Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Government Overview: With the adoption of the country’s twenty-seventh constitution on December 15, 1999, Venezuela is a federal republic with a “participative democracy” type of government. The charter provides for direct popular election of the president every six years, with reelection to one consecutive term permissible. Under the new constitution, the traditional three powers of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—have been augmented with two new ones: Citizen Power and Electoral Power.

Executive Branch: The executive branch consists of the president of the republic, who is both chief of state and head of government. Hugo Chávez Frías was elected president on February 3, 1999, with 60 percent of the votes. The president is aided by a vice president and Council of Ministers. The president appoints (and may remove) the vice president. José Vicente Rangel became vice president on April 28, 2002. The president also appoints the members of the Council of Ministers.

Legislative Branch: The legislative branch consists of a unicameral, 165-seat National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional). Its members are elected by popular vote through a combination of proportional representation and direct election to serve five-year terms; three seats are reserved for the indigenous peoples of Venezuela. Members may be reelected up to three times. The National Assembly has the power to name members of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Tribuna Suprema de Justicia—TSJ) and Citizen Power (poder ciudadano). With a two-thirds vote, the National Assembly may appoint (or abolish) no more than 15 ordinary and special Standing Committees to consider legislation pertaining to particular sectors of national activity. Temporary Committees may be appointed for purposes of research and study. While the assembly is in recess, a Delegated Committee consisting of the president, the vice president, and the presidents of the Standing Committees is in session. Legislation may be introduced by the executive branch; the Delegated Committee, Standing Committees, and members of the National Assembly; and, in their areas of competency, the TSJ, Citizen Power, Electoral Power, and State Legislative Council. The voters (in a number equivalent to at least 0.1 percent of all permanently registered voters) also may propose legislation. Prior to promulgation, an approved law must be sent to the TSJ’s Constitutional Division for a ruling on its constitutionality.

As a result of the July 30, 2000, legislative elections, Chávez’s pro-government bloc held 108 of the 165 seats, but subsequent party splits reduced the pro-Chávez members to 86 seats. As of early 2005, the seating composition of the National Assembly by party was divided into two main coalitions: the 86-member Parliamentary Bloc for Change (Bloque Parlamentario del Cambio—BPC) and the 79-member Bloc for Parliamentary Autonomy (Bloque por la Autonomía Parlamentaria—BAP). The BPC included President Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (Movimiento V República—MVR), with 68 seats, and five smaller parties. The BAP included the opposition Democratic Action (Acción Democrática—AD), with 24 seats; and the Social Christian Party (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente—COPEI), with 7 seats, as well as 10 smaller parties.

Judicial Branch: The judicial branch is responsible for administering justice in the name of the republic and by authority of the law. This branch is headed by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Tribuna Suprema de Justicia—TSJ), formerly known as the Supreme Court. In 2004 legislation sponsored by the Chávez administration increased the number of TSJ justices by 12 to 32, thereby giving Chávez near-absolute control of the courts. The National Assembly appoints the justices to serve a single 12-year term. The TSJ exercises control over constitutionality and legality at all levels. The TSJ is divided into plenary, constitutional, political-administrative, electoral, civil, and social and criminal appeals chambers. The TSJ may meet either in the six specialized chambers or in plenary session. The semiautonomous Council of the Judicature, whose members are appointed by the legislative and executive branches, appoints judges and controls the administration of the judiciary. The civilian judiciary is legally independent; however, it is reportedly inefficient and sometimes corrupt, and judges at all levels are subject to influence from a number of sources, including the executive branch.

The judicial branch also includes the lower courts, Public Ministry, Public Defender, penal investigative bodies, employees of the Ministry of Interior and Justice and penitentiary system, and lawyers. The courts are divided geographically into township or parish courts, district or department courts, courts of the first instance, and higher courts. In general, court decisions may be appealed to a higher court, but a case cannot be heard by more than two instances. Only decisions handed down in the second instance by higher courts can be appealed to the TSJ.

