Constitutional Development

Venezuela Table of Contents

Until 1961 Venezuela had the unenviable distinction of having been governed by more constitutions than any other Latin American country. This was partly the result of the trauma of a prolonged war of independence that tested the country's fragile social cohesion. Venezuelans are proud of the fact that Bolívar brought freedom to his homeland as well as to the homelands of thousands of other Latin Americans; this epic crusade, however, carried an enormous financial and human burden. The struggle also often pitted the criollo elite, exemplified by Bolívar, against pardos who rightfully felt that they had improved their lot under Spanish rule. In turn, regional elites, resentful of Caracas's ascendancy, refused to join the crusade and often turned to the Spanish side in an effort to curtail Bolívar's power).

The prolonged war for independence and the subsequent jockeying for power among caudillos, both regional and national, in part accounted for the changes in constitutions and in constitutional provisions to better suit the temper and the realities of the times. Each caudillo scrapped the previous constitution and wrote a basic law that suited him better. Federalism, for example, an ideal in Venezuela since before 1864, was rudely brushed aside whenever a strongman emerged in Caracas who needed to put down opposition from local or regional chieftains. Federalism has enjoyed a more hospitable environment since the promulgation of the 1961 constitution, but no federalist tradition strong enough to challenge the continuing power of the president has yet arisen. Thus, although the possibility of direct election of state governors existed under various constitutions, the actual practice was not implemented until 1989.

The states are considered autonomous and equal as political entities, but their dependence on Caracas for budget allocations ensures that state powers are indeed limited. On the other hand, they do have some symbolic powers. For example, they can change their names, they can organize local governmental entities, and they can perform a few other functions on their own.

Although the division of powers among the executive, the legislative, and the judicial branches has been traditional in Venezuelan constitutions, the executive has overshadowed the other two branches throughout the country's history. A greater break with the past came in the 1961 constitution in its painstaking elaboration of individual and collective duties and rights. No fewer than seventy-four articles deal with human rights and freedoms. Freedom of speech, press, and religion are guaranteed. The right of habeas corpus is recognized, and prompt trials are ensured (although the cumbersome judicial system effectively thwarted the latter guarantee). There are also constitutional prohibitions against self-incrimination, torture, capital punishment, double jeopardy, and discrimination on the basis of sex, creed, or social condition. The 1961 constitution also places many social obligations on the state, such as responsibility regarding labor, social welfare, and the national economy. Working hours are specified, minimum wages guaranteed, and there is freedom to strike. Special protection is provided women and minors in the labor force.

The government has many powers and responsibilities in regard to national economic development. Private property and private enterprise are protected so long as they do not conflict with national policies. In turn, the national government is given wide latitude in the areas of industrial development and protection of natural resources, and in provisions for the expropriation of property.

It is fairly easy to amend and even rewrite the constitution. Amendments can be initiated by one-fourth of one of the chambers of Congress or one-fourth of the state legislative assemblies. An amendment requires a simple majority for passage by Congress. If passed by Congress, an amendment still requires certification by two-thirds of the states to become part of the constitution. Provisions for reforming or rewriting the constitution are similar; the process may be put into motion by a one-third vote by the states or a congressional chamber, passage by two-thirds vote in Congress, and approval by a national referendum. Rejected initiatives of amendment or reform may not be reintroduced during the same congressional term. The president may not veto amendments or reforms and is obliged to promulgate them within ten days following their passage.

In practice, the 1961 constitution retained many features of previous constitutions. Federalism, for example, has been the nominal basis of constitutional structuring since 1864. Although the 1961 document calls Venezuela a federal state, it also labels the country as "the Republic of Venezuela," where earlier charters used the term "the United States of Venezuela."

More important, the constitution has served as the basis for expansive government programs that fulfill the mandate for greater social justice and greater use of the central government in all spheres of public policy. Thus, in effect, the 1961 constitution expanded and redefined the central role to be played by government on behalf of the people of Venezuela; it maintained the tradition of powerful presidents and a strong central state.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress