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Venezuela - Government

Venezuela has been mired by hyperinflation, starvation, and a refugee crisis that has seen almost three million Venezuelans flee the country. Washington has blamed the socialist economic policies of Maduro and his mentor Hugo Chavez for the deepening crisis, while passing sanctions against the Maduro government officials.

The National Assembly is a 167-seat legislature, headed [as of 2019] by Juan Guaidó of the Popular Will party – a fierce opponent of Maduro, who had been taking part in protests against him and has called for the country’s military to depose the president. Venezuela’s Supreme Court declared 21 January 2019 all acts of the country’s National Assembly null and void, days after the opposition-held assembly declared President Nicolas Maduro’s election illegitimate. Maduro already declared the National Assembly illegitimate in 2017, and created a new legislature - the Constituent National Assembly - to replace it, where all seats are currently held by pro-Maduro parties. As Maduro lacks the Constitutional power to outright dissolve the National Assembly, both houses have functioned alongside each other since 2017, with the CNA given power to overrule legislation passed by the National Assembly.

The ongoing crisis in Venezuela is being closely followed by US media and politicians, the majority of whom are openly anti-Maduro. Vice President Mike Pence has expressed support for Guaidó, calling the National Assembly the “only legitimate body in the country,” while Florida Senator Marco Rubio has repeatedly called Maduro’s government “illegitimate” and pressed for regime change in the Latin American country.

The creation of parallel powers is nothing new. As early as 2017, the opposition created a parallel Supreme Court (based in Panama), and a post of Attorney General of the Nation (based in Colombia).

Venezuela's new "constituent assembly," a body tasked with rewriting the country's constitution, held its first meeting on 04 August 2017, as opposition leaders called on Venezuelans to protest in the streets of the capital, Caracas, to reject what they see as a move to destroy democracy. President Nicolas Maduro had said the assembly, elected in a vote that critics alleged was manipulated, would strip opposition lawmakers of their constitutional immunity from prosecution. The opposition refused to recognize the new body, which includes Maduro's wife and son among its more than 500 members and is composed largely of presidential loyalists.

The constituent assembly has unlimited powers to dissolve the country's legislature, the National Assembly, and amend laws, in addition to its task of rewriting the 1999 constitution brought in under late President Hugo Chavez. Maduro says the new constitution will end Venezuela's political and economic crisis, though he gave no details on how these ends would be attained. The National Assembly, which met only meters away in the same palace complex as the new body, is currently held by the opposition.

According to article 347 of Venezuela's constitution, the head of state can initiate a call to convene a national constituent assembly with the purpose of "transforming the state." The proposal was presented by the president on May Day as an attempt to lower the political tensions after opposition and pro-government supporter have taken to the streets in nearly-daily protests for the past month.

Maduro announced plans for a 500-member constituent assembly on 01 May 2017 [ie, May Day], ostensibly in an effort to foster peace in a country that had been racked with triple-digit inflation, food shortages and surging crime numbers. "This will be a citizens' assembly made up of workers," he said. "The day has come, brothers. Don't fail me now." Education Minister Elias Jaua said he was confident that the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) would gain a majority in the assembly.

The conflict between different state institutions (the opposition dominated National Assembly versus the Bolivarian presidency) reflect different class interests. The the middle and upper class opposition wants to remove Maduro, whose support comes mainly from the working class and the poor.

The central issues raised for the debate in the Constituent Assembly are peace as a nation's need, right and yearning; to improve the national economic system; to constitutionalize missions and great social missions as systems to protect the people; and to expand the powers of the justice system to eradicate impunity.

Likewise, it was proposed to discuss the constitutionalization of the new forms of participatory and protagonist democracy; defense of sovereignty and the integrity of the nation and protection from foreign interventionism; vindication of the pluricultural character of the homeland; guarantee of the future, by including a chapter on the rights of youth; and preservation of life on the planet.

Maduro's call for a constituent assembly drew condemnation from several Latin American leaders and the United States, which warned it might impose more sanctions on Venezuelan officials in response to the move.

A total of 17 opposition parties attended 07 May 2017 at the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, the meeting convened by the Presidential Commission for the Constituent Assembly, with the aim of discussing this process. Political organizations such as Bandera Roja, Joven, Juan Bimba and Opina were some of those who joined this invitation, after the commission extended the call to all opposition parties of the country, including those who are part of the MUD. But Venezuela's opposition boycotted the meeting to discuss Maduro's plan for a new popular assembly, preferring to protest in the streets.

The 500 members of the assembly would be elected by direct and secret ballot, although sector groups would also be afforded seats in the body whose purpose would be to either amend the current constitution or to draft a new one. Maduro said that half of the assembly would be put forward by sectoral organizations instead of political parties, such as disabled associations, student groups, sexual minorities, unions, campesino organizations as well as private sector interests. Venezuela's current 1999 or Bolivarian constitution, was the outcome of Hugo Chavez's election promise to rewrite the country's Magna Carta with the participation of Venezuelan society.

Constitution of 1999

Deep popular dissatisfaction with the traditional political parties, income disparities, and economic difficulties were some of the major frustrations expressed by Venezuelans following Perez's impeachment. In December 1998, Hugo Chavez Frias won the presidency on a campaign for broad reform, constitutional change, and a crackdown on corruption.

President Chavez also had campaigned for the election of a National Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution. The National Constituent Assembly (ANC) convened in August 1999 to begin rewriting the constitution. Venezuelans approved the ANC's draft in a national referendum on December 15, 1999. The political system described below is that defined by the 1999 constitution.

The president is elected by a plurality vote with direct and universal suffrage. The term of office is 6 years, and subsequent to a national referendum to amend the constitution on February 15, 2009, there are no term limits for elected officials. The president appoints the vice president. He decides the size and composition of the cabinet and makes appointments to it, in consultation with the National Assembly. Legislation can be initiated by the executive branch, the legislative branch (either a committee of the National Assembly or three members of the latter), the judicial branch, the citizen branch (public defender, prosecutor general, and comptroller general) or a public petition signed by no fewer than 0.1% of registered voters. The president can ask the National Assembly to reconsider portions of laws he finds objectionable, but a simple majority of the Assembly can override these objections.

The National Assembly is unicameral. Deputies serve 5-year terms, and may be re-elected indefinitely. These legislators are elected by a combination of party list and single member constituencies. In the National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional), 113 members are elected by simple majority vote, 51 members are elected by proportional representation vote, and 3 seats are reserved for indigenous peoples of Venezuela to serve 5-year terms.

When the National Assembly is not in session, a delegated committee acts on matters relating to the executive and in oversight functions. In December 2005 pro-government parties took all 167 seats in the National Assembly after opposition parties boycotted the election over concerns about electoral conditions.

With a two-thirds vote, the National Assembly may appoint (or abolish) no more than 15 ordinary and special Standing Committees to consider legislation pertaining to particular sectors of national activity. Temporary Committees may be appointed for purposes of research and study. While the assembly is in recess, a Delegated Committee consisting of the president, the vice president, and the presidents of the Standing Committees is in session. Legislation may be introduced by the executive branch; the Delegated Committee, Standing Committees, and members of the National Assembly; and, in their areas of competency, the TSJ, Citizen Power, Electoral Power, and State Legislative Council. The voters (in a number equivalent to at least 0.1 percent of all permanently registered voters) also may propose legislation. Prior to promulgation, an approved law must be sent to the TSJ’s Constitutional Division for a ruling on its constitutionality.

The constitution designates three additional branches of the federal government--the judicial, citizen, and electoral branches.

The judicial branch is responsible for administering justice in the name of the republic and by authority of the law. When President Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, there was general dissatisfaction with the judicial system, which the Venezuelan public viewed as extremely corrupt. He used his mandate and his majority in the National Constituent Assembly to create laws that purported to make the judicial system more accountable, but that in practice have rarely been followed. Moreover, Chavez stacked the Supreme Court and systematically fired judges and prosecutors thought to be insufficiently supportive of the Bolivarian Revolution, further consolidating his hold on power and disabling challenges to his authority. Chavez' changes over time deepened politicization of the courts and eliminated any pretense of autonomy. It was an effective tool for going after Chavez' political enemies, but fails to address Venezuela's serious and growing crime issues.

The judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Tribuna Suprema de Justicia—TSJ), formerly known as the Supreme Court. In 2004 legislation sponsored by the Chávez administration increased the number of TSJ justices by 12 to 32, thereby giving Chávez near-absolute control of the courts. The National Assembly appoints the justices to serve a single 12-year term. The TSJ exercises control over constitutionality and legality at all levels. The TSJ is divided into plenary, constitutional, political-administrative, electoral, civil, and social and criminal appeals chambers. The TSJ may meet either in the six specialized chambers or in plenary session. The semiautonomous Council of the Judicature, whose members are appointed by the legislative and executive branches, appoints judges and controls the administration of the judiciary. The civilian judiciary is legally independent; however, it is reportedly inefficient and sometimes corrupt, and judges at all levels are subject to influence from a number of sources, including the executive branch.

The judicial branch also includes the lower courts, Public Ministry, Public Defender, penal investigative bodies, employees of the Ministry of Interior and Justice and penitentiary system, and lawyers. The courts are divided geographically into township or parish courts, district or department courts, courts of the first instance, and higher courts. In general, court decisions may be appealed to a higher court, but a case cannot be heard by more than two instances. Only decisions handed down in the second instance by higher courts can be appealed to the TSJ.

When President Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999, there was general dissatisfaction with the judicial system, which the Venezuelan public viewed as extremely corrupt. He used his mandate and his majority in the National Constituent Assembly to create laws that purported to make the judicial system more accountable, but that in practice have rarely been followed. Moreover, Chavez stacked the Supreme Court and systematically fired judges and prosecutors thought to be insufficiently supportive of the Bolivarian Revolution, further consolidating his hold on power and disabling challenges to his authority. The Venezuelan judiciary--like many in Latin America--has never been idyllic, but Chavez' changes over time deepened politicization of the courts and eliminated any pretense of autonomy.

Citizen Power is exercised by the Republican Moral Council (Consejo Moral Republicano), which consists of the ombudsman, the general prosecutor ("fiscal general"), and the comptroller general of the republic. These officials are responsible for preventing, investigating, and punishing actions perpetrated against the public ethos and administrative morality; guarding the public interest and legal use of the public patrimony; ensuring the application of the principle of legality in all administrative activity of the state; and promoting civic education, solidarity, freedom, democracy, social responsibility, and social work. The National Assembly selects holders of Citizen Power offices for terms of seven years. The holders of these offices, in addition to fulfilling their specific functions, also act collectively as the "Republican Moral Council" (RMC). The RMC challenges actions they believe are illegal before the Supreme Court, particularly those which violate the constitution. The leadership of the RMC rotates among the three officials for 1-year periods. The holders of the "citizen power" offices are selected for terms of 7 years by the National Assembly.

Electoral Power is exercised by the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral—CNE), a new body that replaced the old electoral authorities on adoption of the 1999 constitution. The "Electoral Power," otherwise known as the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral or CNE), is responsible for organizing elections at all levels. Its five members are also elected to 7-year terms by the National Assembly. In the event of a hung vote in the National Assembly, the Supreme Court can be called on to appoint the members. Public confidence in the CNE was shaken by its secretive handling of the August 15, 2004, presidential-recall vote. Entities subordinate to the CNE are the National Electoral Board, the Electoral and Civil Registration Commission, and the Commission of Financial and Political Participation. The CNE regulates electoral laws, proposes the CNE budget, issues directives, nullifies elections in whole or in part, oversees all aspects of elections, organizes elections of syndicates and unions of professionals, oversees electoral and civil registration, organizes the registration of parties, regulates party funding, and guarantees the impartiality and fairness of elections.

