U.S. Department of State Background Note
HISTORY AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Toward the end of the 18th century, the Venezuelans began to grow restive under colonial control. In 1821, after several unsuccessful uprisings, the country succeeded in achieving independence from Spain, under the leadership of its most famous son, Simon Bolivar. Venezuela, along with what are now Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador, was part of the Republic of Gran Colombia until 1830, when Venezuela separated and became a separate sovereign country.
Much of Venezuela's 19th-century history was characterized by periods of political instability, dictatorial rule, and revolutionary turbulence. The first half of the 20th century was marked by periods of authoritarianism--including dictatorships from 1908-35 and from 1950-58. In addition, the Venezuelan economy shifted after the first World War from a primarily agricultural orientation to an economy centered on petroleum production and export.
Since the overthrow of Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958 and the military's withdrawal from direct involvement in national politics, Venezuela has enjoyed an unbroken tradition of civilian democratic rule. This earned Venezuela a reputation as one of the more stable democracies in Latin America. Until the 1998 elections, the Democratic Action (AD) and the Christian Democratic (COPEI) parties dominated the political environment at both the state and federal level.
The Caracazo And Popular Dissatisfaction
Deep popular dissatisfaction with the traditional political parties, income disparities, and economic difficulties were some of the major frustrations expressed by Venezuelans following Perez's impeachment. In December 1998, Hugo Chavez Frias won the presidency on a campaign for broad reform, constitutional change, and a crackdown on corruption.
The president is elected by a plurality vote with direct and universal suffrage. The term of office is 6 years, and a president may be re-elected to a single consecutive term. The president appoints the vice president. He decides the size and composition of the cabinet and makes appointments to it with the involvement of the National Assembly. Legislation can be initiated by the executive branch, the legislative branch (either a committee of the National Assembly or three members of the latter), the judicial branch, the citizen branch (ombudsman, public prosecutor, and controller general) or a public petition signed by no fewer than 0.1% of registered voters. The president can ask the National Assembly to reconsider portions of laws he finds objectionable, but a simple majority of the Assembly can override these objections.
The National Assembly is unicameral, consisting solely of the Chamber of Deputies. Deputies serve 5-year terms, and may be re-elected for a maximum of two additional terms. These legislative agents are elected by a combination of party list and single member constituencies. When the Congress is not in session, a delegated committee acts on matters relating to the executive and in oversight functions. In December 2005 pro-government parties took all 167 seats in the National Assembly after opposition parties boycotted the election over concerns with electoral conditions.
The Constitution designates three additional branches of the federal government--the judicial, citizen, and electoral branches.
The judicial branch is headed by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (TSJ), which may meet either in specialized chambers (of which there are six) or in plenary session. The justices are appointed by the National Assembly and serve 12-year terms. Under the 1999 Constitution, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice is composed of 20 justices. The 1999 Constitution was amended in 2004, and the total number of justices was expanded by 12 to a total of 32. In December 2004, the National Assembly selected new judges to fill the expansion. The judicial branch also consists of lower courts, including district courts, municipal courts, and courts of first instance.
The citizens branch consists of three components--the attorney general ("fiscal general"), the "defender of the people" or ombudsman, and the comptroller general. The holders of these offices, in addition to fulfilling their specific functions, also act collectively as the "Republican Moral Council" to challenge before the Supreme Tribunal of Justice actions they believe are illegal, particularly those which violate the Constitution. The holders of the "citizen power" offices are selected for terms of 7 years by the National Assembly.
The "Electoral Power," otherwise known as the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral or CNE), is responsible for organizing elections at all levels. Its five members are also elected to 7-year terms by the National Assembly. In the event of a hung vote in the National Assembly, the Supreme Tribunal of Justice can be called on to appoint the members.
