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World > South America > Venezuela > Historical Highlights (Notes)

Venezuela - Historical Highlights (Notes)


HISTORY AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
At the time of Spanish discovery, the indigenous 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 more than 200 people were 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 lieutenant colonels led by future President 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. A second, equally unsuccessful coup attempt by other officers followed in November 1992. 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.

Constitutional Reforms
Current President Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998 on a platform that called for the creation of a National Constituent Assembly in order to write a new constitution for Venezuela. Chavez's argument that the existing political system had become isolated from the people won broad acceptance, particularly among Venezuela's poorest classes, who had seen a significant decline in their living standards over the previous decade and a half. The National Constituent Assembly (ANC), consisting of 131 elected individuals, convened in August 1999 to begin rewriting the Constitution. In free elections, voters gave all but six seats to persons associated with the Chavez movement. 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 a president may be re-elected to a single consecutive term. The president appoints the vice president. He decides the size and composition of the cabinet and makes appointments to it with the involvement of 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 for a maximum of two additional terms. 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 decided to boycott the election over concerns with electoral conditions.

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 justices are appointed by the National Assembly and 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 the expansion. 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' to challenge before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice actions they believe are illegal, 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.

Political Turmoil
In July 2000, following a long and controversial process, voters re-elected President Hugo Chavez of the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) in generally free and fair national and local elections. The MVR and pro-Chavez Movimiento a Socialismo (MAS) party won 92 seats in the 165-member legislature. Subsequent party splits reduced the pro-Chavez members to 84 seats. In April 2002, the country experienced a temporary alteration of constitutional order. When an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 persons participated in a march in downtown Caracas to demand President Chavez' 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. On April 14, military troops loyal to Chavez returned him to power. A national reconciliation process, with participation by the Organization of American States, 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. Other sectors of the economy also joined the work stoppage 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 sought a recall referendum to revoke the mandate of the president.

The Referendum Process
In September 2003, after an impasse in the National Assembly, the Supreme Court named a new board of directors for the National Electoral Council (CNE). After months of intense deliberations that included two conflictive signature drives overseen by the CNE, political riots over the government's disqualification of questionable signatures, and the intervention of international electoral observers, the CNE certified the opposition's results 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 the results of the referendum were marked by electoral fraud. 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 (there are currently two opposition governors). Chavez supporters also won a majority of the seats in the August 2005 municipal council (parroquias) elections. Pro-Chávez parties also won all 167 seats in the December 2005 National Assembly elections, after most opposition candidates withdrew one week before the elections over voter secrecy concerns. The final reports of the EU and OAS' respective 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 of the recommendations were not implemented. As a signatory of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, Venezuela has an obligation to hold 'periodic, free, and fair elections based on secret balloting and universal suffrage.'

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 key opposition parties. Though international observers found no evidence of fraud on election day, they did note concerns over abuse of government resources to support the Chávez campaign, voter intimidation tactics, and manipulation of the electoral registry.

In January 2007, President Chávez named a new Vice President (the former head of the CNE) and cabinet, drawing largely from deputies of the National Assembly. 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 over a broad range of society and subsequently received those powers for a term of 18 months. He called for a reform of the constitution to grant him indefinite re-election and a reorganization of the geographic boundaries of government. His supporters have indicated they expect to send a package of constitutional changes to a national referendum during 2007. He also announced plans to nationalize the telecommunications and electricity sectors, and take a majority share in many oil projects, all sectors with significant foreign investments.


Facts at a Glance: Geography - People - Government - Economy - Communications - Transportation - Military - Climate - Current Time - Ranking Positions - Venezuelan Bolivar Exchange Rates
Notes and Commentary: People - Economy - Government and Political Conditions - Historical Highlights - Foreign Relations - Relations with U.S.



Facts at a Glance
Geography
People
Government
Economy
Communications
Transportation
Military
Climate
Current Time
Ranking Positions
Venezuelan Bolivar Exchange Rates


Notes and Commentary
People
Economy
Government and Political Conditions
Historical Highlights
Foreign Relations
Relations with U.S.





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