The Republic of Venezuela is divided into states, the capital district, federal dependencies, and federal territories. The 23 states are Amazonas, Anzoátegui, Apure, Aragua, Barinas, Bolívar, Carabobo, Cojedes, Delta Amacuro, Falcón, Guárico, Lara, Mérida, Miranda, Monagas, Nueva Esparta (consisting of Margarita, Cubagua, and Coche islands), Portuguesa, Sucre, Táchira, Trujillo, Vargas (part of the federal district until 1998), Yaracuy, and Zulia. The states are divided into a total of 156 districts, which are further divided into 613 municipalities. The municipalities are subdivided into parishes. The capital district (formerly called the federal district) includes much of the Caracas metropolitan area and encompasses five municipalities or departments. The 72 federal dependencies include 11 island groups and 311 islands, keys, and islets. The federal territories of Amazonas and Delta Amacuro have the status of a state by special law.

Venezuelans traditionally have given greater loyalty to their states than to their local government bodies. As a result, local government has not been strong. The powers of the states are restricted to those areas not granted to the nation or the municipalities, and the states remain dependent on the national government for most of their revenue. Each state is headed by a governor, who also serves as the chief agent of the national executive within each state. Governors are elected every three years by universal, direct, and secret ballot. Unicameral state legislative assemblies are popularly elected every three years and exercise limited powers. The states do not have their own judiciary.

Districts are constitutionally independent of the state in economic and administrative matters and subject only to national laws and regulations. Districts are governed by popularly elected councils; elections for council members take place at the same time as those for national officials. Council members serve five-year terms. The number of Council members varies, but all councils are presided over by a chairperson, who serves in that position for a one-year term.

The districts are divided into municipalities, which are the primary and autonomous political units within the national organization that are administered in accordance with the principle of local self-government. In each municipality, the government and administration of local interests are in the hands of a mayor, who is elected every three years. Municipal councils, also elected every three years, make policy on local matters and serve as administrative units in charge of garbage collection, sewer construction, and other municipal services. A municipal council has no decision-making powers, and municipal officials are subject to numerous legal, financial, and political limitations imposed by national officials. The members of the council vary in number from five to 17, according to the population of the local entity.

2007-9 Amendments

On August 15, 2007, President Chavez proposed a package of reforms to the 1999 constitution, including measures that allowed indefinite presidential re-election, a reorganization of the geographic boundaries of government, and a redefinition of private property. Chavez's defeat in the 02 December 2007 constitutional referendum on sweeping changes to 69 articles of the 350-article 1999 Constitution was a rejection of the aggressive, radical agenda which he tried to impose this year. Chavez's sweeping proposals kept many of his supporters from voting, and lead many to vote against him. They also energized new sources of opposition--notably university students, former governing partner Podemos, and former Defense Minister Baduel--sowing more doubt within his base. Chavez's overreach galvanized the traditional opposition parties, enabling them to field "No" bloc witnesses at most of the polls to prevent electoral fraud.

The National Electoral Council (CNE) announced 15 February 2009 that Venezuelan voters approved a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate term limits, 54.85 percent to 45.15 percent. The result, coming on the heels of the "Yes" camp's state-funded and sometimes violent campaign split along socio-economic lines and was likely to accentuate political polarization. Nevertheless, voting was generally peaceful and fluid with only scattered irregularities.

The elimination of presidential term limits effectively removed the last remaining check on Chavez's power and is a major blow to Venezuelan democracy. Chavez effectively controlled all major state institutions, including the rubber-stamp National Assembly and Supreme Court, who had repeatedly proven themselves unwilling to curb even egregious abuses of presidential authority. The increasingly authoritarian stewardship of the country is now not even limited by time. Indeed, the removal of term limits violated the longstanding Venezuelan tradition of alternation of executive power, which dates back to the nation's independence. Even Venezuelan strongman Juan Vicente Gomez stepped down twice to rule by proxy during his reign from 1908 to 1935 so as to give a semblance of democratic alternation of power. Chavez is now free to continue "deepening" his Bolivarian revolution, and can turn his full attention to manipulating state institutions.

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Page last modified: 26-01-2019 19:08:09 ZULU