Citizen Power: Citizen Power is exercised by the Republican Moral Council (Consejo Moral Republicano), which consists of the ombudsman, the general prosecutor, and the comptroller general of the republic. These officials are responsible for preventing, investigating, and punishing actions perpetrated against the public ethos and administrative morality; guarding the public interest and legal use of the public patrimony; ensuring the application of the principle of legality in all administrative activity of the state; and promoting civic education, solidarity, freedom, democracy, social responsibility, and social work. The National Assembly selects holders of Citizen Power offices for terms of seven years.

Electoral Power: Electoral Power is exercised by the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral—CNE), a new body that replaced the old electoral authorities on adoption of the 1999 constitution. Public confidence in the CNE was shaken by its secretive handling of the August 15, 2004, presidential-recall vote. Entities subordinate to the CNE are the National Electoral Board, the Electoral and Civil Registration Commission, and the Commission of Financial and Political Participation. The CNE regulates electoral laws, proposes the CNE budget, issues directives, nullifies elections in whole or in part, oversees all aspects of elections, organizes elections of syndicates and unions of professionals, oversees electoral and civil registration, organizes the registration of parties, regulates party funding, and guarantees the impartiality and fairness of elections.

Legal System: Venezuela had adopted 23 constitutions since gaining independence from Spain in 1811. The most recent constitution was adopted in 1999 to mark the transition from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic, that is, from a “party-dominated” democracy to “popular” democracy. The country has an open, adversarial court system based on organic laws. It has not accepted compulsory International Court of Justice jurisdiction. The country’s criminal legislation is derived from the Penal Code, enacted in 1926 and partially modified in 1964 and 2000. Both civilians and members of the military are tried in civilian courts for committing civil offenses, but the military courts have jurisdiction over civilians who commit military crimes, such as espionage and insurrection.

Administrative Divisions: The Republic of Venezuela is divided into states, the capital district, federal dependencies, and federal territories. The 23 states are Amazonas, Anzoátegui, Apure, Aragua, Barinas, Bolívar, Carabobo, Cojedes, Delta Amacuro, Falcón, Guárico, Lara, Mérida, Miranda, Monagas, Nueva Esparta (consisting of Margarita, Cubagua, and Coche islands), Portuguesa, Sucre, Táchira, Trujillo, Vargas (part of the federal district until 1998), Yaracuy, and Zulia. The states are divided into a total of 156 districts, which are further divided into 613 municipalities. The municipalities are subdivided into parishes. The capital district (formerly called the federal district) includes much of the Caracas metropolitan area and encompasses five municipalities or departments. The 72 federal dependencies include 11 island groups and 311 islands, keys, and islets. The federal territories of Amazonas and Delta Amacuro have the status of a state by special law.

Provincial and Local Government: Venezuelans traditionally have given greater loyalty to their states than to their local government bodies. As a result, local government has not been strong. The powers of the states are restricted to those areas not granted to the nation or the municipalities, and the states remain dependent on the national government for most of their revenue. Each state is headed by a governor, who also serves as the chief agent of the national executive within each state. Governors are elected every three years by universal, direct, and secret ballot. Unicameral state legislative assemblies are popularly elected every three years and exercise limited powers. The states do not have their own judiciary.

Districts are constitutionally independent of the state in economic and administrative matters and subject only to national laws and regulations. Districts are governed by popularly elected councils; elections for council members take place at the same time as those for national officials. Council members serve five-year terms. The number of Council members varies, but all councils are presided over by a chairperson, who serves in that position for a one-year term.

The districts are divided into municipalities, which are the primary and autonomous political units within the national organization that are administered in accordance with the principle of local self-government. In each municipality, the government and administration of local interests are in the hands of a mayor, who is elected every three years. Municipal councils, also elected every three years, make policy on local matters and serve as administrative units in charge of garbage collection, sewer construction, and other municipal services. A municipal council has no decision-making powers, and municipal officials are subject to numerous legal, financial, and political limitations imposed by national officials. The members of the council vary in number from five to 17, according to the population of the local entity.

