Dominant Historical Legacy
Venezuela's dominant historical legacy is war and political instability, followed by democracy. Starting in 1522 Spain attempted to colonize Venezuela, though it was slow-going (taking almost 200 years to fully colonize). In 1717 all of colonized Venezuela became part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, along with most of what comprises modern day Columbia and Ecuador. In 1776-1777 Venezuela was reorganized into an autonomous Captaincy General (an autonomous region under Spain's control). In 1810 the municipal council of Caracas voted to depose the Spanish Governor and Captain General and establish a Junta. After several attempts by both sides (with Spanish intervention) to recapture the country, the Republicans (Venezuelans) won their independence in 1823. Several more armed conflicts happened during the latter part of the 19th century.
During World War 1, oil was found in Venezuela, which caused a huge shift in their economy from primarily agricultural exports to oil. In 1945 a civilian military coup ousted the previous dictatorial government and the first true democracy was installed. In 1947 they had their first recognized free and democratic presidential election. The elected president's minister of defense overthrew him in a coup d'état in late 1948. The Junta held elections in 1952 and were unexpectedly voted out of office, so they ignored the election until being forced out in 1958.
The three main political parties that took over signed the Punto Fijo Pact in 1958, which aimed to strengthen their fledgling democracy, but also concentrated power in those three parties. There was some infighting and attempted coups in the 1960's by groups that split from the major parties, though this was ended when a candidate from a party other than Democratic Action won the 1968 election. During the 1973 oil crisis, government spending soared, and so did foreign debts. In 1983, the government tried to devalue their currency in response to the crash of world oil prices, to facilitate payment of those foreign debts. This wiped out the standard of living in Venezuela and provided a basis for popular discontent with the government.
There were violent riots in 1989 that left hundreds dead, and two attempted coup d'état in 1992, the first being led by Hugo Chávez. 1993 saw the president impeached for corruption, and in 1994 Chávez was pardoned by the new president for his role in the 1992 coup d'état. Chávez was elected president in 1998, where he swiftly sought to implement Bolivarian socialism. He immediately delivered on his campaign promises, and in 1999 held a constitutional referendum where, by popular vote, a new constitution was enacted replacing the old one from 1961. This new constitution increased the separation of powers, strengthened the presidency, changed the legislature from a bicameral to unicameral and removed many of their previously held powers, and declared healthcare a human right in Venezuela. He was ousted for two days in 2002 by another coup d'état, and returned to power by supporters. He survived a recall referendum in 2004, and was then re-elected to the presidency in 2006.
Institutions of Government and Electoral System
Venezuela is a federal presidential republic, with a constitution.
Presidential elections are direct and pluralist, and each president serves 6 year terms (no term limits). The vice president is appointed by the president. The president appoints his cabinet, and can expand or shrink its membership at any time.
The unicameral national assembly has 165 seats to which members are elected under a mixed member proportional representation system, with 30% of members coming from party lists. The district votes and party list votes are separate in Venezuela, leading to a system of parallel voting (voting under two different systems at the same time).
The judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, which consists of 32 justices appointed by the national assembly for 12 year terms. There are also district and municipal courts, as well as trial courts.
The citizens branch has a prosecutor general, ombudsman (a trusted intermediary between the state and its constituency), and a comptroller general responsible for overseeing the government and submitting constitutional violations and other illegal actions by the government to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. They are appointed to 7 year terms by the national assembly.
All elections are overseen by the electoral council, whose 5 members are appointed to 7 year terms by the national assembly.
In the last 20 years public policy performance at the national level has degraded significantly. Previous to 1989, while policy performance wasn't great, it was stable. As a result of the 1999 constitutional referendum, volatility and fragmentation of power structures was greatly increased, leading to extremely poor policy performance. In the earlier stages of their democracy (1958-1989) the political parties managed to keep a handle on the military, however after Chávez was elected president, that control has weakened (as expressed in the 2002 military coup of Chávez). This may lead to a breakdown in democracy in the future (p.26).
Recently, local-level policy performance has improved due to the institution of consejos comunales, allowing the populations to request local policy changes of the national government.
Because of the sweeping changes to government following the 1999 constitutional referendum, the legislature has played a much more important role in government. Previously, many bills were passed due to agreements created outside the assembly floor. There were also fewer actors in the government, and fewer distinct levels of government, so it was easier to access power. Today, many more bills are debated out on the floor, increasing government transparency. (p.26 - 27)
Presidential legislative prerogative was vastly increased due to the constitutional referendum. He or she now has the power to "call for popular referendums to: approve or eliminate laws, approve constitutional reforms, or call for a Constitutional Assembly with plenipotentiary powers" (p.28).
