Freedom in the World
Hugo Chávez, the coupist paratrooper-turned-politician elected who was elected president in a December 1998 landslide, spent most of 1999 dismantling Venezuela's political system of checks and balances, ostensibly to destroy a discredited two-party system that for four decades presided over several oil booms but has left four out of five Venezuelans impoverished. Early in the year, Congressional power was gutted, the judiciary was placed under executive branch tutelage, and Chávez’s army colleagues were given a far bigger say in the day-to-day running of the country. A constituent assembly dominated by Chávez followers drafted a new constitution that would make censorship of the press easier, allow a newly strengthened chief executive the right to dissolve congress, and make it possible for Chávez to retain power until 2013. Congress and the Supreme Court were dismissed after Venezuelans approved the new constitution in a national referendum December 15.
The Republic of Venezuela was established in 1830, nine years after independence from Spain. Long periods of instability and military rule ended with the establishment in 1961 of civilian rule. Under the 1961 constitution, the president and a bicameral congress are elected for five years. The senate has at least two members from each of the 21 states and the federal district of Caracas. The chamber of deputies has 189 seats.
Until 1993, the social democratic Democratic Action (AD) Party and the Social Christian Party (COPEI) dominated politics. Former President Carlos Andres Pérez (1989-93) of the AD was nearly overthrown by Chávez and other nationalist military officers in two 1992 coup attempts in which dozens were killed. In 1993 Pérez was charged with corruption and removed from office by congress.
Rafael Caldera, a former president (1969-74) from COPEI and a populist, was elected president in late 1993 at the head of the 16-party National Convergence, which included Communists, other leftists, and right-wing groups. Caldera's term was marked by a national banking collapse (in 1994), the suspension of a number of civil liberties, mounting violent crime and social unrest, and rumors of a military coup.
In 1995, Caldera's reputation for honesty was tarnished by allegations of corruption among his inner circle. With crime soaring, oil wealth drying up, and the country in the worst economic crisis in 50 years, popular disillusionment with politics deepened.
At the beginning of 1998, the early presidential favorite was a former beauty queen whose appeal stemmed largely from her own roots outside the corrupt political establishment famous for its interlocking system of privilege and graft. Chávez’s antiestablishment, anticorruption populism also played well in a country whose elites considered politics their private preserve. As his victory appeared more likely, Chávez moved toward the center, abandoning rhetoric in which he criticized the free market and promised to “fry” opposition leaders.
Last-minute efforts to find a consensus candidate against Chávez were largely unsuccessful, and the Yale-educated businessman Henrique Salas, the other leading presidential contender, steered away from association with the old political order. Salas, a respected two-term former state governor, won just 40 percent of the vote, to Chávez’s 57 percent. Chávez took power in the world's number three oil exporting country in February 1999.
Upon taking office, Chávez curtailed the opposition-controlled national congress. Critics also charged Chávez with militarizing politics and politicizing the military. Tens of thousands of solders were dispatched to build public works, 34 senior military officers were promoted without congressional approval, and regional army commands were given oversight powers of local elected officials. Generals were appointed to senior posts such as presidential chief of staff, head of the secret police, and head of the internal revenue service. In July, 1999, Chávez supporters, including his wife and erstwhile fellow coup plotters, won 121 of the new constituent assembly's 131 seats. In a positive move, the assembly offered the nation's 500,000 Indians constitutional guarantees to conserve their cultures and languages.
Citizens can change their government democratically, although Chávez supporters appear at times on the verge of mob rule, particularly as constitutional checks and balances have been removed and the constituent assembly has approved as many as 47 articles a day for a new constitution that by the end of 1999 had more than 400 articles. Despite the unusual degree of political polarization and a number of technical difficulties, the regional and presidential elections conducted in 1998 were free and fair.
Until Chávez took power, the judicial system was headed by a nominally independent supreme court, although it was highly politicized, was undermined by the chronic corruption-including the growing influence of narcotics traffickers-that permeates the entire political system, and was unresponsive to charges of rights abuses. Chávez, by sacking scores of judges, has successfully subordinated the legal system to his presidency. In August, 1999, supreme court president Cecilia Sosa resigned in protest after the court backed the assembly as it moved to give itself the power to dismiss judges and overhaul the country's judicial system. "The court simply committed suicide to avoid being assassinated," Sosa said. "But the result is the same-it is dead."
Citizen security in general remains threatened by a drug-fueled crime wave that has resulted in hundreds of killings monthly in major cities and vigilante mob killings of alleged criminals. A recent study ranked Venezuela as second of the ten most violent nations in the Americas and Europe.
Widespread arbitrary detention and torture of suspects, as well as dozens of extrajudicial killings by military security forces and the police, continue. Since the 1992 coup attempts, weakened civilian governments have had less authority over the military and the police, and rights abuses overall are committed with impunity. Police brutality and murder are rampant as crime increases. A separate system of armed forces courts retains jurisdiction over members of the military accused of rights violations and common criminal crimes, and decisions by these cannot be appealed in civilian court.
Venezuela's 32 prisons, the most violent in the world, hold some 23,000 inmates-of whom less than one-third have been convicted of a crime-even though they were designed to hold no more than 14,000. Deadly prison riots are common, and inmate gangs have a striking degree of control over the penal system.
The press is mostly privately owned, although the practice of journalism is supervised by an association of broadcasters under the government communication industry. Since 1994 the media in general have faced a pattern of intimidation. International media monitors have condemned a constitutional article approved by the constituent assembly that would require journalists to publish or broadcast "truthful information," a move, that they say opens the door to government censorship.
Few Indians hold title to their land and indigenous communities trying to defend their legal land rights are subject to abuses, including killings, by gold miners and corrupt rural police. In 1999, the constituent assembly voted to include a chapter in the new constitution that sets forth the legal rights of indigenous peoples and communities in accordance with standards set by the International Labor Organization. Chapter VII would guarantee "the right to exist as indigenous peoples and communities with their own social and economic organization, their cultures and traditions, and their language and religion."
Labor unions are well organized, but highly politicized and prone to corruption. Chávez supporters have sought to break what they term a "stranglehold" of corrupt labor leaders on the job market. Security forces frequently break up strikes and arrest trade unionists.