Electoral System: Venezuela has universal suffrage at 18 years of age. The president is elected by popular vote for a six-year term. The last presidential elections were held on July 30, 2000. Of 11,681,645 registered voters, 6,600,196 votes were cast, or 56.5 percent of registered voters. Hugo Chávez Frías won with 3,757,773 votes, or 56.9 percent of votes cast; Lieutenant Colonel Francisco Arias Cárdenas placed second with 2,359,459 votes, or 35.7 percent of the votes cast. A special presidential recall vote on August 15, 2004, resulted in a victory for Chávez, who won 58 percent of the vote in favor of his fulfilling the remaining two years of his term; 42 percent voted in favor of terminating his presidency immediately. Presidential elections are next scheduled for mid-2006. Legislative elections were last held on July 30, 2000. The next legislative elections are due in 2005. The next municipal elections are slated for 2009.

Politics and Political Parties: In early 2005, President Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement (Movimiento Venezolano Quinta República—MVR) remained the dominant party within the National Assembly, with 68 of 165 seats, as a result of the July 2000 elections. The once-dominant Venezuelan party, Democratic Action (Acción Democrática—AD), remained in second place, with 24 seats. Parties holding 11 seats or fewer include the Movement Toward Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo—MAS), Project Venezuela (Proyecto Venezuela—PV), Justice First (Primero Justicia—PJ), AD-Social Christian Party (Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente—COPEI) Alliance (Alianza AD-COPEI), Radical Cause (Casua Radical—CR), National Indian Council of Venezuela (Consejo Nacional Indio de Venezuela—Conive), and New Party (Partido Nuevo—PN). The center-right PJ has both kept its distance from the discredited traditional parties and engaged in strong opposition to the government.

Chávez easily won the last presidential election and, despite crippling national strikes in 2002–3, scored a major victory in the special presidential recall vote of August 2004. International electoral observers ratified the referendum results, but opponents charged that the use of untested electronic voting machines allowed fraud to take place. Chávez’s victory validated the legitimacy of his rule until January 2007, but he could continue in power until 2012 because he is eligible to run as a candidate in the presidential election scheduled for 2006. Since President Chávez’s impressive victory in the referendum, tensions in the country have abated, but the political environment remains highly polarized. Three other factors in particular also weigh in his favor: pro-Chávez candidates won in 20 of the country’s 22 states in the regional elections for state governors and mayors on October 31, 2004; the pro-Chávez faction within the National Assembly strengthened his control over the government in December 2004 by expanding the number of magistrates in the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (Tribuna Suprema de Justicia—TSJ) from 20 to 32, while appointing 17 new pro-Chávez judges and 32 potential substitutes to the TSJ; and the opposition remained in complete disarray in early 2005 and without any leader of comparable popular appeal.

Mass Media: The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press. According to the U.S. Department of State, the Chávez government had generally respected these rights in practice as of 2003. Nevertheless, press freedom reportedly deteriorated during 2003 with efforts by some individuals associated with the government to provoke, threaten, or physically harm or encourage others to attack private media owners, their installations, and journalists working for them. According to a 2000 telecommunications law, the government may order obligatory national broadcasts that pre-empt scheduled programming, a prerogative that the government has used excessively, according to domestic and international observers. In 2003 the government required all television and radio stations to air as many as 162 hours of speeches by President Chávez and government officials as well as other pro-government programming, compared with only 73 hours in 2002. In his annual message to the National Assembly in January 2003, President Chávez declared the “year of the war against the media.”

Most radio and television stations and newspapers, both private and government-owned, reportedly have become heavily politicized since President Chávez came to power. Independent media observers have criticized the state media for partisan coverage of events, as well as for encouraging a climate of hostility toward the media that jeopardizes freedom of the press. State media employees have complained of purges of employees known to be anti-Chávez. The five main privately owned TV channels—CMT, Globovisión (a 24-hour news channel), Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Televen, and Venevisión—and most of the 10 major national newspapers, including Caracas-based dailies El Nacional and El Universal, have directly supported the opposition campaigns against the Chávez government.