Major Political Parties and Their Policies
Venezuelan political parties are currently broken into two major blocs: the leftist bloc, United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) headed by Hugo Chávez, and the opposition bloc, Coalition for Democratic Unity (MUD) comprised of over 50 political parties.
In the PSUV's "Documentos Fundamentales" they support Marxism, Bolivarian Socialism, Internationalism, and are against any and all types of discrimination against women. They also position themselves as the protector of the revolutionary process.
In MUD's "Commitment to the Venezuelan People" they position themselves as being the counterpoint to PSUV. They want to do this by being more open and democratic, with an increased political dialogue around policymaking; by selecting the best person for each position rather than by political affiliation, promoting an increased separation of powers, and by promoting professional excellence in government workers and positions, among others.
Major Interest Groups and Their Roles
A major interest group in modern Venezuela is the military. Historically they have been a very powerful force in Venezuelan government, and that has not changed. Their primary duty at present is disaster response and fighting drug trafficking in country and near the Columbian border.
There are lots of worker interest groups, including one for oil workers, several conservative business groups, and human rights organizations. All of these will be pulling the government in various policy directions, either through candidates or supported political parties. The socialist groups generally support Chávez's policies, whereas the opposition bloc's political party members tend to fear that Chávez may consolidate too much power in himself and become a dictator.
Major Current Issues and Policy Challenges
There are three major issues to solve in Venezuela right now: Hugo Chávez's re-election in the fall, the effects of the 2008 global recession on Venezuela's economy, and their continued attempt to transition to Bolivarian socialism.
Chávez's likely re-election in the fall will signal that the people of Venezuela still support him and still support his radical ideologies. This will embolden him to again try passing the set of constitutional reforms that were narrowly rejected in 2007. A few of those reforms have since been passed by the national assembly, but if he can energize his base again, he will likely move another large step towards Bolivarian socialism in Venezuela.
The 2008 financial collapse hit Venezuela hard. In 2010 they had the highest inflation rate of any country in Latin America, 30.5%. In the first three months of 2010, their economy also shrank 5.8% compared to the first three months of 2009. Even faced with this information, Chávez still had a positive outlook on the Venezuelan economy. Critics suggest that if no policies change, Venezuela will continue to stagnate. They are the only South American country still in a recession following the 2008 financial collapse.
The transition to Bolivarian socialism continues to be hard and slow, fighting off the capitalist and corporatist attempts at influencing their move to socialism. However, this transition is also a great case study for using socialism as a way to fight the effects of the `Resource Curse` (poor countries with lots of resources being exploited by foreign powers for that wealth) that so many other poor countries suffer from (Hammond, p.362). If successful, and so far it has been at least partially successful, it may have a domino effect elsewhere in the world of small resource rich nations adopting some form of socialism to protect their people and resources.
Assets and Liabilities in Foreign Policy
If the Bolivarian socialism experiment ends well, it may end up being both a huge asset and a huge liability. The USA and other corporatist nations will be fighting tooth and nail to get Venezuela to convert to a more republican government (so they may reap the benefits of those policies), which means anything they do on a global scale may face opposition from the US and its allies.
Oil may be Venezuela's largest asset, but also a huge liability. It gives them massive bargaining power if they can extract and distribute it to good effect. However, the 1980s oil glut showed that Venezuela's economy is too reliant on oil and thus any drop in prices can have the effect of crushing Venezuela's economy. One of Chávez's main thrusts in economic policy is to diversify the Venezuelan economy, so that may be mitigated to some extent, but I don't believe they can hedge against oil price drops well enough to neutralize or even decrease the effect significantly.
I believe the Union of South American Nations free-trade bloc will be an asset in the future. It should help keep some trade more-local, boosting South American economies with South American goods. It also allows them a specific organization through which they can organize resistance to exploitative policies. This will lend them some credence towards being recognized as emergent powers, which has the potential to put them on more-equal footing with larger countries like the US.
The political culture in Venezuela is very active and engaged. Though there are two main political blocs, there are many parties under each umbrella. The citizens are very involved in government, and with the advent of consejos comunales (literally community advice) under Hugo Chávez, they have a better way to communicate local needs back to the government. This, at least on a local level, increases interest articulation to the government, so they can make more effective public policy decisions.
Hugo Chávez takes a fairly straightforward approach to political interaction – he seems to legitimately try to make his citizens be a valued part of the political system (as well they should be, he's moving towards socialism, after all). "One thing you can say about Chávez," said one middle class Venezuelan named Ramon, "is that he's got everyone thinking about politics." And that's a good thing. Even if Chávez doesn't succeed with his ideas, there will be a generation or more of people growing up involved in the political system, which will likely have a profound effect on politics in Venezuela moving forward.