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Elections for the National Assembly in December 2005 resulted in a completely pro-government legislature after opposition parties boycotted the polls over perceived bias by electoral authorities. In December 2006, President Hugo Chavez was easily reelected following a campaign in which most of the opposition decided to participate despite continued misgivings about the conduct of election officials. In the weeks following his reelection, Chavez announced that all pro-government parties would be merged and that the license of opposition television station RCTV would not be renewed.
The Republic of Venezuela was founded in 1830, nine years after independence from Spain. Long periods of instability and military rule ended with the establishment in 1961 of civilian rule and the approval of a constitution. Until 1993, the social-democratic Democratic Action Party (AD) and the Social Christian Party (COPEI) dominated politics under an arrangement known as the Punto Fijo pact. President Carlos Andres Perez (1989– 1993) of the AD was nearly overthrown by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez and other nationalist military officers in two 1992 coup attempts in which dozens of people were killed. Perez was subsequently impeached as a result of corruption and his inability to stem the social consequences of economic decline, which had coincided with lower oil prices beginning in the 1980s. Rafael Caldera, a former president (1969–1974) and founder of COPEI, was elected president in late 1993 as head of the 16-party National Convergence coalition, which included Communists, other leftists, and right-wing groups. With crime soaring, public corruption unabated, oil wealth diminishing, and the country facing its worst economic crisis in 50 years, popular disillusionment with politics deepened.
In the December 1998 presidential contest, Chavez made his antiestablishment, anticorruption, populist candidacy a referendum on the entrenched political elite, which was famous for its interlocking system of privilege and graft, but also for its consensual approach to politics. As the country’s long-ruling political parties teetered at the edge of collapse, their last-minute effort to unify behind Henrique Salas Romer as a consensus candidate was unsuccessful. Chavez won with 56 percent of the vote, and in February 1999, he took the reins of a country that ranked fifth in the world in terms of oil production.
A Constituent Assembly dominated by Chavez followers drafted a new constitution that strengthened the presidency and introduced a unicameral National Assembly. After Venezuelans approved the new constitution in a national referendum in December 1999, the bicameral Congress and the Supreme Court of Justice were dismissed and new national elections were called for May 2000. Although Chavez was reelected president, opposition parties won most of the country’s governorships, about half the mayoralties, and a significant share in the National Assembly. Nevertheless, that November, Chavez’s allies in the legislature granted him special fast-track powers that allowed him to decree a wide range of laws without parliamentary debate.
In April 2002, following the deaths of 19 people in a massive protest against the government, dissident military officers attempted to remove Chavez from office with backing from some of the country’s leading business groups. The provisional government appointed by the military also sought to dismiss the elected vice president and the National Assembly, but faced a reaction from troops still loyal to Chavez and an outburst of protests by pro-Chavez citizens. Chavez was reinstated and moved swiftly to regain control of the military by dismissing as many as 60 generals and placing staunch supporters throughout the upper reaches of the armed forces.
Following the coup attempt, the country was racked by protests from a broad spectrum of civil society. In October, an estimated one million Venezuelans marched in Caracas, demanding that Chavez call either early elections or a referendum on his rule. When he did not respond, opposition leaders called for a general strike that, while lasting 62 days, weakened their political position, failed to force the president from office, and damaged the economy. Nevertheless, anti-Chavez activists succeeded in gathering enough signatures to force a presidential recall vote. While fending off his opponents with legal maneuvers and intimidation tactics, Chavez introduced a bold program of social service initiatives, including urban health care and literacy programs, many with direct support from the government of Cuba.
Venezuela’s first-ever presidential recall referendum was held in August 2004, amid charges of ballot rigging. Although the opposition had collected more than three million signatures in favor of the recall bid, Chavez won with 58 percent of the vote. After the referendum, which was conducted in relative peace and characterized by a high turnout, opposition groups continued to insist that there was a large discrepancy between the official results and their own exit polls. Independent observers said that while there were credible reports of voter harassment, the problems did not appear to have affected the overall outcome. In the October 2004 regional and municipal elections, voters overwhelmingly backed pro-Chavez candidates.
Even as he faced high levels of street crime and unemployment, as well as an economy recovering from severe damage, Chavez continued to devote considerable attention to advancing his influence over the judicial system, the media, and other institutions of civil society. The National Assembly, controlled by Chavez supporters, approved a measure allowing it to remove and appoint judges to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, which had replaced the old Supreme Court in 1999 and controlled the rest of the judiciary. The legislation allowed Chavez to limit the tribunal’s independence and expanded its membership from 20 to 32 justices, who would be appointed by a simple majority vote in the legislature. In December 2004, a law giving the government control over the content of radio and television programs went into effect, with Chavez claiming that the “Venezuelan people have begun to free themselves from…the dictatorship of the private media.”