In December 2004, the government adopted a controversial media-content law that it said would improve broadcasting standards by prohibiting the inappropriate airing of scenes of sex and violence. However, critics of the bill, which also bans material deemed “contrary to national security,” regard it as an attempt to silence media criticism. Two of the most prominent anti-Chávez journalists subsequently lost their jobs as television news anchors. Human Rights Watch, and the Inter American Press Association, Reporters Without Borders, and the U.S. government expressed concern about deteriorating press freedom in Venezuela in 2004 and early 2005. Under the new Penal Code signed by President Chávez on March 16, 2005, a person who “disrespects the president” could be punished with six to 30 months in prison (Article 147). Comments that “expose another person to contempt or public hatred” are punishable by one to three years of prison (Article 444). Someone who “causes public panic or anxiety” with inaccurate reports may be imprisoned for five years (Article 297a).

Foreign Relations: The ideological cornerstone of President Chávez’s “Bolivarian” foreign policy is to build a “multipolar” world with regional alliances that would counterbalance U.S. domination of world affairs. As a founding member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and an especially active OPEC member under President Chávez, Venezuela has more extensive ties with the wider international community than most other countries in the region. In November 2001, Chávez traveled extensively throughout Europe and Africa in order to promote higher oil prices and his vision of a multipolar world. Although neighboring countries have responded coolly to Chávez’s foreign policy and have shown little interest in his proposed South American military alliance, they greatly value economic relations with their wealthy OPEC neighbor.

Venezuela has long-standing territorial disputes with Guyana and Colombia, but it does not have a history of armed conflict with its neighbors. Relations with Colombia have been delicate since 1999, when President Chávez began criticizing Colombia’s U.S.-funded antinarcotics strategy called Plan Colombia, which Chávez has opposed on the basis that it has resulted in incursions into Venezuela by displaced refugees and combatants. For its part, Colombia has been critical of the Chávez government for allowing Colombian guerrillas to use Venezuelan territory as a haven. Tensions between Colombia and Venezuela worsened in April 2003, when Colombia accused Venezuela of violating its airspace. Relations deteriorated again as a result of Venezuelan alarm over Colombia’s projected purchase of tanks from Spain for deployment to the Guajira Peninsula bordering Venezuela. In July, after the new Spanish government suspended delivery of the tanks, a meeting held by the presidents of Colombia and Venezuela helped to repair bilateral relations, but only temporarily. Events surrounding the capture of

Rodrigo Granda, the foreign relations chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in Caracas by agents of Colombia's government—allegedly with the paid cooperation of Venezuelan army personnel—in December 2004 reversed any warming in relations. Venezuela withdrew its ambassador from Bogotá on January 15, 2005, and relations between Venezuela and Colombia remained in the worst state of crisis in nearly two decades.

Trade dominates Venezuela’s relations with Brazil. In February 2005, the two countries signed energy and mining accords that permit the Brazilian Petroleum Corporation to develop offshore natural gas projects and oil fields in eastern Venezuela’s Orinoco Heavy Oil Belt. Venezuela’s apparent inability or unwillingness to clamp down on cross-border drug trafficking or to improve security along its remote Amazonian border has been of concern to the Brazilians.

Cuba is the Chávez government’s closest ally, and both governments benefit greatly from this relationship. Venezuela is an important source of oil for Cuba. Chávez visited Cuba three times in 2004. As of February 2005, Cuba reportedly had 20,000 doctors, dentists, teachers, and sports trainers in Venezuela, mainly working in poor pro-Chávez neighborhoods of Caracas. Fidel Castro pledged in early 2005 that the number of Cubans would increase to 30,000 by the end of the year. In 2004 President Chávez reportedly posted dozens of Cuban “advisers” to the internal security and immigration agencies of the Ministry of Interior and Justice, other key ministries, and the Central Bank.

