Geography Of VenezuelaVenezuela, a third larger than Texas, occupies most of the northern coast of South America on the Caribbean Sea. It is bordered by Colombia to the west, Guyana to the east, and Brazil to the south. Mountain systems break Venezuela into four distinct areas: (1) the Maracaibo lowlands; (2) the mountainous region in the north and northwest; (3) the Orinoco basin, with the llanos (vast grass-covered plains) on its northern border and great forest areas in the south and southeast; and (4) the Guiana Highlands, south of the Orinoco, accounting for nearly half the national territory.
When Columbus explored Venezuela on his third voyage in 1498, the area was inhabited by Arawak, Carib, and Chibcha Indians. A subsequent Spanish explorer gave the country its name, meaning “Little Venice.” Caracas was founded in 1567. Simón Bolívar, who led the liberation from Spain of much of the continent, was born in Caracas in 1783. With Bolívar taking part, Venezuela was one of the first South American colonies to revolt in 1810, winning independence in 1821. Federated at first with Colombia and Ecuador as the Republic of Greater Colombia, Venezuela became a republic in 1830. A period of unstable dictatorships followed. Antonio Guzman Blanco governed from 1870 to 1888, developing an infrastructure, expanding agriculture, and welcoming foreign investment.
Gen. Juan Vicente Gómez was dictator from 1908 to 1935, when Venezuela became a major oil exporter. A military junta ruled after his death. Leftist Dr. Rómulo Betancourt and the Democratic Action Party won a majority of seats in a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution in 1946. A well-known writer, Rómulo Gallegos, candidate of Betancourt's party, became Venezuela's first democratically elected president in 1947. Within eight months, Gallegos was overthrown by a military-backed coup led by Marcos Peréz Jiménez, who was ousted himself in 1958. Since 1959, Venezuela has been one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. Betancourt served from 1959–1964, while Rafael Caldera Rodríguez, president from 1969 to 1974, legalized the Communist Party and established diplomatic relations with Moscow.
Venezuela benefited from the oil boom of the early 1970s. In 1974, President Carlos Andrés Pérez took office, and in 1976 Venezuela nationalized foreign-owned oil and steel companies, offering compensation. Luis Herrera Campíns became president in 1978. Declining world oil prices sent Venezuela's economy into a tailspin, increasing the country's foreign debt. Pérez was reelected to a nonconsecutive term in 1988 and launched an unpopular austerity program. Military officers staged two unsuccessful coup attempts in 1992, while the following year Congress impeached Pérez on corruption charges. President Rafael Caldera Rodríguez was elected in Dec. 1993 to face the 1994 collapse of half of the country's banking sector, falling oil prices, foreign debt repayment, and inflation. In 1997, the government announced an expansion of gold and diamond mining to reduce reliance on oil.
The Hugo Chavez Era BeginsLeftist president Hugo Chavez took office in 1999, pledging political and economic reforms to give the poor a greater share of the country's oil wealth. A constituent assembly was formed to rewrite the constitution in July 1999, followed by the creation of a constitutional assembly made up of Chavez's allies that replaced the democratically elected Congress. Chavez's assumption of greater power prompted charges that he is establishing a left-wing dictatorship.
Chavez was reelected to a six-year term in July 2000. Troops were called in to quell serious protests over the election in several cities. In 2000 Chavez visited other OPEC countries, becoming the first foreign head of state to visit Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. He is close to President Fidel Castro of Cuba, which receives Venezuelan oil at reduced prices.
In Dec. 2001, business and labor organizations held a work stoppage to protest Chavez's increasingly authoritarian government. In April 2002, tensions reached a boiling point as workers reduced oil production to protest Chavez's policies. Following a massive anti-Chavez demonstration during which 12 people were killed, a coalition of business and military leaders forced Chavez from power. But international criticism of the coup, especially in Latin America, and an outpouring of support from the president's followers returned Chavez to power just two days later. After the coup, Chavez remained highly popular among the poor, despite the desperate state of the economy. Venezuelan labor unions, business organizations, the media, and a good part of the military remained substantially less enchanted.