The Referendum Process
From Referendum To Elections
A New Term and New Administration
In January 2007, President Chávez named a new Vice President (the former head of the CNE) and cabinet, drawing largely from deputies of the National Assembly. Chávez announced a renewed effort to implement his vision of "21st Century Socialism" in Venezuela. He asked the National Assembly to grant him special constitutional powers via an "enabling law" to rule by decree over a broad range of society and subsequently received those powers for a term of 18 months. He also took major steps to nationalize the telecommunications and electricity sectors, as well as to finalize a majority government share in many oil projects, all sectors with significant foreign investments.
On August 15, President Chávez proposed a package of reforms to his own 1999 Constitution. It is expected that this package will be submitted to a national referendum in early December. Among the reforms measures are: indefinite presidential re-election, a reorganization of the geographic boundaries of government and a redefinition of property. The National Assembly has subsequently proposed an additional package of constitutional reform proposals.
Principal Government Officials
The Venezuelan embassy in the United States is located at 1099 30th St. NW, Washington, DC 20007 (tel. (202) 342-2214). In addition to Washington, DC, Venezuela maintains consulates in Boston, Chicago, Houston, Miami, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco, and Puerto Rico.
The Consumer Price Index increase was approximately 17% at the end of 2006, following increases of 14.4% in 2006 and 19.2% in 2004.
As of January 23, 2003, all foreign exchange requests must be approved by the National Exchange Control Administration (CADIVI) and the Central Bank (BCV) completes all legal purchase and sale of foreign currency. The current exchange control regime rates for U.S. dollar exchange rate are: Bs. 2,144.60=U.S. $1.00 for purchase operations, and Bs. 2,150=U.S. $1.00 for sale operations. The national budget for 2007 assumes that the government will not devalue this year. Nontheless, some local economists expect devaluation in late 2007 due to the increasing disparity between official and parallel market rates.
Central Bank-held international reserves increased to over U.S. $36 billion at the end of 2006. The reserves would have been higher, but the BCV transferred $6 billion to the National Development Fund (FONDEN) during the last quarter 2005, as directed by the Central Bank Law (July 2005) and an additional $4.3 billion in 2006. The level of international reserves is expected to decrease during 2007 after additional transfers of foreign reserves to FONDEN and because the Central Bank Law established that state-owned oil company PDVSA will only transfer the foreign exchange earnings needed for its domestic expenses, taxes, royalties, and dividends to the BCV, and would transfer the rest to FONDEN.
Venezuelan sovereign debt, both domestic and foreign, has decreased in recent years in both absolute terms and as a percentage of GDP. Venezuela's external debt/GDP ratio of approximately 16% is low by Latin American standards. Venezuela's Emerging Markets Bond Index investment risk rating, at 202 basis points, dropped somewhat over 2005, but remained higher than many in the region.
There is considerable income inequality. The Gini coefficient was 0.45 during 2006. According to government statistics, the percentages of poor and extremely poor among Venezuelan population were 33.9% and 23.2%, respectively, in 2006. These high ratios are due primarily to lower real wages earned by employees, and high rates of un- and underemployment.
Starting January 1st 2008 Venezuela will adopt the "Bolívar Fuerte" as its new currency. The new Bolívar eliminates the three zeros of the older currency. For example, 50.000 Bolívars are equal to 50 Bolívar Fuertes.
Although economic growth has been impressive, as a result of the oil windfall, many in the Venezuelan business community remain very concerned about President Chavez' vision for 21st Century Socialism and what it portends for the private sector.
Petroleum And Other Resources
In the 1990’s, the Government of Venezuela opened up much of the hydrocarbon sector to foreign investment, promoting multi-billion dollar investment in heavy oil production, reactivation of old fields, and investment in several petrochemical joint ventures. By the late 1990s almost 60 foreign companies representing 14 different countries participated in one or more aspects of Venezuela's oil sector. On November 13, 2001, under an enabling law authorized by the National Assembly, President Chavez enacted a new Hydrocarbons Law, which came into effect in January 2002. This law replaced the Hydrocarbons Law of 1943 and the Nationalization Law of 1975. Among other things, the new law provided that all oil production and distribution activities would be the domain of the Venezuelan state, with the exception of the joint ventures targeting extra-heavy crude oil production. Under the new law, private investors cannot own 50% or more of the capital stock in joint ventures involved in upstream activities. The new law also provided that private investors could own up to 100% of the capital stock in downstream ventures. A Gaseous Hydrocarbons law promulgated earlier by the Chávez government also allowed substantial participation by private investors with respect to gas production ventures.
