Federalism in Venezuela is closely linked with the country’s development as an independent nation following its transition from colonial territory to sovereign state in the early part of the nineteenth century. On 5 July 1811 seven of the ten provinces of the Captaincy General of Venezuela declared independence from Spain, sparking the Venezuelan War of Independence that would last for more than a decade (1811-1823). In 1821, following Simón Bolívar’s successful liberation of New Granada, Venezuela achieved independence from Spain as part of Gran Colombia, a federal state that no longer exists but which encompassed modern day Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, northern Peru, western Guyana, and northwest Brazil.
After several years of internal political instability, friction between various leaders, and ultimately dictatorship, Venezuela declared independence from Gran Colombia and became a sovereign nation in 1831. For the rest of the nineteenth century a range of political strongmen competed for power in the country, sparking a number of rebellions and bloody conflicts between centrists and federalists. One of the most significant was the Federal War (1858-1863) which led to the establishment of the states of Venezuela, the constituent units which comprise the nation today.
Democratic processes began to take hold in Venezuela in the 1930s, but were interrupted in 1948 by a decade of military and corrupt political rule. The late 1950s saw a shift towards democracy once again when President Rómulo Betancourt was victorious in the 1958 general election. In December 1998 Hugo Chávez Frías, a former paratroop lieutenant colonel, was elected president of Venezuela on the promise of the creation of a ‘Fifth Republic’, a new constitution, and new a relationship between the socioeconomic classes of Venezuela. In December 1999 a new Venezuelan Constitution was adopted that made sweeping changes to the Venezuelan political system and replaced the previous constitution that had been in force since 1961. The new Constitution included extensive social and economic rights for the people of Venezuela and also incorporated rights for indigenous peoples. It also, however, centralized Venezuelan government powers, substantially reduced the power of the legislature (replacing the bicameral body with a unicameral one), and notably increased the powers of the president.
In 2007 President Chávez was granted special constitutional powers to rule by decree in many areas and limits on the number of terms president could serve were abolished. However, other proposed constitutional reforms supported by the President were narrowly defeated in a referendum. The central government reduced its financial transfers to the states but began its own program of decentralization by funding the new “communal councils.” Following the death of President Chávez in office in March 2013, his former Vice President Nicolás Maduro assumed the presidency in April 2013.
The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is comprised of 23 states, one Capital District, and the Federal Dependencies (a collection of Venezuelan islands in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Venezuela). The country is a federal presidential constitutional republic. The President of Venezuela is directly elected to six year terms. The President is both the Head of State and Head of the Government. The Venezuelan President appoints the Vice President and determines the size and composition of his cabinet with the involvement of the legislature. In certain policy areas the president may request the Venezuelan legislature to pass an enabling act allowing for rule by Presidential decree – a two thirds majority is required amongst the members of the legislature to pass such an act.
The National Assembly is the legislature of Venezuela. The number of members of this parliament is variable, because each state and the Capital District elect three representatives plus additional members based on the result of dividing the state population by 1.1% of the total population of the country. Additionally, three seats are reserved for representatives of Venezuela’s indigenous groups, but which are elected by the all citizens (not just those with indigenous backgrounds). Members serve five year terms. Elections also take place at a state and local level.