In 2005, Venezuela’s social services sector continued to boom, aided by thousands of Cubans brought in to staff key positions. Chavez also announced that he would bankroll a new Latin American television network called Telesur—with help from Argentina, Cuba, Brazil, and Uruguay—to counteract “the media dictatorship of the big international news networks.” In September, Chavez continued to curry favor in the region by signing a trade pact with nine Caribbean governments under which Venezuela would provide them with oil on favorable credit terms. That same month, the United States cited Venezuela, a major point of transshipment of illegal drugs, for its failure to live up to antinarcotics agreements.
Squabbles between the United States and Venezuela continued throughout 2006 over issues including large Venezuelan arms purchases, a supposed lack of cooperation in efforts to combat illegal drugs and terrorism, alleged assistance to favored political candidates in neighboring countries, and Chavez’s September remarks at the United Nations characterizing U.S. President George W. Bush as “the devil.” The growing antagonism drove that year’s contest for an open Latin American seat on the UN Security Council; Venezuela lost its bid for the seat but claimed to have successfully derailed the U.S.-supported candidacy of Guatemala when Panama emerged as the compromise candidate in November.
Elections for the National Assembly in December 2005 were conducted in an atmosphere of severe mistrust as opposition accusations of unfair practices by the National Electoral Council (CNE) arose once again, this time centered on perceived violations of the secrecy of the vote. A boycott movement gained steam in the days preceding the balloting, resulting in the election—by a mere 25 percent of eligible voters—of a National Assembly in which all 167 deputies were government supporters.
The December 2006 presidential election emerged as a more competitive contest than expected as the ideologically diverse opposition unified, with the exception of AD, behind the candidacy of former AD member Manuel Rosales, the governor of Venezuela’s wealthiest state, Zulia. Rosales, running under the banner of the Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Time) party, railed against high crime rates, the Chavez administration’s corruption, and Chavez’s giveaways of money and oil to favored foreign nations, but he also pledged to maintain generous social programs aimed largely at the poor. Though Rosales’s campaign garnered substantial support among wealthy Venezuelans and the disaffected middle class, most poorer Venezuelans continued to support Chavez, who had delivered material benefits to the lower classes, as exhibited by the gradually declining poverty rate. The tone of the campaign was hostile, with Chavez equating Rosales with “U.S. imperialism” and the discredited elites of the Punto Fijo era.
The Venezuelan media remained highly polarized, with most press outlets strongly supporting one candidate or the other and accusing opponents of fomenting violence. Despite many polls showing strong backing for the president, some opposition supporters were convinced that Rosales had an excellent chance in the election. Nevertheless, Chavez won handily, receiving 61 percent of the vote, to Rosales’s 38 percent, in balloting that generally proceeded without incident.
Few major government initiatives were rolled out prior to the election, as the declared move toward “twenty-first-century socialism” was put largely on hold during the campaign. New rules increasing taxes on oil production were approved, and the economy continued its strong consumer-driven growth. Chavez moved forward with his active foreign policy; he traveled extensively in July and August, visiting and signing political and economic accords with countries including Iran, Belarus, Russia, China, Vietnam, Portugal, and Mali. He also became a factor in elections throughout Latin America, though this produced mixed results, as his explicit or perceived endorsements were successfully turned against leftist candidates in Peru and Mexico. Finally, Venezuela withdrew from the Andean Community in April and entered into an agreement in July to join Mercosur, the trade group composed largely of countries in the Southern Cone. However, in the weeks following reelection the move toward twenty-first-century socialism received a boost with the announcement that all pro-government parties would be merged into one governing party. Additionally, on December 27 Chavez announced that the license of opposition television station RCTV would not be renewed and that it would cease functioning in early 2008.
