Opposition candidates won a majority of the votes in parliamentary elections held in September 2010, but electoral rules that favor the ruling party allowed the government to retain its legislative majority. Prior to the end of the 2006–10 parliamentary term, legislators passed 13 new laws on topics including civil society, the media, and subnational government structures. President Hugo Chávez Frias was also granted wide-ranging decree powers for 18 months.
The Republic of Venezuela was founded in 1830, nine years after independence from Spain. Long periods of instability and military dictatorship ended with the establishment of civilian rule in 1958 and the approval of a constitution in 1961. Until 1993, the center-left Democratic Action (AD) party and the Social Christian Party (COPEI) dominated politics under an arrangement known as the Punto Fijo pact. President Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989–93) of the AD, already weakened by the violent political fallout from his free-market reforms, was nearly overthrown by Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez Frias and other nationalist military officers in two 1992 coup attempts, in which dozens of people were killed. Pérez 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 (1969–74) and founder of COPEI, was elected president in late 1993 as head of the 16-party Convergence coalition, which included both left- and right-wing groups.
Chávez won the 1998 presidential contest on a populist, anticorruption platform, and in 1999 voters approved a new constitution that strengthened the presidency and introduced a unicameral National Assembly. Although Chávez retained his post in elections held under the new charter in 2000, opposition parties won most governorships, about half of the mayoralties, and a significant share of the National Assembly seats.
In April 2002, following the deaths of 19 people in a massive antigovernment protest, dissident military officers attempted to oust Chávez, the vice president, and the National Assembly with backing from some of the country’s leading business groups. However, the coup was resisted by loyalist troops and protesters, and Chávez moved swiftly to regain control of the military, replacing dozens of senior officers.
The country was racked by continued protests, and in December 2002 opposition leaders called a general strike that lasted 62 days but ultimately weakened their political position as well as the economy. While fending off his opponents with legal maneuvers and intimidation tactics, Chávez launched bold social-service initiatives, including urban health and literacy projects, many of which were staffed by thousands of experts from Cuba. He also continued to focus on increasing his influence over the judiciary, the media, and other institutions of civil society. Chávez survived a 2004 presidential recall referendum triggered by an opposition signature campaign, taking 58 percent of the vote amid high turnout.
National Assembly elections in 2005 were boycotted by the opposition, which accused the National Electoral Council(CNE) of allowing violations of ballot secrecy. A mere 25 percent of eligible voters turned out, and all 167 deputies in the resulting National Assembly were government supporters, though a small number defected to the opposition in subsequent years.
In the 2006 presidential election, Chávez defeated Zulia state governor Manuel Rosales of the opposition A New Time party, 61 percent to 38 percent. The incumbent exploited state resources during the campaign and drew on enduring support among poorer Venezuelans who had benefited from his social programs.
Soon after the vote, Chávez pressed forward with his program of institutional changes. Nearly all progovernment parties merged into the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and the socialist “Bolivarian revolution” deepened economically with a series of nationalizations of private assets. At the end of January 2007, the National Assembly voted to allow the president to issue decrees on a broad array of topics for 18 months.
Referendum voters in December 2007 narrowly defeated a package of constitutional amendments, among them the removal of presidential term limits. The vote reflected robust opposition participation, public disappointment with rising inflation and crime rates, and a degree of disaffection among current and former Chávez supporters. However, a set of 26 new laws decreed by Chávez in July 2008 appeared designed to institute measures that were rejected in the referendum, including presidential authority to name new regional officials and the reorganization of the military hierarchy.
State and local elections in November 2008 were preceded by the disqualification of over 300 candidates, including some opposition leaders, by the nominally independent but government-friendly comptroller. PSUV and other Chávez-aligned candidates enjoyed massive resource advantages and state publicity, while opposition candidates focused on perceived failures in public services and benefited from coverage in the opposition press. In balloting that was deemed fair by the Organization of American States (OAS), the opposition captured the mayoralty of greater Caracas as well as Venezuela’s second-largest city and 5 of 22 states, including the three richest and most populous. Meanwhile, government candidates won 17 states and some 80 percent of the mayoralties.
Following the elections, Chávez moved forward with plans for a new referendum on abolishing term limits. The government’s efforts included mobilization of state resources and pressure on public employees, as well as arguments that only a continuation of the Bolivarian revolution would assure social services and political power for poorer Venezuelans. The February 2009 poll was characterized by observers as generally free, and Chávez prevailed with over 54 percent of the vote.
In March and April 2009, the legislature passed laws allowing the national government to strip states of key governing functions and cut budget allocations; in practice, opposition-governed states and particularly the Caracas mayor’s office were most affected. In August, the National Assembly passed a new electoral law that was generally perceived to favor government candidates.
Battles between the government and the media continued. In July, the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) stripped 32 radio stations of their licenses for what it described as procedural and administrative problems. The primary opposition-aligned television broadcaster, Globovisión, faced a number of investigations in 2009, and in 2010 the government charged its president, Guillermo Zuloaga, with several violations, prompting him to seek exile in the United States. In December the government took a minority ownership position in the company following the takeover of a bank that held a 20 percent share. Also in 2010, the surviving cable version of another opposition-oriented television station, RCTV, was shut down for various alleged violations, including the refusal to broadcast official speeches. RCTV’s terrestrial broadcast frequency and equipment had been seized in 2007, based on what Chávez claimed were the station’s ongoing efforts to destabilize the government.
Elections to the National Assembly in September dominated the political agenda in 2010. The PSUV benefitted from significant exposure on state-run media and pressure on public employees and neighborhood groups to vote for government-backed candidates. According to the opposition and civic groups, the 2009 electoral law also allowed the Chavista-dominated CNE to gerrymander districts in favor of the PSUV. Nonetheless, the opposition, grouped as the Unity Roundtable (MUD),was able to agree on common candidates and themes. In the end, the MUD took more than 47 percent of the vote, the PSUV captured 48 percent, and the independent but opposition-leaning Fatherland for All (PPT) party obtained over 3 percent. Due to the revised electoral rules, however, PSUV candidates secured 98 of the 165 seats, MUD candidates took 65, and the PPT won the remaining two. Final results showed that while opposition candidates benefitted from the electoral changes in some states, PSUV candidates won approximately 10 more seats than they would have under previous rules.
Following the loss of the PSUV supermajority in the National Assembly, Chávez urged lame-duck lawmakers to enact a raft of new legislation before leaving office. Over 20 laws were passed or modified in December, including highly controversial regulations related to the internet, funding for civil society groups, education, procedural issues within the National Assembly, territorial reorganization, and the distribution of resources to subnational governments and community groups. In addition, the legislature voted to grant Chávez wide-ranging decree powers for 18 months.
Venezuelan relations with neighboring Colombia recovered in 2010 following a period in 2009 in which tensions briefly sparked fears of military conflict. Interpersonal friction between Chávez and Colombian president Álvaro Uribe was an important factor behind the rift, and the inauguration of Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, in August 2010 led to a rapid détente. Relations with the United States were stable but tense, and the United States remained without an ambassador in Caracas after Venezuela refused to accept the appointment of Larry Palmer. Over the past several years, Chávez has increased friction with the United States and its allies by creating ostensible leftist alternatives to U.S.-backed regional trade pacts, garnering regional support with generous oil subsidies, seeking weapons purchases and other cooperation from Iran and Russia, and either explicitly or tacitly supporting favored electoral candidates in neighboring countries.