Chavez Survives Referendum, Consolidates PowerBeginning in early Dec. 2002, a general strike was called by business and labor leaders. By Jan. 2003 it had virtually brought the economy, including the oil industry, to a halt. Strike leaders pledged to continue until Chavez resigned or agreed to early elections. But in Feb. 2003, after nine weeks, the strikers conceded defeat. In Aug. 2003, a petition with 3.2 million signatures was delivered to the country's election commission, demanding a recall referendum on Chavez. The Chavez government challenged the referendum process rigorously, and petitions submitted in Sept. 2003 and Feb. 2004 were rejected as invalid. The electoral board finally accepted a petition in June 2004 and scheduled the referendum for August 15. Chavez, who had been shoring up his standing with the Venezuelan poor during the delays, won the referendum with an overwhelming 58% of the vote. The opposition alleged fraud, but international observers confirmed that there had been no irregularities. Chavez's hand was clearly strengthened, and by the spring of 2005, his popularity rating reached 70%, due in large part to his social spending programs. In Dec. 2005 parliamentary elections, Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement won 114 of 167 seats, and the remaining seats were won by his allies. The opposition boycotted the election, maintaining they could not trust the pro-Chavez National Electoral Council. President Chávez won reelection in Dec. 2006 with 63% of the vote.
In early 2007, Chávez took significant steps to further consolidate his power and move Venezuela closer to becoming a socialist state. In January, he announced the nationalization of major energy and telecommunications companies. Days later, the National Assembly voted to allow Chávez to rule by decree for 18 months. In May, Chávez shut down the main opposition television station, RCTV, which has been critical of the government. The National Assembly voted in August to abolish presidential term limits.
In November 2007, the Colombian army captured FARC rebels who were carrying videos, photographs, and letters of about 15 hostages, some who have been held in jungle camps by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for nearly ten years. The Marxist-inspired FARC—the largest rebel group in Latin America—has been waging guerilla wars against the Colombian government for 40 years. Hostages included three American military contractors and Ingrid Betancourt, former Colombian presidential candidate. Also in November, Uribe withdrew his support of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s attempts to negotiate with the FARC, escalating tension between the two countries. Chávez subsequently withdrew the Venezuelan ambassador to Colombia.
New Referendum Fails but Chavez is UndeterredOn December 3, 2007, a referendum that was widely expected to pass was rejected by voters, 51% to 49%, following weeks of uncharacteristic public protests and campaigning against the package put forward by Chávez. The proposed 69 amendments to the constitution included abolishment of presidential term limits, removal of the Central Bank's autonomy, which would have given Chávez new power to build a socialist economy, and a few that enjoyed wide support, including reducing the work day to six hours and offering pensions to street vendors and housewives.
“I will not withdraw even one comma of this proposal, this proposal is still alive," Chávez said. "For me, this is not a defeat."
Chávez instituted a time change on December 9, 2007, which put Venezuela a half-hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time. The government claimed it was a health measure to improve the lives of Venezuelans by exposing them to more sunlight.
New Challenges for Chavez at Home and AbroadMonths of negotiations between Chávez and FARC rebels over the release of three hostages came to an end on December 31, 2007, when the FARC refused to hand them over, saying the promised security conditions had not been met. On January 10, 2008, however, FARC rebels freed two hostages, Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez de Perdomo, in Guaviare, in southern Colombia. Rojas, a Colombian politician captured in 2002, and Perdomo, a Colombian law-maker captured in 2001, were escorted out of the jungle by several guerillas. The release of the hostages was a triumph for Chavez, who coordinated the operation.In March 2008, Colombian forces crossed into Ecuadorean territory and killed FARC rebel leader, Raul Reyes, and 20 other rebels. In response, Venezuela and Ecuador broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia and sent troops to the Colombian border. In an attempt to help cool the diplomatic tension between the three countries, the Organization of American States approved a resolution, which declared that the Colombian raid into Ecuador was a violation of sovereignty. On March 6, Nicaragua broke off diplomatic relations with Colombia to demonstrate unity with President Rafael Correa of Ecuador. The diplomatic dispute was short-lived; days after the raid, the leaders of the countries involved held a summit meeting and re-established ties.
As part of his continued campaign to assume complete authoritarian control over the country, President Chávez implemented a new intelligence law in May 2008, and replaced the country's old intelligence agencies, which include the DISIP secret police and the DIM military intelligence agency, with two new self-governed agencies called the General Intelligence Office and General Counterintelligence office. The new intelligence law requires citizens to assist the new agencies, or else face incarceration. Chávez claimed that the new law was necessary to guarantee "national security" in the face of alleged intimidation and possible attacks from the United States. On June 7, 2008, Chávez reversed the new intelligence policies, acknowledging the intense opposition and extensive criticism from the Venezuelan people.
On July 31, 2008 the last day that Chávez had legislative power he approved 26 new laws that significantly increased his control, enabling him to delegate regional leaders with separate budgets, create a new military branch, and temporarily control private companies, among other powers. On Sept. 4, in the latest of many of private company takeovers by the government, the Venezuelan parliament voted to give Chávez control of the country's fuel distribution. Chavez won a decisive referendum in February 2009, giving him the ability to him to run for re-election indefinitely.
Chavez Experiences Electoral Setback and Battles Health IssuesIn September 2010 parliamentary elections, opposition parties won a narrow majority of the vote, taking 5.7 million votes to 5.4 million for Chavez's United Socialist Party. A gerrymandered electoral system awarded Mr Chavez's supporters 98 of the 165 seats in the National Assembly, but he will no longer have the two-thirds majority required for laws affecting constitutional rights and for judicial appointments
In early June 2011, while visiting Cuba, Chavez was hospitalized. Doctors there removed a baseball-sized cancerous tumor. After the surgery, Chavez remained secluded in Havana while his senior officials denied news reports that he had cancer. However, on June 30, Chavez appeared in a televised address and confirmed suspicion that he was battling cancer. He spoke to the nation from a medical facility in Cuba where he had been for three weeks. He did not say when he would return, nor did he name a substitute in his absence. Political opponents of Chavez argued that it was unconstitutional for him to govern from a foreign country.
Earlier in 2011, Chavez suffered from a knee injury and severe colds. The various ailments forced him to reduce his appearances and travel. Too soon to tell how his battle with cancer will impact the presidential election in 2012, Chavez's absence was already being felt. In June 2011, while Chavez received care at a medical facility in Cuba, doctors at Venezuela hospitals went on strike to demand better pay; frequent blackouts caused unrest in cities; and in a prison uprising more than 20 people were killed.
By July 7, 2011, Chavez had returned to Venezuela and was back at work, presiding over cabinet meetings and addressing soldiers at a promotion ceremony. He returned in time to celebrate Venezuela's 200th anniversary of its independence and vowed publicly to beat cancer. In late July, he returned to Cuba and completed a second phase of cancer treatment. After the treatment, the doctors did not detect any malignant cells in his body.
On October 20, 2011, Chavez declared that he was cancer free. His announcement comes less than five months after he had surgery to remove a tumor while in Cuba. He made the announcement after a short trip back to Cuba for a follow up appointment with doctors. Chavez, who has never revealed what type of cancer he had, underwent four chemotherapy treatments. Despite Chavez's announcement, there was still widespread speculation on just how sick or healthy he may be.
Major League Baseball Player KidnappedOn November 9, 2011, Wilson Ramos, a catcher for the Washington Nationals, was kidnapped by several men outside his parents' home, just east of Valencia. Kidnappings have been a problem for Venezuela over the last few years, but this was the first time that a Major League Baseball (MLB) player has been abducted. The country has one of the world's highest kidnapping rates. An estimated 17,000 people were kidnapped in Venezuela between July 2008 and July 2009. A Venezuelan police Twitter feed has reported that Ramos is still alive.
