The 1961 constitution continues the long tradition of a powerful president, who serves as head of state and chief executive. He or she must be a Venezuelan by birth, at least thirty years old, and not a member of the clergy. The president is elected by a plurality vote under direct and universal suffrage, serves for five years, and cannot be reelected until after two intervening terms have passed. President Carlos Andrés Pérez became the first Venezuelan elected to serve two terms of office under this provision of the 1961 constitution; he won the December 1988 election after having served as president from 1974 to 1979.
The president commands the armed forces, calls special sessions of the Congress, and exercises sole control of foreign policy. He can authorize expenditures outside the budget and can negotiate loans. The constitution provides for a weak form of ministerial responsibility. This is rendered meaningless, however, because while the constitution calls upon the president to consult with his ministers, it allows him to appoint and remove them. In fact, through his ministers, the president can adopt whatever regulations he chooses in order to implement the laws. These regulations are not subject to the approval of Congress, and the courts are not empowered to review them.
The major challenges and limitations to presidential power are found not in constitutional restrictions but in the political system as defined by the major Venezuelan political parties. Limitations placed on presidential initiative by the play of forces within the president's party restricted presidential actions informally but effectively; in practice, therefore, political checks functioned more effectively than constitutional ones to prevent presidential abuses of authority.
The constitutional power to declare a state of siege and temporarily restrict or suspend constitutional guarantees represents the ultimate exercise of presidential authority under the 1961 constitution. During Rómulo Betancourt's elected tenure (president, 1959-64), he felt compelled to use these constitutionally sanctioned limitations in order to prevail over forces that threatened the survival of his legitimately elected government. It should be pointed out, however, that certain guarantees cannot be constitutionally abrogated under any circumstances. The guarantee against perpetual imprisonment and the prohibition against the death penalty represent two such provisions.
Cabinet and noncabinet ministers serve as advisers to the president; they are appointed and removed by the president without input from the Congress. Ministers may introduce bills in Congress, and they must submit an annual report and an accounting of funds to Congress at the beginning of each regular session. The ministers of energy and mines, finance, foreign affairs, interior, and national defense and the head of the Central Office of Coordination and Planning (Oficina Central de Coordinación y Planificación--Cordiplan) traditionally have been considered the most powerful and prestigious in the Council of Ministers, or cabinet.
The president determines the size and composition of the cabinet. Both Betancourt and Raúl Leoni (president, 1964-69), who succeeded him as the second chief executive in the democratic period, appointed thirteen cabinet ministers. Since then, the number has grown as high as twenty-five. Some observers have noted a correlation between this increase in the number of ministries and the oil bonanza that began in 1973. As the oil money flowed in, the number of ministries also increased. Subsequently, even though the oil boom ended in the early 1980s, presidents have found it difficult to operate with as few ministries as Betancourt and Leoni did.
The growth of the cabinet was not surprising in light of the ambitious list of the government's goals in the 1970s and 1980s. These included preserving democratic institutions, maintaining public order, modernizing the armed forces, managing the external public debt so as to avoid undesirable effects on living standards, and directing the economy and the development of the country's physical infrastructure. All these broad and wide-ranging goals fell within the president's purview and range of legislative initiatives; therefore, when Venezuelans spoke of "the government," almost invariably they meant "the president," or "the executive."
Driven by this mandate, the centralized bureaucracy, under the control of the president, has become by far the largest employer in the country. Commonly cited figures on the number of public servants were inaccurate because they often excluded those employed by the many state corporations, among them those dealing with the Venezuelan Petroleum Corporation (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.--PDVSA), the Foreign Commerce Institute, the Superintendency of Foreign Investment (Sistema de Inversiones Extranjeras--SIEX), and many others.
The tremendous growth of bureaucracy provoked controversy, especially as oil revenues declined during the 1980s. Many Venezuelans felt that the growth of bureaucracy contributed to corruption, fiscal irresponsibility, and a declining level of services. And yet, a significant number of Venezuelans worked for the government either directly or indirectly or had close relatives so employed. The Venezuelan press had been vigorous in its exposés of the most flagrant cases of nepotism, but authorities had seldom taken effective action to curtail this practice. The 1989 switch to the direct election of governors lessened the opportunity for presidents to appoint political cronies to these offices. President Pérez's announced policy of privatization of some parts of the public sector could also have an impact on inefficient personnel practices. Through 1990, however, the overall effect of these changes could not be judged.
An early sign of Pérez's intentions toward fulfilling his pledge of greater privatization came with the announced intention to dissolve the Venezuelan Investment Fund (Fondo de Inversiones de Venezuela--FIV), once the most visible institutional symbol of the liberal application of oil revenues. Perhaps ironically, the FIV had been created by Pérez in 1974 during his earlier presidency as a channel to direct the additional income generated by rocketing oil prices into the expansion of non-oil sectors of the economy. Allocations by the government to the FIV funded large-scale projects intended to boost the production of steel, aluminum, and electricity. In addition, possibly in an effort to pave the way for an eventual bid by Pérez to become the secretary general of the United Nations, FIV also channeled Venezuelan financial assistance to poor countries in Central America, the Caribbean, and the Andean region.
Early in 1990, the government reallocated FIV's assets among various ministries. This move, however, did not necessarily represent the demise of this powerful bureaucratic entity. Some sources indicated that FIV's technicians would be charged with administering the privatization program. By late 1990, however, the privatization program had yet to sell a single state asset, and some observers questioned the strength of Pérez's commitment to the process.
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