During the December 2002-February 2003 general strike, petroleum production and refining by PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, almost ceased. Despite the strike, these activities eventually were substantially restarted. Out of a total workforce of 45,000, over 20,000 PDVSA management and workers were subsequently dismissed because the government asserted they had abandoned their jobs during the strike. Current levels of production remain a subject of debate, with considerable difference between the levels cited by the Venezuelan government and those cited by private sector and international observers.
In early 2005, the government informed companies with operating service contracts for mature fields that they must migrate the contracts to joint ventures that conform to the 2001 Hydrocarbons Law. The government threatened to seize fields operating under the services contracts on December 31, 2005 if oil companies did not sign transition agreements to migrate their contracts. All but three companies ultimately signed joint venture agreements with the government. One company was bought out by its partner while the fields operated by two other companies were ultimately taken over by the government. One of these disputes was handled by negotiation while another company decided to take its case to international arbitration. In early 2007, President Chávez announced that the Venezuelan government would take a majority government share in the remaining foreign investments in the oil sector, including the four heavy-oil "strategic associations." Several international oil companies agreed to migrate their interests to joint ventures with majority government ownership. Two U.S. companies decided to pull out of Venezuela — one is still in negotiations over compensation while the other has announced that it will seek international arbitration.
Trade, Manufacturing and Agriculture
The government of Venezuela has taken a vocal role against the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). Its stated goal is to expand its Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) project and develop a South American bloc (see Foreign Relations).
Manufacturing contributed an estimated 17% of GDP in 2006. The manufacturing sector continued its recovery started in 2004, but remained hindered by a marked lack of private investment. Venezuela manufactures and exports steel, aluminum, textiles, apparel, beverages, and foodstuffs. It produces cement, tires, paper, fertilizer, and assembles cars both for domestic and export markets.
Agriculture accounts for approximately 3% of GDP, 10% of the labor force, and at least one-fourth of Venezuela's land area. Venezuela exports rice, cigarettes, fish, tropical fruits, coffee, cocoa, and manufactured products. The country is not self-sufficient in most areas of agriculture. Venezuela imports about two-thirds of its food needs. Through November 2006, U.S. firms exported $412 million worth of agricultural products, including wheat, corn, soybeans, soybean meal, cotton, animal fats, vegetable oils, and other items to make Venezuela one of the top two U.S. markets in South America. The United States supplies roughly one-quarter of Venezuela's food imports.
Labor and Infrastructure
Labor unions allege the government repeatedly violates International Labor Organization (ILO) agreements on freedom of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively. Specifically, the Constitution and laws permit undue influence in the internal elections of unions. The government has told the ILO it will correct the problem; draft legislation remains pending in the National Assembly.
Venezuela has an extensive road system. With the exception of air service, transportation has failed to keep pace with the country's needs. Much of the infrastructure suffers from inadequate maintenance. Caracas has a modern subway but only one functioning rail line serves the rest of the country.FOREIGN RELATIONS
President Chávez has promoted his "Bolivarian Revolution" as a model for other countries to follow. The policy calls for the establishment of a "multi-polar" world devoid of U.S. influence and for greater integration among developing countries. Venezuela is currently advocating regional integration through its PetroCaribe and PetroSur petroleum initiatives, the creation of a South American Community of Nations, and the establishment of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (a social integration project proposed by President Chavez as an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas). In April 2006, President Chávez announced he was withdrawing Venezuela from the Andean Community trade bloc. In July 2006, Venezuela officially joined the Southern Common Market, MERCOSUR. Before it can become a full member of MERCOSUR, Venezuela must conform to the trade bloc's economic regulations. Congressional approval by Brazil and Paraguay is also still outstanding. The Venezuelan Government maintains very close relations with Cuba and advocates an end to Cuba's isolation.
