PRESIDENT: Hugo Chavez (Apr. 1999 - - - )
POPULATION: 25.7 million
KEY EXPORTS: Petroleum
|July 2000||Hugo Chavez won 59% in elections deemed fair by observers. He pledges "next phase of Bolivarian revolution." Gov. Francisco Arias got 37%.|
|Aug. 2000||Chavez visits Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the first head of state to do so since Gulf War.|
|Sept. 2000||Ven. hosts first OPEC summit in 25 years, attacks inequalities between Third World and rich countries.|
|Oct. 2000||Chavez and Fidel Castro sign oil agreement in Caracas, play baseball, alternate between combat fatigues and dark suits.|
|Feb. 2001||Ex-Pres. Bush (elder) visits Chavez in Caracas, they go fishing in jungle.|
|Mar. 2001||Ven. arrests rebel hijacker (1999) Jose Maria Ballestas, angering Colombia, which wants to try him.|
|Mar. 2001||At Summit of Americas in Quebec, Chavez was only leader against (of 34) against hemisphere free trade.|
|Nov. 2001||Ven. was chosen as head of Group of 77 in U.N. Gen. Ass. Chavez then visited World Trade Center. State Dept. is becoming less tolerant of him.|
|Dec. 2001||Bolivarian "circles" of Chavez supporters get special access, favors, angering opponents.|
|Apr. 2002||After national strike against Chavez turns violent, a coup attempt is launched. Chavez was arrested by military officers while Pedro Carmona was sworn in as "provisional president." Bush administration at first seemed to support the coup, but Chavez regained power. At least 70 are killed in political violence.|
|May 2002||Chavez suggests that the U.S. was involved in the coup attempt against him.|
|July 2002||Jimmy Carter visited Venezuela to bridge the huge gap of distrust between Hugo Chavez and his opponents. Hundreds of thousands march, calling on him to resign.|
|Aug. 2002||Supreme Court ruled that there were no grounds for the charge of rebellion against high military officers associated with the attempted coup. Pro-Chavez demonstrators burned vehicles outside their building.|
|Sept. 2002||Chavez attends Earth Summit in Johannesburg, but says such meetings don't serve interests of developing countries. He blames world poverty on neoliberalism, "work of the devil."|
|Oct. 2002||Hundreds of thousands from the "Coordinadora Democratica" marched to demand immediate elections, joined by some military officers. U.N. Sec. Gen. Kofi Annan asked Venezuelans to be patient. Gen. Julio Garcia Montoya said the army would not take sides.|
|Nov. 2002||Protests become violent again. Cesar Gaviria visited Venezuela, trying to arrange special elections next year and avert a civil war.|
|Nov. 2002||Pres. Chavez took control of Caracas municipal police, sparking more protests. Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña is a political rival.|
|Dec. 2002||Exports of oil were interrupted by another national strike. Carlos Ortega, head of Ven. Workers' Confed., criticized militarization of oil industry and other key economic sectors. PDVSA employees took control of an oil tanker, and Chavez ordered a naval vessel to put down the mutiny. Nat. Guard Gen. Carlos Alfonzo Martinez was arrested after participating in a demonstration.|
|Jan. 2003||Several people were killed as gunfire erupted in protests. Pres. Chavez accused the Caracas police of killing two of his supporters, and declared that no one will force him to abandon his constitutional duties. Bank employees went on 48-hour strike. Cesar Gaviria and Jimmy Carter arrived to mediate. Ven. Winter League baseball season was cancelled. Supreme Court canceled referendum scheduled for Feb. 2.|
|Feb. 2003||General strike slowly ground to a halt, as business owners are forced to reopen to avert bankruptcy. Chavez decreed new regulations on foreign exchange transactions, to stop capital flight. Plain clothes secret police began arresting opposition politicians, including Carlos Fernandez, head of a business confedration.|
