Venezuela has had twenty-seven constitutions since 1811, the most recent of which was promulgated in 1999. Why this apparent surfeit of constitutions for a country that was dominated by caudillos and military elites throughout much of its independent history? Owing to chronic instability, virtually every new regime sought to declare its independence from predecessor regimes by writing a new constitution. In the Spanish American tradition, instead of adding amendments or changing specific provisions, an entirely new constitution was enacted, even if very little of substance was actually changed. In the nineteenth century two of the main changes dealt with the balance between centralism and federalism, and expansion or retraction of the suffrage. One feature of Venezuela's constitutional history has remained constant, however: Venezuelan government is essentially presidentialist. Even the most recent and most democratic constitution—that of 1999—provides for a powerful chief executive who can assume extraordinary powers.
The first constitution of the new Republic of Gran Colombia, written in 1811, was inspired by the U.S. Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and clearly reflects the thinking of an educated oligarchy. It provided for a weak central government and placed literacy requirements on suffrage and property-holding requirements on officeholding. The Angostura Constitution of 1819, reacting against excessive federalism, strengthened the power of the executive and central authority. In 1830, after breaking away from Gran Colombia, Venezuela promulgated its own constitution, which reflected a compromise between unitary and federalist government. Between 1830 and 1900 eight constitutions were written, effecting slight changes in the balance of power between the federal government and the states.
Venezuela's symbolic reverence for federalism is seen most strikingly in the 1864 Constitution, which expressed an extreme form of regionalism and localism. This exaggerated federalism was counteracted in 1881, when a constitution enacted by the dictator Antonio Guzmán Blanco (1829–1899) reduced the number of states from twenty to nine in order to shrink the number of powerful state caudillos who aspired to national power. It also replaced direct suffrage with indirect suffrage. In 1909 the twenty states were restored, and they exist to this day.
Under the dictatorship of General Juan Vicente Gómez (1908–1935) seven constitutions were written, and like so many previous constitutions, they were honored more in the breach than in the observance. One interesting aspect of Gómez's later constitutions—after oil was discovered—was a move from economic liberalism toward the limitation of the right to private property in order to conserve natural resources.
The overthrow of General Gómez led to a politically more liberal regime, which was reflected in the Constitution of 1936. It shortened the presidential term from seven to five years, guaranteed certain individual rights, and made cabinet ministers responsible to Congress. However, it left intact the indirect election of the president and outlawed communism. The 1947 Constitution, which was in effect only briefly, was drafted by a constituent assembly controlled by the social democratic Democratic Action (Acción Democrática). The most politically and socially liberal constitution in Venezuela's history up to that time, it provided for the direct and secret vote in presidential and congressional elections, and explicitly guaranteed the rights of workers and peasants.
After ten years of military dictatorship (1948–1958) the architects of the new democratic system framed a constitution that called for a strong central government but expressed due concern for individual liberties and social justice. The Constitution of 1961, promulgated during the presidential term of Rómulo Betancourt (1945–1948), was designed not only to ensure popular democratic government but also to create a modern welfare state that would seek a more equitable distribution of the national wealth. These principles are reflected in lengthy sections that enumerate a host of political, economic, and social rights. The Constitution of 1961 provides for twenty states, two federal territories, and a federal district. All governors are appointed by the president, an indication that a country that still pays lip service to federalism is in reality a centralist republic. Although it specifies three independent and equal branches of government, numerous provisions underscore the powerful role of the president and the executive branch. They authorize the president to declare a state of emergency and to suspend or curtail certain constitutional guarantees in the wake of internal disorder or external conflict. The president, however, cannot succeed himself, and cannot run as a candidate for ten years after he leaves office. The document provides for a bicameral Congress and a Supreme Court whose justices are elected by Congress for nine-year terms.
In practice, the 1961 Constitution—the longestlived of any Venezuelan constitution—generally worked well for many years. But the deterioration in the functioning of the post-1958 democratic system during the 1980s and early 1990s led to calls for constitutional reform. Indeed, the two-party system broke down in 1998 when the population elected President Hugo Chávez (b. 1954), a socialist former colonel. Advocating a more equal society, Chávez proposed many sweeping constitutional changes. In 1999 Chavez's reworking of the constitution was approved by a popular referendum. Many of the changes strengthened the executive branch by allowing the president to run for two terms. Furthermore, the new constitution changed the bicameral legislature to a unicameral body. In 2007 Chávez tried to pass more constitutional reforms that would have ended presidential term limitations and given the chief executive greater authority to declare emergency rule. Even though Chávez has remained popular, the electorate narrowly voted down these changes in a popular referendum in December. However, Chávez has suggested that he will continue to pursue these constitutional changes.
See alsoVenezuela .
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Winfield J. Burggraaff