Since 2005, President Chávez has deepened relations with Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism, by signing multiple economic and social accords and publicly supporting Iran's controversial nuclear program. President Chávez has also reached out to North Korea, Belarus, and Syria. The Venezuelans have also embarked on a worldwide effort to increase their presence in embassies overseas in Africa and Asia.
President Chávez has also launched a major renovation of the Venezuelan Armed Forces by purchasing new advanced weaponry. In 2005-06, Venezuela purchased 100,000 AK-103 rifles from Russia and signed an agreement to construct a rifle and ammunition complex . Venezuela has also purchased dozens of Russian attack and transport helicopters, and has begun receiving 24 Russian Sukhoi Su-30MK 2-seat fighters. Venezuela has longstanding border disputes with Colombia-aggravated most recently by the capture of a Colombian insurgent leader inside Venezuela--and Guyana, but seeks in general to resolve them peacefully. Bilateral commissions have been established by Venezuela and Colombia to address a range of pending issues, including resolution of the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Venezuela. Relations with Guyana are complicated by Venezuela's claim to roughly three-quarters of Guyana's territory. Since 1987, the two countries have held exchanges on the boundary under the "good offices" of the United Nations.
U.S.-Venezuelan commercial ties are deep. The United States is Venezuela's most important trading partner, representing about a third of imports and approximately 60 percent of Venezuelan exports. In turn, Venezuela is the United States' third-largest export market in Latin America, purchasing U.S. machinery, transportation equipment, agricultural commodities, and auto parts. Venezuela's opening of its petroleum sector to foreign investment in 1996 created extensive trade and investment opportunities for U.S. companies. As a result, Venezuela is one of the top four suppliers of foreign oil to the United States. The Department of State is committed to promoting the interests of U.S. companies in overseas markets. For contact information and a list of government publications, please go to the end of this document.
Venezuela is a minor source country for opium poppy and coca but a major transit country for cocaine and heroin. Money laundering and judicial corruption are major concerns. In 2004 and early 2005, counternarcotics cooperation between the U.S. and Venezuela deteriorated significantly. In March 2005, the Venezuelan National Guard removed its highly experienced members from the U.S.-supported Prosecutor's Drug Task Force. In August 2005, the Government of Venezuela accused the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of espionage and terminated cooperation with the DEA pending negotiation of a new cooperation agreement, which has gone unsigned as of October 2006. President Bush decertified Venezuela on counternarcotics cooperation in 2005, 2006, and 2007.
In June 2006, Venezuela was listed at Tier 3 status in the State Department's Report on Trafficking in Persons. Tier 3 status indicates a perceived lack of effort to combat human trafficking.
In May 2006, the Secretary of State certified that Venezuela was not fully cooperating with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. As of October 1, 2006, the United States Government has prohibited arms sales and services to Venezuela.
Approximately 23,000 U.S. citizens living in Venezuela have registered with the U.S. embassy, an estimated three-quarters of them residing in the Caracas area. An estimated 12,000 U.S. tourists visit Venezuela annually. About 500 U.S. companies are represented in the country.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Other Government Contacts
U.S. Department of Commerce, Trade Information Center, International Trade Administration
Venezuela-American Chamber of Commerce
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
For the latest security information, Americans living and traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at http://www.travel.state.gov, where the current Worldwide Caution, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings can be found. Consular Affairs Publications, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, are also available at http://www.travel.state.gov. For additional information on international travel, see http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Travel/International.shtml.
The Department of State encourages all U.S citizens traveling or residing abroad to register via the State Department's travel registration website or at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency and will enable you to receive up-to-date information on security conditions.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.
The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport information. Telephone: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service representatives and operators for TDD/TTY are available Monday-Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight, Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Further Electronic Information
Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free export counseling, help with the export process, and more.STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from the Federal government. The site includes current and historical trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities, and country analysis and provides access to the National Trade Data Bank.
Revised: Oct. 2007