On November 12, 2011, two days after Ramos was taken, Venezuelan police commandos rescued him during a gunfight. Eight people were charged in the kidnapping, including a 74-year-old man and 60-year-old woman who supplied food to the kidnappers from their nearby home. Authorities still searched for four Colombian men who escaped during the gunfight. Ramos was informed by his kidnappers that they had been watching his movements for some time before the abduction. The kidnappers only demanded money. The first known MLB player to be kidnapped in Venezuela, Ramos has brought attention to an ongoing problem in the country. While he was missing, candlelight vigils and public prayers were held at stadiums and outside Ramos's home. International media also covered the kidnapping.
An End to the Monroe Doctrine?In December 2011, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States met for a two day summit in Caracas. The group, unlike the Organization of American States, includes Cuba, but excludes the U.S. and Canada. At the summit President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela called for an end to the Monroe Doctrine.
The Monroe Doctrine is a policy of U.S. intervention in the region, instated by U.S. President James Monroe in 1823. Before the summit officially began, Ortega said, "We are sentencing the Monroe Doctrine to death."
Chavez Wins 2012 Presidential ElectionIn February 2012, President Hugo Chavez announced that the cancer he was diagnosed with in 2011 had returned. On Feb. 24, Chavez returned to Cuba for more surgery. After the surgery, from Havana, he said that the tumor removed from his pelvic region was malignant and that he would begin radiation treatment soon.
Also in February 2012, millions of voters chose Henrique Capriles Radonski to challenge Chavez in the presidential election on October 7, 2012. Capriles, the moderate governor of Miranda, received more than 1.8 million votes in February's primary; more than double the votes of anyone else in the running.
On July 9, 2012, Chavez stated that he was "totally free" of cancer. He did not reveal what type of cancer. Later on in July, he went on the campaign trail in an effort to prove to voters that he was on the mend. Chavez has increased his public appearances since returning in May from Cuba where he sought treatment for cancer.
In early October 2012, as the presidential election approached, polls showed the race between Chavez and Radonski as too close to call, showing that Chavez's rule was vulnerable in ways it never had been before. However, before the election, the government implemented a new electronic voting system. Many Venezuelans expressed fear over the electronic ballots, afraid that their vote against the president could be tracked. Voting against the president could result in the loss of a government job or social welfare benefits. In the 2004 recall referendum, millions of voter names were made public. The voters had all signed a petition to remove Chavez from office.
On October 7, 2012, Hugo Chavez won the presidential election in Venezuela. He received 54 percent of the vote. His opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, received 45 percent. Even though it was the narrowest margin of victory, Chavez still easily won his third six-year term as president. However, Chavez faced new challenges at the start of his third term, including his weakened health and a stronger, bolder opposition to his government.
Chavez Still Battling Cancer in Late 2012In December 2012, Chavez informed the nation on television that he needed another operation for cancer. Before the surgery, he named Nicolas Maduro, the vice president, his successor should Chavez be unable to lead his country in the future. According to Ernesto Villegas, Venezuela's information minister, the surgery was performed in Havana on December 11 and lasted for more than six hours. He said that Chavez's recovery from the surgery was "progressive and favorable."
The day after Chavez's surgery, Vice President Maduro confirmed that Chavez's condition was serious and asked the country to prepare for "hard, complex and difficult days." Chavez would begin his next six-year term as president on January 10, 2013. If he steps down, new elections would take place.
Chavez's New Term Begins Without HimOn January 4, 2013, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said in a television broadcast that Chavez could be sworn in after the start of his term according to the nation's Constitution. Chavez was still in Cuba, battling cancer and would not able to get back in time for his inauguration.
Meanwhile, the political opposition grew restless because the mystery surrounding Chavez and his health overshadowed pressing issues like food shortages and stagnant oil production. During an early January legislative meeting, Julio Borges, a National Assembly opposition member, said, "Who's governing Venezuela?" Finally, the night before Chavez's inauguration, the Supreme Court ruled that the inauguration could be postponed and his team of advisors could begin the transition to the new term in his absence.
See also Encyclopedia: Venezuela.
U.S. State Dept. Country Notes: Venezuela