Venezuela now has the worst violent crime rate in the Western Hemisphere) and corruption has become rampant (Venezuela ranked 161st out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2014 survey).

In these worsening economic and social conditions, Maduro grew more strident in his rhetoric by calling opposition leaders “fascists” and “traitors” and took more repressive actions, ordering police to attack public demonstrations. He had major opposition figures arrested and prosecuted for treason. As December 2015 parliamentary elections approached, international pressure prompted Maduro to release leading opposition figures from jail. A month before the election, the Organization of American States General Secretary, Luis Alegro, expressed strong concern over the government’s ability to manipulate the electoral process.

Maduro and the PSUV, however, could not stave off an overwhelming tide of opposition to its rule. Despite unfair conditions aimed at ensuring a pro-government result, Venezuelan voters gave the opposition MUD coalition an overwhelming victory. MUD won every region, tallied over 56 percent of the vote nationally. With three members elected from indigenous communities who said they would vote with the opposition, the MUD held a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly, allowing it to enact constitutional amendments and remove Maduro’s decree powers. The Electoral Commission, however, disqualified three opposition candidates on grounds of vote tampering and the disqualifications were upheld by the Supreme Court, creating an ongoing political crisis. The MUD announced that it would accept the court’s determination, but President Maduro still declared himself “in rebellion” against the new parliament and has exerted his decree powers to circumvent the National Assembly. OAS General Secretary Luis Allegro registered a strong protest to President Maduro against the government’s undemocratic actions (see links in Resources).

Starting in 1998, Venezuela experienced an increasing level of authoritarianism as Hugo Chávez carried out what he called a “Bolivarian Revolution.” Claiming the legacy of Venezuela’s “Liberator,” he said he would free the country from a system rigged in favor of economic and political elites to bring about socialist equality. While carrying out a number of programs to assist the poor, Chávez and his “Fifth Republic Movement” followers also tried to institute dictatorial powers and carried out increasingly failing economic policies. Since Chavez’s death, there has been growing public resentment to the government’s repression and a growing economic crisis. The overwhelming opposition victory in parliamentary elections against the ruling party, however, did not trigger a clear transition away from authoritarianism, as has been seen in some other countries (see, e.g., Poland Country Study in this section). While Venezuelan voters clearly used the December 2015 elections to re-assert their political voice in favor of restoring Venezuelan democracy, President Nicolas Maduro has used his control over the Supreme Court to thwart actions by the new National Assembly to protect the centralized powers instituted by his predecessor.

At the same time, the decline in oil prices in 2015–16 has worsened the country’s economic crisis — the worst in its history. There is a chronic shortage of supplies for basic foods, medicines, and other goods. The inflation rate reached monthly triple digit figures by the end of 2015 and as 2016 proceeded Venezuela faced the prospect of a general economic collapse. Maduro's response has been further and further repression as the opposition gained signatures for a referendum to oust the president. The severe political and economic situation poses a formidable test to Venezuela’s democratic coalition and the prospect of Venezuela’s democratic renewal.