U.S.-Venezuelan relations have been strained since Chávez came to power in early 1999. President Chávez’s criticism of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan in November 2001 as “terrorism” especially irked the White House. The Chávez government’s relations with the United States, Colombia, and Spain have been particularly tense since the abortive coup attempt in April 2002, which these countries appeared to welcome. Chávez also accused the United States of being behind the coup attempt. Relations with the United States have been further strained over Chávez’s denunciation of the planned Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), his strident opposition to the U.S. conduct of the global “war on terrorism,” and his close trading ties and relations with Cuba and Iran. Chávez viewed U.S. sympathy for the opposition in the August 2004 referendum as another example of U.S. meddling in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Despite this troubled relationship, pragmatic economic considerations take precedence in U.S.-Venezuelan relations because of the significance of oil.

Membership in International Organizations: Venezuela has membership or observer status in the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean, Andean Pact, Andean Community of Nations, Caribbean Community and Common Market (observer), Caribbean Development Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, Group of 3, Group of 15, Group of 24, Group of 77, Inter-American Development Bank, International Atomic Energy Agency, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), International Chamber of Commerce, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, International Criminal Court, International Criminal Police Organization, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, International Finance Corporation, International Fund for Agricultural Development, International Hydrographic Organization, International Labour Organisation, International Maritime Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Olympic Committee, International Organization for Migration, International Organization for Standardization, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, International Telecommunication Union, Latin American Economic System, Latin American Integration Association, Nonaligned Movement, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Organization of American States (OAS), Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Permanent Court of Arbitration, Rio Group, Southern Cone Common Market (associate member), United Nations, UN Conference on Trade and Development, UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Industrial Development Organization, Universal Postal Union, World Confederation of Labor, World Customs Organization, World Federation of Trade Unions, World Health Organization, World Intellectual Property Organization, World Meteorological Organization, World Tourism Organization, and World Trade Organization.

Major International Treaties: Venezuela subscribes to various multilateral treaties and bilateral agreements that are designed to protect and promote international investment. It subscribes to 90 international environmental pacts, including the Antarctic Treaty and conventions on Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species, Hazardous Wastes, Marine Life Conservation, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Tropical Timer 83, Tropical 94, and Wetlands. It has signed but not ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Venezuela also has signed and ratified a number of human rights treaties relating to racial discrimination and the rights and status of women and children. Venezuela has signed the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons and has signed (but not yet ratified) the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants. Treaties related to national security include the principal biological and chemical weapons treaties, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, and the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance of 1947 (Rio Treaty). In the area of terrorism and crime, Venezuela has ratified the Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism and the UN International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism. Venezuela is a party to numerous bilateral and multilateral narcotics-control agreements, including the 1988 UN Drug Convention. It honors its anti-drug money-laundering agreement with the United States, and the United States and Venezuela have an extradition treaty.


Armed Forces Overview: At the end of 2002, the government of President Hugo Chávez reorganized the armed forces into a unified force called the National Armed Force (Fuerza Armada Nacional—FAN). The president is commander in chief of the FAN. The president’s authority is exercised through the minister of national defense, who is normally a senior military officer, although the first civilian defense minister to hold the post in recent decades served from February 2001 to April 2002. The National Defense Council advises the president on national security matters, and the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, on defense matters.

Total armed forces strength in 2004 was 83,300. The 34,000-member “Forger of Freedoms” Venezuelan Army controls the rest of the components of the FAN, including the 18,300-member Navy, the 7,000-member Venezuelan Air Force (Aviación Militar Venezolana—AMV), and 24,000-member National Guard of Venezuela (Guardia Nacional de Venezuela—GNV), whose formal name is the Armed Forces of Cooperation (Fuerzas Armadas de Cooperación—FAC). Although an active branch of the military and subordinate to the minister of defense, the National Guard has arrest powers and is largely responsible for internal security, including maritime security, maintaining public order, guarding the exterior of key government installations and prisons, conducting counternarcotics operations, monitoring borders, and providing law enforcement in remote areas.

