Venezuela Conflict History
Head of State: Hugo Chávez, February 1999-2013 (reelected on the basis of a new constitution in 2000 and then again in 2006)
Venezuela gained independence from Spain in 1819; seceded from nascent republic of Gran Colombia 1830. Nineteenth century marked by political instability, more than 30 different presidential terms from independence until turn of century. 1958 Punto Fijo accord ushered in 1961 constitution and 40 years of democracy characterised by power alternation between two main political parties, Acción Democrática (AD) and Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI). Economy closely tied to energy resources: country has some of world’s largest oil deposits. 1970s oil boom mainly benefited middle classes.
Two-party system began to break down in 1980s with Presidents Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989-1993) and Rafael Caldera (1993-1999) failing to halt rising unemployment and impoverishment as oil prices and government revenues fell. Popular uprising Caracas February 1989 (Caracazo) against IMF-backed austerity measures produced hundreds of deaths; 1989 constitutional reform favoured state decentralisation and increased powers and resources to the regions. Lieutenant-Colonel Hugo Chávez led an ultimately failed military coup in 1992, leaving 20 dead; Chávez pardoned 1994. President Pérez impeached 1993 on corruption charges.
Chávez won presidency December 1998 emphasising popular "Bolivarian revolution" (named after Latin American independence hero Simón Bolívar) and promised to replace discredited 1961 “Fourth Republic”. A December 1999 Constituent Assembly and referendum ushered in “Fifth Republic”; a new constitution entered into effect in March 2000. New charter strengthened presidency, extended presidential term to six years, sought to broaden participative democracy through referendums and increasing power of citizens vis-à-vis state institutions, created a unicameral National Assembly.
Chávez re-elected July 2000 and undertook new social programs. While cementing autocratic-populist position and increasingly ruling by decree, he became a polarising force in Venezuelan politics. Increasing opposition from several senior military officers and civil society 2002-2003. Most serious threat in April 2002 followed bid by Chávez to establish full control over Venezuela’s huge state-owned oil company (Petróleos de Venezuela, PdVSA), through appointment of new board of directors February 2002. Move prompted 9 April general strike that brought hundreds of thousands to streets of Caracas. Armed forces announced Chávez’s resignation and detention in military custody 11 April in coup initially welcomed by U.S. Employers’ association president, Pedro Carmona, briefly took power, but the interim government fell 13 April and Chávez returned to Miraflores presidential palace.
After failure to oust Chávez with general strike called by PdVSA workers and private sector December 2002-February 2003, opposition initiated petition to hold recall referendum. Despite protracted disputes over voting procedures, referendum went ahead on 15 August 2004: Chávez won with 59%, opposition disputed, but result accepted by OAS and Carter Center observers. During that period, Chávez established the social missions (misiones) to provide health, education, subsidized food, among others to Venezuela’s poorest, boosting his popular support. In regional and local elections October 2004, pro-Chávez candidates won most of governorships and mayors’ offices; in legislative elections December 2005, pro-Chávez parties won all 167 seats after opposition parties boycotted, claiming electoral-body government biased. EU observers said poll fair and transparent.
Largest opposition rally in over two years held in Caracas October 2006 in support of presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, but Chávez re-elected in landslide December victory. President granted power to rule by decree for 18 months January 2007 through the Enabling Law (ley habilitante); announced ambitious nationalisation program including takeover of telecommunications, energy and Orinoco belt oilfields, and intensified land reform campaign. Chávez asked military to adopt socialism “without ambiguities” in April, removing any pretext of armed forces’ political independence; critical TV channel RCTV closed down in May.
In mid-2007, Chávez announced broad constitutional reform project to abolish limits on re-election of all elected officials, including the president, increase government control over private assets and suspend due process protections during states of emergency. Major student protests followed in October-November, with occasional clashes. In first major rebuttal to Chávez since 2006 re-election, electorate rejected proposed constitutional changes in December 2007 referendum. Chávez accepted result but vowed to continue reforms. During much of 2008 Chávez used Enabling Law to push through by decree many of the policies rejected in the December 2007 constitutional referendum.
Windfall of oil prices and bloated government and private spending pushed inflation above 20% in 2007, continued rising in 2008 to 30% and estimated at close to 30% by end of 2009. Measures to enforce price controls and massive imports have discouraged internal production, causing shortages of basic foodstuffs. Domestic discontent increased throughout 2007-2009 amid food shortages, street crime and corruption. Caracas has become one of Latin America’s most insecure cities.