Venezuela is an electoral democracy. However, the political opposition is forced to operate under increasingly difficult conditions. The December 2005 National Assembly elections were marred by an anemic turnout linked to calls for a boycott by the opposition, which claimed that the secrecy of the vote was compromised by the combination of mechanized voting machines and fingerprint-based antifraud equipment. Though the CNE agreed to forgo use of the equipment, the opposition felt confirmed in its mistrust and decided to sit out the elections. In April 2006, a new CNE board of directors was appointed by the legislature; despite a 4–1 majority on the board in favor of President Hugo Chavez, the opposition decided to actively contest the December 2006 presidential election. Though the voting process was generally considered free and fair, the CNE was ineffectual at limiting Chavez’s use of state resources for his political benefit. The president enjoyed a massive advantage in television exposure, and the promotion of social and infrastructure projects often blurred the line between Chavez’s role as head of state and his campaign. Venezuela’s two million public-sector workers received holiday bonuses in early November rather than the usual mid-December. Also in early November, a recording emerged of Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez declaring that all workers at PDVSA, the state oil company, had to campaign in favor of the president, remarks that Chavez repeated with approval. The opposition also alleged that the limited use of fingerprint-identification machines was designed to intimidate voters, and that the electoral registry was of highly questionable accuracy.
Venezuela’s unicameral National Assembly is composed of 167 seats, with members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms. On the national level, Chavez’s complete control of the Assembly allows him to curb the independence of governmental institutions, which increasingly serve as instruments to further his interests. The president, who is both head of state and head of government, is directly elected for up to two six-year terms. Prior to his 2006 election victory, Chavez proposed a 2010 referendum that would determine whether the constitution should be changed to allow indefinite presidential reelection.
Chavez’s party, the Fifth Republic Movement (MVR), is allied with a number of smaller parties; aside from the legislature, the coalition also controls the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, the intelligence services, and the Citizen Power branch of government created by the 1999 constitution to fight corruption. Although there are more than 30 registered parties in Venezuela, the system is fragmented; once-dominant parties have seen their bases eroded severely. AD continues to have a considerable following throughout the country by comparison with COPEI , which has seen its fortunes wane significantly, but neither party has much electoral clout. A new opposition movement, Primero Justicia, is led by young political leaders opposed to Chavez who have made headway by capturing local governments, but the group is currently very much divided. Opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, a former AD member, chose to run in 2006 under the banner of a new party, Un Nuevo Tiempo. On several occasions in 2006, Chavez proposed merging government-allied parties into a single “revolutionary” party, and just weeks after being reelected he announced the dissolution of the MVR and its replacement by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). At year’s end, other parties within the governing coalition had not decided whether to be folded into the PSUV.
Despite unifying behind Rosales in 2006, the opposition is ideologically and programmatically incoherent; this deficit, combined with Chavez’s popularity and his administration’s power over the distribution of state resources, left the opposition struggling to win over Chavez supporters and so-called NiNis, supporters of neither candidate. Following the 2004 recall effort, tens of thousands of people who signed petitions in favor of the referendum found that they could not get government jobs or contracts, qualify for public assistance programs, or receive passports; they were apparently identified on an alleged blacklist of Chavez’s political opponents.
The Chavez government, which now enjoys free rein over the economy, has done little to remove excessive bureaucratic regulations, registration requirements, and other forms of control that increase opportunities for corruption. Several development funds have been created that are controlled by the executive branch without oversight. Anticorruption efforts are sporadic and focus on violations of good-government laws and regulations by the regime’s political opponents. Following the strikes of 2002–2003, Chavez replaced technocrats at PDVSA with his own loyalists, to the detriment of the oil company’s technical reputation. Protection of private property is also weak, and ambiguous rules create opportunities for extortion-like practices. The expropriation of large, idle landholdings and industrial installations, and the announced creation of tens of thousands of rural and urban cooperatives, slowed in 2006 as activity focused on the election campaign. The 2003 Law against Corruption, which established a citizen’s right to public information and set out the state’s obligations to provide a thrice-yearly accounting of public goods and expenses, has not improved government transparency. Venezuela was ranked 138 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The Venezuelan media reflect the country’s general political polarization. Although the constitution provides for freedom of the press, the media climate is permeated by intimidation, sometimes including physical attacks, and strong anti-media rhetoric by the government is common. Opposition outlets remain vocally hostile toward the government, but their share of print and broadcast media has declined in recent years.. A July 2003 Supreme Tribunal ruling upheld laws that protected public authorities and institutions from insulting criticism. The Law on Social Responsibility of Radio and Television went into effect in December 2004, giving the government the authority to control the content of radio and television programs. According to the Inter American Press Association, the government “has used public funds to establish many publications, television and radio stations which enjoy unlimited budgets.” During the 2006 election campaign, representatives from private broadcasters were sometimes excluded from public ceremonies, and Chavez threatened to revoke the licenses of private television stations. On December 27, he announced that one of the most popular and vociferous opposition television stations, RCTV, would not have its license renewed in 2007 due to what he claimed were its ongoing efforts to destabilize the government. International organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS) responded with concern, while media watchdog groups characterized the move as an attack on press freedom. . The government does not restrict internet access.
