Venezuela History - The Triumph of DemocracyVenezuelan political dynamics after 1958 centered on a strong commitment to the democratic "rules of the game." Although Venezuelans--and foreigners alike--have pointed out that this democratic commitment was not without its blemishes, few Venezuelans still spoke about the days of dictatorship as the golden days of their country. In general, most felt that Venezuela's democracy was strong and robust, but that democracy alone had not brought about social justice or narrowed the gap between the very rich and the very poor. Indeed, the practice of democracy, in and of itself, was perhaps not even capable of achieving such goals.
Both AD and COPEI administrations have committed themselves to developing coherent, overall economic and social development policies. Such agencies as Cordiplan were established to coordinate planning and contributed to rapid social and economic mobilization. Reform rather than revolution has been a goal of both major political parties. By the same token, the policies of sembrar el petróleo, "sowing the oil," revenues served as a link uniting different factions within and between the two major parties. Even in the less affluent 1980s, large revenues produced by the petroleum industry continued to contribute to the government's ability to finance and develop ambitious programs in agriculture, education, industrial diversification, and health.
The nationalization of the petroleum industry in 1976, a long-sought goal by both major parties and practically all groups within Venezuela, was accomplished in a measured and tempered manner. Although not all parties to the nationalization accords agreed with every provision, most would admit that nationalization has worked better than many expected. Overall, it has worked well enough to serve as a successful model for other countries with some of the same developmental dilemmas as Venezuela. By ensuring that nationalization did not result in the drying up of foreign investment and, in turn, by ensuring that petroleum revenues served to some extent to underwrite reform programs, Venezuela created a financial cushion that enabled democratic governments to exert primary control over the exploitation of the nation's resources.
AD captured the presidency and both houses of Congress in 1973. Although it lost the presidency in 1978, AD remained the largest political party represented in the Senate and secured the same number of seats as the second largest party (and the winner of the presidency), COPEI, in the Chamber of Deputies. Lesser political parties such as National Opinion (Opinión Nacional-- Opina) have won a few seats (usually under ten in the Chamber of Deputies) in various elections since 1958. Since the reestablishment of democracy in 1958, however, the major blocs of senators and deputies have consistently belonged to either AD or COPEI. Possibly because their parties have either held the presidency or have been considered potential winners of the presidency, AD and COPEI legislators have, in general, displayed responsibility in adhering to the political and legislative process and have not gone to extremes to destabilize the executive.
Although Pérez's victory in the December 1988 elections broke the pattern of alternating victories for AD and COPEI, his party lost absolute control of Congress in the legislative vote. AD's share of the legislative vote fell to 43.8 percent, while COPEI obtained 31.4 percent and the leftist MAS doubled its representation. Of a total 253 congressional seats--204 in the Chamber of Deputies and 49 in the Senate--AD won with 121 seats (98 deputies and 23 senators), COPEI 89 seats (67 deputies and 22 senators), and MAS 22 seats (19 deputies and 3 senators). A center-right group, the New Democratic Generation (Nueva Generación Democrática), won seven seats (six deputies and one senator). Small left-wing parties obtained seven deputies and small center-right factions also elected seven deputies. Although the loss of absolute control of Congress might restrict some of the president's initiatives, overall it should represent only a minor impediment to the primacy of the executive.
The most outstanding political trend evidenced by six administrations since 1959 has been a commitment to and promotion of representative democracy. To many observers, the elections of 1988 assumed particular significance because they marked thirty years of democracy in Venezuela and indicated that pluralist democracy had a strong chance to survive. The food riots in Caracas in early 1989, which took place in spite of the overwhelming popular vote for the then recently inaugurated president Pérez revealed a certain popular dissatisfaction. Opinion polls have shown that many Venezuelans felt as though they had little impact on their leaders and the way that policies were drafted and implemented. The alternatives on either the right or left of the political spectrum, however, seemed to hold little appeal, and almost no one desired a return to an authoritarian regime.
AD and COPEI reforms dramatically benefited large segments of the population. Education and health reforms have opened job opportunities and improved the quality of life. Both literacy and life expectancy figures were among the highest in Latin America. Some other reforms, however well intentioned, have not succeeded. Most Venezuelans admitted that their costly agrarian reform programs had neither provided much land to poor farmers nor managed to feed the nation, which continued to import significant levels of foodstuffs.
Venezuela's mixed economic picture in many ways served to shape its foreign policy. Venezuela was a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). This brought Venezuela into high-level contact with a number of African countries, such as Nigeria, and with Middle Eastern oil producers. With the downturn of oil prices, Venezuela, like other once revenue-rich countries, had to face a continuing struggle to maintain foreign investment.
Jaime Lusinchi (president, 1984-89) sought to retain Venezuela's creditworthiness by paying the interest on its US$32 billion foreign debt, but was sadly disappointed when his gestures were not tangibly rewarded by foreign bankers. Bankers praised Venezuela's political courage and agreed on the country's long-term prospects, but they declined to approve new loans to Lusinchi's government. The ensuing economic crisis forced the government to devalue the currency; as inflation and unemployment soared, Venezuelans again felt vulnerable at the hands of the "multinationals."
When President Pérez assumed office in 1989, he, too, imposed austerity measures in an attempt to persuade foreign bankers to restructure the old debt and make new loans available to Venezuela. He achieved some initial success; austerity programs, however, have always proven difficult to sustain in the face of political and electoral pressure.
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