Chávez has expanded regional role amid increasing tensions. In 2006 he promised to intervene in Bolivia in event of coup against President Morales. Chávez was authorized by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to facilitate the release of hostages in the hands of FARC, but was dismissed in November 2007. Chávez continued, however, with unauthorized facilitation, contributing to the release of some hostages in early 2008. He later called for FARC, ELN to be removed from list of terrorist organisations. Venezuela moved troops to Colombian border March 2008 in response to Colombian airstrike on FARC camp in Ecuador. Bogotá alleged computers seized in raid contained evidence of FARC-Chávez links; Caracas denied. Following 26 May 2008 announcement of FARC top commander Manuel “Tirofijo” Marulanda’s death on 26 March, Chávez early June called on FARC to unconditionally release all hostages and end armed struggle. Tensions with Colombia remained high, however, with Chávez using increasingly belligerent rhetoric against Colombia after Bogotá signed controversial late 2009 defence cooperation agreement with U.S. Chávez strangled trade with Colombia, and in late 2009 strengthened troop presence along joint border. Dispute reached climax in July 2010, when Chávez broke diplomatic relations with Colombia over further allegations that Caracas "tolerated" rebel presence.
Chávez’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) kept clear majority in 23 Nov 2008 local and municipal elections, but opposition made some important gains, including victories in populous Zulia and Miranda states, and Caracas mayoralty. Almost immediately after elections, Chávez began push for referendum on removing term limits for all elected officials, including president. Referendum passed 15 Feb 2009 with 54% of vote, despite opposition complaints of vote’s unconstitutionality since term limit removal had already been rejected in December 2007 referendum.
Chávez has taken more aggressive stance after referendum victory, continuing policies that strengthen central government power and risk restricting civil liberties. Tens of thousands have protested controversial new laws in education and media sectors. Opposition increasingly targeted: opposition leader Manuel Rosales granted exile in Peru April 2009 to escape alleged corruption charges, which he claims are “politically motivated”. Chávez in May 2009 appointed loyalist to new “vice president of Caracas” position, effectively stripping elected opposition mayor of power. Several regional opposition officials still prevented from taking office. Late 2009 opinion polls show dwindling support for Chávez, with the government failing to address socioeconomic problems in face of falling oil prices, and to tackle rising crime rates. A victims’ survey has registered some 19,000 homicides in 2009. Allegations of security forces' implications in criminal activities abound together with doubts regarding the government's capacity and willingness to tackle crime and protect its population.
Caracas-Washington relations soured considerably during 2000s. Chávez frequently accuses U.S. of interference, even alleging assassination plots and planned invasion. Chávez has signed several high-profile arms deals with Russia following U.S. embargo on arms deals, and strengthened relations with Iran President Ahmadi-Nejad. In 2010, Venezuela signed additional arms deals with Russia worth billions of dollars and agreed to a Russian-built nuclear power plant. Caracas has been criticised for lack of effective cooperation against drug trafficking, as much of the Colombian cocaine destined for Europe and U.S. is trafficked through Venezuela.
Since election of President Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, relations between two countries have warmed. An August 2010 meeting between Chávez and Santos re-established diplomatic ties and began to restore severed trade. Chávez reiterated that FARC has no future as an armed force and should release all hostages. Colombia agreed to extradite drug trafficker Walid Makled to Venezuela; in return, Venezuela extradited 3 suspected FARC and ELN fighters.
Chávez suffered a setback in the peaceful 26 September legislative elections. Returning to parliament after five-year absence, opposition parties achieved one-third of available seats, enabling them to block major legislation. However, outgoing national assembly granted Chávez power to rule by decree for 18 months, heavily curtailing the power of incoming legislature/assembly. OAS and Venezuelan civil society have criticized Chávez's expanded powers as undemocratic. Before finishing term, outgoing National Assembly also banned NGOs and political parties from receiving foreign funding and, strengthened relations between the Executive and local community councils, thereby reducing the power held by regional governors and mayors
Media outlets critical of government continued to face fines and closure in recent years. Following closure of anti-government TV station RCTVI in early 2010, thousands protested in the street, leading to the death of 2. The head of Globovision fled the country after his initial arrest for "contempt" and insulting Chávez in public. A report by the IACHR denounced deteriorating democratic and human rights in Venezuela. Government continues to expropriate national and international companies and land in both rural areas and cities. Large-scale student protests prompted Chávez to repeal law increasing government control of universities.
Updated February 2011