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History, Chavezís Rule

Hugo Rafael Chavez, Asian financial markets, constituent assembly, casting ballots, failed coup

A crisis in Asian financial markets in 1997 and a slump in world oil prices in 1998 caused a downturn in the Venezuelan economy. In the December 1998 presidential election, Hugo Rafael Chavez, a former military officer who participated in two failed coup attempts in 1992, won the presidency. Chavez ran without support from Venezuelaís two major political parties. During the campaign he promised to end government corruption and to provide better economic conditions for the large number of Venezuelans living in poverty.

In April 1999 voters approved a referendum calling for the election of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. The constituent assembly was elected in July, with candidates from Chavezís Patriotic Pole coalition winning most of the 131 seats. When the constituent assembly convened in August, it assumed most of the National Congressís duties, in addition to drafting a constitution.

In a referendum in December 1999 more than 70 percent of those casting ballots voted in favor of the new constitution, which renamed the country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and gave the president more power. The presidential term was increased from five to six years, and presidents were no longer barred from serving consecutive terms in office. A unicameral National Assembly replaced the bicameral National Congress. The constitution gave the executive branch of the federal government many powers previously held by state and local governments and reduced civilian control of the military. Provisions promoted as anticorruption measures allow voters to revoke legislation or recall elected officials, including the president, through referenda.

Also in December 1999, torrential rains caused devastating floods in the northern coastal states. Mudslides destroyed whole villages. It was estimated that more than 400,000 Venezuelans lost their homes and as many as 30,000 died.

While the nation dug out from the disastrous mudslides, the new constitution took effect. The constituent assembly resigned in January 2000, its work completed. Presidential and congressional elections were scheduled for May, but Venezuelaís Supreme Court postponed them, citing concerns with the electoral process. The elections were held in July 2000. Chavez easily won reelection, and his coalition won a simple majority in the new unicameral assembly.

In a development that further enhanced Chavezís power, the National Assembly voted in November 2000 to grant the president authority for one year to rule by decree on topics ranging from public finance to land reform. The law passed despite complaints from opposition parties that the measure granted too much authority to Chavez.

As his presidency progressed, however, Chavez became increasingly unpopular due to his economic reforms and disputes with business leaders. In April 2002 at least 17 people were killed in a march in Caracas to protest Chavezís policies, and some people claimed that his supporters had killed the protestors. Military leaders then forced Chavez from power in a coup d'etat and appointed a business leader to head a transitional government. The next day tens of thousands of people marched throughout the country to protest Chavezís ouster. In response to the protests, the military returned Chavez to power less than three days after it had removed him.

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