|Mar. 2003||U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro fears that terrorists may be operating in Venezuela, whose ambassador to U.N. quits to protest Chavez. Criminal court dismissed "subversion" charges against labor union leaders who participated in the failed general strike.|
|Apr. 2003||A bomb destroyed the offices where reconciliation meetings were being held between government officials and opponents. No one died. Pres. Uribe met with Chavez to discuss a joint effort to prevent Colombian guerrillas from using Venezuelan territory as a sanctuary.|
|May 2003||Cesar Gaviria and "group of friends" sought to mediate the political impasse. The government and opposition signed an agreement that sets the stage for possible referendum after August 19.|
|June 2003||After a fistfight on the floor of the legislature, 93 members of the pro-Chavez party held an outside session in a downtown Caracas park.|
|July 2003||Pres. Hugo Chavez visited Fidel Castro in Cuba after the Andean summit.|
|July 2003||Police used tear gas and shotgun pellets to disperse anti-Chavez demonstators mourning death of Cardinal Ignacio Velasco.|
|Aug. 2003||Opposition gathers 3.2 million recall petition signatures. Work of Cuban doctors in slums raise suspicions.|
|Aug. 2004||Chavez wins a referendum to decide whether he should stay in office.|
|Oct. 2004||Bomb kills the prosecutor who was pressing charges against backers of the failed 2002 coup against Chavez.|
|Feb. 2005||Venezuela dismissed U.S. criticism of its plans to buy Russian rifles and helicopters.|
|Mar. 2005||Chavez accused Bush of trying to assassinate him, went to Libya, threatened to cut off oil to U.S.|
|Apr. 2006||Chavez announces Venezuela will withdraw from the Andean Community. Other members vow it will go on.|
|July 2005||At Indep. Day parade, Chavez says no invading army could match Ven. forces, "armed to the teeth." Amb. Brownfield says U.S. could get by without Ven. oil. Ven. complains about Luis Posada, anti-Castro terrorist in U.S.|
|Aug. 2005?||Castro visited Venezuela.|
|Nov. 2005||Chavez offers cheap heating oil for poor in northeast U.S., via CITGO.|
|Dec. 2005||Pro-Chavez parties win nearly all the 167 seats in Nat. Ass. elections; traditional parties boycotted it. U.S. denies fomenting boycott.|
|Feb. 2006||Ven. expels U.S. naval attache, John Negroponte condemned Ven. ties to Iran and N. Korea, Don Rumsfeld compares Chavez to Hitler.|
|Apr. 2006||Car of Amb. Brownfield was hit by eggs and tomatoes thrown by mob, and Chavez threatens to expel him. Venezuela quits Andean Community and forms "Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas" (a trade alliance with Cuba and Bolivia) at summit in Havana.|
|May 2006||U.S. bans arms Venezuela sales, blocking sale of F-16 jets and ships by Spain. Peru rebukes interference by Chavez in Peru's election.|
|June 2006||Chavez ordered Ven. civilians and armed forces to prepare for invasion by U.S., and a mock battle exercise was staged on the beaches. Chavez plans to buy 24 Sukhoi jets from Russia, and campaigns for seat on Security Council.|
|July 2006||Venezuela joined MERCOSUR at summit in Argentina.|
|Aug. 2006||Chavez visits Mali and Benin to sign investment agreements, then goes to China to sign oil sale/investment contract.|
The northern extremities of the Andes Mountains stretch across northern Venezuela, gradually dwindling away the farther east you go. The capital Caracas appears to sit on the coastline but it actually lies on the southern side of this mountain range. Most of the interior is flat, in the Orinoco River basin, and during the wet season from May to November this llano region is flooded. In the southeast is the Gran Sabana mountain range, with world-famous Angel Falls. In southern Venezuela is a unique fluvial oddity: the Casiquiare Channel, a natural waterway that (during the wet season, at least) connects the Orinoco basin to the Amazon basin. Depending on conditions, it might flow (albeit very slowly) either north or south! Peruvian President Belaunde led a riverine expedition that successfully transited the Casiquiare Channel on his way to a summit conference in July 1983, a historic first.
For much of its history, Venezuela was a backwater of Latin America. Venezuela means "Little Venice," an allusion to the marshy terrain along much of the coast. It was the birthplace of Simon Bolivar ("the Liberator"), but in 1830 local leaders betrayed the Bolivarian vision of a broad confederation of former Spanish colonies by seceding from Gran Colombia, prompting Ecuador to do likewise. The discovery of oil in 1922 started a process of social modernization, but the political system remained dictatorial as the elites tried to stifle unrest. There was a brief experiment with democracy in 1945, but a military coup restored the dictatorial system in 1948, mirroring the sequence of events in Peru. Finally a general strike and coup in 1958 led to democratic elections. The Betancourt government launched social welfare programs, funded by the petroleum revenue, becoming a showcase for President Kennedy's "Alliance for Progress." From the late 1950s until the late 1980s, Venezuela was one of the most durable democracies in all of Latin America, thanks to prosperity from its petroleum exports. The critical mistake they made was keeping the oil industry in government's hand, thereby intensifying the political ramifications of fluctuations in world energy markets. During the 1980s oil prices declined and the state-supported middle class in Venezuela shrank, causing massive consternation. In the late 1980s President Andres Garcia Perez, a populist who had served his first term in the 1970s, tried to reduce state subsidies so as to stabilize the economy, but he was accused of corruption and impeached. In February 1992 a disgruntled Army colonel named Hugo Chavez took advantage of the breakdown of order by launching a military coup, but it was put down and he was arrested. Another coup attempt was launched at his behest while he was in jail. He became a hero to the masses but the nemesis to neoliberal reformers in Washington and Latin America alike.
Although geographically part of South America, Venezuela's culture is much more tied to the Caribbean, and its dialect, fast-paced speech, food, and music share much in common with Cuba and Puerto Rico. The country is obsessed with beauty contests, and in the late 1980s produced the hit telenovela (soap opera) Cristal. Venezuela's upper classes are fond of going on shopping sprees in Miami.
Baseball: Strong interest. In keeping with its Caribbean cultural affinities, baseball is quite popular in Venezuela, unlike any other country in South America. There are eight semi-pro teams in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Venezuela used to have a stable two-party system, but all that changed when Hugo Chavez was elected President in 1999. He quickly set out to revamp the country's political institutions, forcing Congress to vote itself out of existence in favor of a new constitutional assembly that ratified a new charter for Chavez's "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela." This name change was an unsubtle declaration of his greater ambitions to rally the northern parts of South America into a unified anti-imperialist federation. Chavez has traveled to China, declared himself a devotee of Mao Zedong, and has embraced Fidel Castro, whose shoes he seems to want to fill. Though far-fetched, his agenda has caught the imagination of many people in Latin America. Even though he WAS freely elected by the people, his governing style has been quite autocratic, the perfect example of a contemporary paradox: the spread of "illiberal democracies" such as Fujimori in Peru, as well as Yeltsin and Putin in Russia. For several months, Venezuela was experiencing increasing turmoil as opposition to Chavez mounted. The coup against him was a classic coalition of traditional elites: wealthy people, the Catholic Church, and the military hierarchy.
Venezuela is one of the biggest sources of U.S. petroleum imports, and Chavez has repeatedly threatened to put an embargo on oil exports to the United States and has sharply criticized the U.S.-led wars against terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are deep divisions within Venezuela's armed forces, many of whom deeply resent the demagogic tyrant. Chavez probably has about 50 percent popular support, and his determination to stick it out at all costs forced opponents to back down, thereby averting a civil war.
The two traditional parties in Venezuela, Democratic Action and COPEI, boycotted the legislative elections of 2005, thereby ensuring that the National Assembly would be controlled by Chavez loyalists. They are shown in the following table even though they lack any legislative representation at present. The Radical Cause leftist movement that emerged in the 1990s has apparently been absorbed by the new parties allied to Chavez.
|Fifth Republic Movement||Fatherland for All (PPT)||We Can (PODEMOS)||Democratic Action||Christian Socialist (COPEI)|
|Hugo Chavez||Jose Albornoz||Ismael Garcia||Jesus Mendez||Eduardo Fernandez|