Interest Groups

Venezuela Table of Contents

Historically, the decisive arbiters of Venezuelan national politics have been the armed forces. Three governments since the death of Gómez in 1935 have been overthrown by military coups. Mini-coups, barracks revolts, and discontent--not always fully reported--have also served as constant reminders to civilian politicians of the fragility of democracy. The armed forces have refrained from partisan political matters, especially since the early 1970s and throughout the 1980s; they have continued, however, their involvement in resolving national crises and in implementing antisubversive campaigns.

Although the balance of power among contending factions since 1958 has favored groups committed to upholding the elected government, a few officers from time to time have contended that they are the best guardians of the integrity of the constitution and the nation. These officers, however, have always represented a distinct minority and have posed no real threat to the increasing supremacy of the civilian leadership. In addition, democratically elected presidents have exploited interservice rivalries to survive attempted coups. This proved particularly true in the years immediately following 1958. Both Betancourt and Leoni survived coup attempts through the loyalty of military factions that failed to rally to the cry of revolt from other factions or branches.

A successful strategy toward the military practiced by both AD and COPEI governments has been that of coaptation. Liberal defense budgets and generous benefits have been the norm. Potential troublemakers were identified and sent to distant outposts or abroad. Generally, the military enjoyed free rein to deal with actual and potential subversives. Presidents have discreetly but deliberately sought the advice of military leaders in drafting and implementing major policies, especially those that affect areas that the military considered as "their" special prerogative, such as control and delineation of borders.

Unlike the military, the Roman Catholic Church has not been a major political force in Venezuelan politics. The church was never as prominent in Venezuela as it was in neighboring Colombia. In addition, the fact that the Spanish clergy, in general, sided with their mother country rather than with the forces of independence, did not endear the church to the early Venezuelan patriots.

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the ranking clergy had close ties with the governing conservative oligarchy, and the church played a dominant role in the educational system. The rise to power of the Liberals in the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, ushered in a period of anticlericalism. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that, under the influence of the Christian social movement that began to criticize the maldistribution of wealth, the church regained some of its former influence.

Roman Catholic laymen played a prominent role in the founding of COPEI in 1946, and the announced disapproval of the church contributed to the fall of the dictator Pérez Jiménez in 1958. In the 1960s, the involvement of the church in education and welfare increased and, although the church had no formal ties with COPEI, many believed that the support of clergymen and church-affiliated institutions contributed to the electoral successes of COPEI in 1968 and 1978.

The church in Venezuela has been weakened, however, by a traditional lack of vocations. Many priests serving in Venezuela were foreign-born. Charismatic Protestant churches, on the other hand, were beginning to proselyte successfully, especially among the urban poor. The Roman Catholic Church did not have the funds, the personnel, or the enthusiasm to stem effectively this new challenge to its hegemony.

In addition to the military and the church, Venezuela's bureaucracy can be regarded as a major interest group and political power in its own right. The adoption of far-reaching reformist goals since 1958 has generated a proliferation of government agencies and a greatly enlarged bureaucracy. Such entities as Cordiplan, the Venezuelan Development Corporation, PDVSA, the National Agrarian Institute (Instituto Nacional Agrario--INA), and the Office of Integrated Educational Planning acquired institutional objectives that they actively promoted in their dealings with legislators and other policy makers. Overlapping authority among such entities and competing demands on limited resources often led to discord.

According to estimates, the government created an average of about eight new state-owned enterprises each year between 1968 and 1970. That number grew to eleven in 1971, sixteen in 1972, fourteen in 1973, seventeen in 1974, and nearly fifty in 1975. With the explosion of state-financed enterprises came an explosion of bureaucracy and a growing lack of accountability. Scandals were routinely exposed in the freewheeling Venezuelan press. By the end of the 1970s, few doubted that the bloated state sector was a major problem, and all the major presidential candidates in the 1978 campaign promised bureaucratic reform, privatization of inefficient enterprise, and greater efficiency and accountability. Once elected, however, candidates did not pursue their campaign promises with the same vigor with which they were uttered in the heat of the electoral campaign.

The inefficiency and bureaucratization of the economy left it vulnerable in the early 1980s to the downturn in oil prices and the maturation of the significant Venezuelan short-term foreign debt. Fiscal shortfalls threatened the financial viability of many state enterprises; close to 40 percent of the country's foreign debt consisted of short-term obligations incurred by state-owned entities. Again, the government initially temporized and conducted protracted negotiations with international banks and financial institutions rather than actually beginning the painful process of reining in the bureaucracy. It was not until 1989, perhaps as a result of the shock of the food riots and looting in Caracas that resulted in hundreds killed, that the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez began to make a concerted effort to move toward a leaner and more accountable bureaucracy. The Pérez administration adopted privatization as its new motto; implementation, however, remained a slow, uncertain, and difficult process.

Few disputed that the power of patronage was an important resource for cementing party loyalty and interparty relations. The allocation of available posts for political appointees has been an important factor in forming coalition governments. Furthermore, government employees have played a significant role in electoral campaigns. Although a number of individual ministries set up internal administrative systems, and despite the numerous proposals set forth since 1958 for general standardization of government personnel policies, the bureaucracy still functioned largely on the basis of personal contacts.

Along with the persistence of a powerful and large bureaucracy, commercial and industrial forces have shown a great capacity to adapt to the democratic rules of the game and, at the same time, to use the government system to further their interests. These forces have steadily moved up to replace the traditionally dominant landowning class and have transposed economic power into effective political power. The informal means of exerting pressure through family networks and social clubs have been complemented by linkages forged with the various associational interest groups. Most of the business groups, for example, belonged to the Federation of Chambers and Associations of Commerce and Production (Federación de Cámaras y Asociaciones de Comercio y Producción--Fedecámaras). It represented a great number of interests in the fields of petroleum, agriculture, banking, industry, commerce, and services. Many of its member groups, such as the Bankers' Association, the Ranchers' and Livestock Association, the Chamber of the Petroleum Industry, and the Caracas Chamber of Industry, carried on large-scale lobbying of their own. In 1966, for example, Fedecámaras persuaded President Leoni to allow leaders of the business community to participate in the formulation of economic development policy. It has also been much involved in setting the terms under which Venezuela has entered into various integration and other economic pacts in the region.

In 1962 a group of financiers and industrialists who wanted to participate more directly in electoral politics organized the Independent Venezuelan Association, whose objective was to slow the pace of economic reform. Another group of businessmen joined in a group called Pro-Venezuela, an entity opposed to foreign participation in the exploitation of national resources; it suggested instead the use of foreign experts to train Venezuelans.

Organized labor was the largest and most cohesive of the mass-based political pressure groups that had emerged since the mid-twentieth century. Effectively stifled under military and dictatorial rule, labor did not begin to affect the political balance until the early 1940s. Labor backed the October 1945 coup and benefited much from the short-lived AD government (1945-48). Unionization proceeded apace then, but labor failed to avert the November 1948 coup that brought Pérez Jiménez to power.

Pérez Jiménez further alienated labor by allowing the immigration of thousands of workers from Southern Europe. With the return to democracy in 1958, however, organized labor returned to political prominence. All political parties vied to obtain links to labor. By the late 1960s, more than half of the labor force was unionized. The Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela--CTV), organized by AD militants, remained the most powerful of the labor confederations. Some of the more militant CTV-affiliated unions who favored severing links to the government split from the CTV to form the United Workers' Confederation of Venezuela. This group never challenged the strength of the CTV. Similarly, the Roman Catholic labor organization, the Committee of Autonomous Unions, remained small and wielded little political clout.

Because of the close links between AD and the CTV, the CTV has suffered corresponding splits when AD has been divided. In the 1960s, divisions in AD were reflected in contests for CTV leadership. From time to time, members of COPEI have won certain important leadership posts in the CTV, but AD has remained the major political force.

Students and universities traditionally have been involved in the political process in the twentieth century. Betancourt, Leoni, Villalba, Machado, and other members of the Generation of 1928 were student leaders who dared to openly challenge the dictatorship of Gómez. COPEI itself traced its origins to the National Students Union, created in 1946 to defend the Roman Catholic Church and to oppose the Marxist-oriented Venezuelan Student Federation (Federación Estudiantil de Venezuela--FEV). FEV leaders took part in the protests against Pérez Jiménez and worked closely with the underground Patriotic Junta in the final push against the dictator in January 1958.

When Betancourt assumed the presidency in 1959, student groups participated actively in the establishment of a democratic government. Shortly thereafter, however, many of them became disillusioned with what they perceived as the slow pace of reforms and moved toward the left politically. Some, attracted by the Cuban model, took up arms in abortive attempts to wrest control of the government from Betancourt and the AD reformers.

Of all the national universities, the Central University of Venezuela, in Caracas, has been the major focus of student political activity. Most of the student groups at the university were linked with national political parties, but often the student branches functioned quite independently in their actions and took much more radical stands than did the parties. Students made up a considerable proportion of the membership of MIR, which split off from the AD in 1960, and its militant revolutionary band of irregulars, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional--FALN).

The middle class has had a significant impact on government policies in the democratic era. The middle-class origins of most AD and COPEI leaders helped generate support for their party programs. Many of the new economic elites that have grown up as a result of the benefits produced by the petroleum bonanza had their origins in the middle sectors and generally advocated liberal democracy and public-sector involvement in the economy. With the downturn of oil revenues in the mid-1980s, this mentality began to change somewhat as the government, as well as the middle sectors, considered the potential advantages of privatization.

More about the Government of Venezuela.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress