Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Venezuela's President Chavez

It was reported in JURIST's Paper Chase yesterday that opponents of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela have collected enough signatures to force a recall referendum. Some background history on Venezuela and President Chavez may be of interest.

Modern Venezuela emerged in the 1950's after a century and a half of instability following Simon Bolivar’s revolution which won its independence from Spain. The last military dictatorship was overthrown in 1958, and two political parties that had organized against successive dictatorships reached an agreement to create a democracy styled after those of Western Europe. A new constitution was approved in 1961 (Spanish) and amended in 1966.
Venezuela was considered South America’s most stable democracy, with an economy based on its vast oil reserves. However, when oil prices fell in 1983, the economy stumbled. By 1989, the number of Venezuelans in poverty had more than doubled, to 60 percent. Economic and political instability followed. In 1992 Hugo Chavez, a lieutenant colonel in the military, led rebel troops in staging a coup against then President Perez. The coup failed, and Chavez was imprisoned, but he emerged from prison in 1994 as a populist figure. He ran for president in 1998 and was elected with 56 percent of the vote.
At the beginning of his presidency, Chavez didn't run an openly authoritarian government, but he did embark on an intense campaign to control the country's institutions. He abolished the Congress and the supreme court in the first year of his government. He proposed a new constitution (Spanish), which won 71 percent approval. The new constitution had a number of effects on the government: it increased the powers of the president and changed the official name of the country to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
Chavez has also been engaged in an effort to take control of the Venezuelan media.
His government has proposed a Bill on the Social Responsibility of Radio and Television,; aspects of the bill concern human rights groups such as the InterAmerican Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States. In it, they see a threat to the right of freedom of expression. His popularity has declined in part because his actions have been seen as movement towards a dictatorship like Fidel Castro's.

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