The Governmental System
The Venezuelan governmental system has been characterized by contradictions in theory and practice. While its constitutions pledged federalism and a separation of powers, political practice and custom gave an undeniable primacy to the government in Caracas and to the president, in particular. Even under the constitution of 1961, which gives extraordinary guarantees and rights to ordinary Venezuelans, the bureaucratic system has continued to favor those with family and political connections. Although the underlying system predates the democratic transition of 1958, it has broadened and became more pluralistic as more individuals and political brokers achieved influence in the drafting and implementation of policies.
The formal constitutional structure is fairly straightforward in its provisions. The pronouncements on individual and group rights, on the other hand, are imaginative, especially those articles dealing with social and welfare rights. This blend of traditional articles and those that reflect commitments toward reform and social justice makes the constitution of 1961 an interesting case study.
Under its twenty-sixth constitution, adopted on January 23, 1961, Venezuela is a federal republic made up of twenty states, two federal territories (Amazonas and Delta Amacuro), and a Federal District (Caracas). In addition, there are seventy-two island dependencies in the Caribbean. The power of the government is divided between the national government and those of the states, districts, and municipalities. Throughout most of its history, however, the national governmental power in Caracas has predominated.
Although the states did have some powers of their own and enjoyed some autonomy, until 1989 they were administered by governors appointed by the president. The first direct popular election of governors took place in July 1989. Even though they gained an independent political base, these governors still depended on the national government for their budgets. In contrast, the states had a much longer history of electing unicameral legislative assemblies. States have also been subdivided historically into county-like districts with popularly elected district councils and municipalities with popularly elected municipal councils. The Federal District and the federal territories similarly had elected councils.
Even though the president has considerable power, the constitution does place specific limitations on who may run for the presidency. Further, a retiring president may not return to the presidency until two terms, or ten years, have elapsed. Carlos Andrés Pérez, reelected in 1989, became the first president since 1958 to occupy the highest office twice. Former presidents automatically become life members of the Senate (upper house of the Congress). Traditionally, they have also been viewed as elder statesmen. This was particularly true in the case of Rómulo Betancourt (president, 1959-64), who, with his great prestige, continued to exert considerable influence years after he had left the presidency.
The constitution provides for the direct election of the president, who is chosen under universal suffrage for a five-year term. The president appoints and presides over the cabinet and determines the number of ministries. The office of vice president, which had been at times provided for in earlier Venezuelan constitutions, is not mentioned in the 1961 document. One anecdote holds that wily Juan Vicente Gómez (president, 1908- 35) abolished the office of the vice president in a turn-of-the-century constitution, after he, as vice president, had moved to the top office during the absence of president Cipriano Castro. Nearly a century later, the Venezuelan governmental system retained in its constitution traditional ways of protecting the president from the possibly fatal ambitions of a second-in-command.
Unlike the constitution followed in the time of the dictator Gómez, however, the 1961 constitution provides for mandatory voting for all Venezuelan citizens who are at least eighteen years old and who are not convicts or members of the armed forces. Generally, more than 80 percent of those registered voted. Each political party had its own ballot with a distinctive color and symbol, so that even illiterate citizens could recognize their preferred party choice. Elections were supervised by an independent, federally appointed electoral commission. Constitutionally assured elections, universal suffrage, and participation in politics for over three decades have made Venezuela a unique and much admired democratic model in Latin America.
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