Freedom of religion, which the constitution guarantees on the condition that its exercise does not violate public morality, decency, or public order, is generally respected by the government. Academic freedom is generally respected, though ideological tension in universities has increased, and elections for student associations and administration positions have become overtly politicized.
Freedom of peaceful assembly is guaranteed in the constitution, and the government generally respects this right in practice. Public meetings and marches, the latter of which require government permits, are generally permitted without impediment, although government supporters sometimes seek to disrupt them. In 2000, the Supreme Tribunal ruled that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that receive funding from foreign governments or whose leaders are not Venezuelan are not part of “civil society.” As a result, they may not represent citizens in court or bring their own legal actions. The Chavez government has also made an effort to undermine the legitimacy of reputable human rights and other civil society organizations by questioning their ties to international groups. Proceedings related to possible treason charges against leaders of the civic organization Sumate, which received support from the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, remained unresolved in 2006. A new NGO law, modeled on a recent Russian measure that imposed onerous registration and reporting requirements and gave officials greater authority to shutter the groups, received preliminary approval in the National Assembly in June, though final approval remained on hold during the campaign season.
Workers in Venezuela are legally entitled to form unions, bargain collectively, and strike, with some restrictions on public-sector workers’ ability to strike. Control of unions is actively contested between opposition-allied traditional labor leaders, who allege that challenges by upstart workers’ organizations mask Chavez’s intent to create government-controlled unions, and the president’s supporters, who maintain that the old labor regime was effectively controlled by employers. State oil company PDVSA continues to be a locus of conflict, with unemployed workers demonstrating for expanded hiring and previously fired workers demanding compensation.
Until Chavez took power, the judicial system was headed by a nominally independent Supreme Court that was nevertheless highly politicized, undermined by the chronic corruption (including the growing influence of narcotics traffickers) that permeates the entire government system, and unresponsive to charges of rights abuses. Under Chavez, the effectiveness of the judicial branch remains tenuous and the level of politicization has increased. An unwieldy new judicial code, which has helped to reduce the number of people jailed while awaiting arraignment, has hampered some law enforcement efforts, resulting in low rates of conviction and shorter prison terms even for convicted murderers.
Widespread arbitrary detention and torture of suspects, as well as extrajudicial killings by the often-corrupt military and the police, have increased along with soaring crime rates. Venezuela’s rate of gun deaths is among the world’s highest for a country not at war, and an estimated 65 percent of crimes go unreported. Furthermore, since the 1992 coup attempts, weakened civilian governments have had less authority over the military and the police, and rights abuses are committed with impunity. In late 2006, plans to nationalize and reform the police began to be elaborated. Also that year, an escalating conflict between the government and independent gold miners was punctuated by an incident in which six miners were shot dead by the military near the town of La Paragua in September. Though reform plans are under discussion, prison conditions remain among the worst in the hemisphere; riots by inmates are common, and the nongovernmental group Venezuelan Prison Observatory reported at least 412 violent deaths in 2006.
Since Chavez’s election, Venezuela’s military, which is largely unaccountable to civilian authorities, has become an active participant in the country’s social development and the delivery of public services. The 1999 constitution assigns the armed forces a significant role in the state but does not provide for civilian control over the military’s budget or procurement practices or for related institutional checks. A separate system of armed forces courts retains jurisdiction over members of the military accused of rights violations and common criminal offenses, and decisions cannot be appealed in civilian court. The president has made significant headway in assuring the military’s personal loyalty, increasingly isolating officers and personnel who are skeptical of his appointment of hundreds of service members to nonmilitary posts.
Venezuela’s indigenous people belong to 27 ethnic groups. Their formal rights have improved under Chavez, although those rights—specifically the groups’ ability to make decisions affecting their land, cultures, and traditions, and the allocation of natural resources—are seldom enforced by local political authorities. Indigenous communities trying to defend their legal land rights are subject to abuses, including murder, by gold miners and corrupt rural police. The constitution reserves three seats in the National Assembly for indigenous people and also provides for “the protection of indigenous communities and their progressive incorporation into the life of the nation.” The lack of effective legal rights, however, has contributed to migration by indigenous people to poverty-stricken urban areas.
There is substantial institutional and societal prejudice against women on issues of domestic violence and rape, and work-related sexual harassment is common. In June 2006, several thousand women protested after the Supreme Tribunal struck down a law allowing a 72-hour period of preventive detention for those accused of domestic abuse so that victimized women could seek safer surroundings.