During 2003, the FAN reportedly became an increasingly politicized force under the new defense minister, a general, and has been restructured and purged of anyone suspected of political disloyalty to President Chávez. Those purged included senior National Guard officers who were at the forefront of the rebellion against President Chávez in April 2002. Although the previous constitution stated that the military was expected to be “apolitical, obedient, and non-deliberating,” the 1999 constitution states only that the military should be “without militancy.” The new constitution also gives the president the authority to make military promotions without legislative approval and allows the military the right to vote. Moreover, the military presence within the Chávez government is extensive. Numerous active-duty and retired officers have been appointed to replace civilians in high-ranking positions in central and regional government institutions and state-owned companies. In 2003 five of the 14 presidential cabinet members had previously served in the military, and in January 2005 two ministers, including the minister of defense, were active-duty generals.

Foreign Military Relations: As the Chávez government has increased its security ties with Cuba, it has reduced Venezuela’s traditionally close military and security ties with the United States. For example, in March 2004 Venezuela withdrew its military contingent from the U.S. Army's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (the former School of the Americas), in Fort Benning, Georgia. In the interest of diversification, the Chávez government has sought to develop military relations with China, Cuba, Russia, and Ukraine. China’s defense minister visited Venezuela for the first time in September 2001. Venezuela signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia in 2001. The arrangement facilitates the acquisition by Venezuela of Russian military aircraft or helicopters and other weapons. Some Cuban advisers reportedly have been posted in the Ministry of Defense’s General Directorate for Military Intelligence (Dirección de Inteligencia Militar—DIM), and some Cuban military advisers reportedly are engaged in training the military. In early 2005, Venezuela’s National Assembly ratified a 1999 security agreement with Cuba that is intended to facilitate cooperation between security personnel in Venezuela and Cuba.

External Threat: The greatest external security threat to Venezuela is the spillover of the conflict in Colombia. The Colombian insurgency and counterinsurgency fighting have caused refugee flows and the spread of violence by left-wing insurgent and paramilitary right-wing groups operating in border areas, as well as the spread of organized drug trafficking and extortion. Although Venezuela is a signatory to the Rio Treaty, the Chávez government views it as anachronistic and has proposed replacing it with a regional solution in the form of a South American military alliance.

The Chávez government apparently now sees the United States as its principal adversary. Now closely allied with Fidel Castro Ruz of Cuba, President Chávez reportedly has ordered Venezuela's armed forces to implement a new Cuban-style strategy in which the top priority is preparing to fight a war of resistance against an invasion by the United States. In addition, Chávez has ordered a doubling of the army's reserve, to more than 100,000 troops under his personal command. “Popular defense units” of 50 to 500 civilians are to be established in workplaces and on farms.

Defense Budget: In 2003 military expenditures were slightly more than US$1.1 billion, or 1.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), as compared with US$1.2 billion in 2002, a figure that amounted to US$50 per capita, 1.8 percent of GDP, and US$15,227 per member of the armed forces.

Major Military Units: The army is organized into five infantry divisions, one corps of engineers, and one reserve corps. The infantry divisions include 15 brigades (armored, 1; cavalry, 1; light armored, 1; infantry, 7; airborne, 1; Ranger, 2; mobile, 1; counterguerrilla, 1; and military police, 1); and 3 regiments (aviation, 1; and engineering, 2). The navy is organized into western and eastern naval zones and four commands: naval aviation, coast guard, fleet, and riverine. In addition, the 5,000-member Venezuelan Marine Corps (Infantería de Marina Venezolana—IMV), which engages in riverine operations against drug traffickers, is subordinate to the navy. The air force is organized into four operational commands: air, air defense, logistics, and personnel.

Major Military Equipment: The armed forces are well equipped by regional standards. Their inventory includes 601 armored vehicles, 74 combat aircraft, and 8 naval vessels. The army has 81 AMX-30 tanks, 191 light tanks (75 M-18, 35 AMX-13, and 80 Scorpion 90s), 30 M-8 reconnaissance vehicles, 255 armored personnel carriers (APCs), 92 towed artillery pieces, 10 self-propelled artillery pieces, 20 multiple rocket launchers, 225 mortars, 24 antitank guided weapons, 175 recoilless launchers, 192 aircraft, and 26 helicopters (7 attack, 13 transport, and 6 support). The navy has six frigates, six frigates with area surface-to-air missiles, two submarines, six support and miscellaneous craft, six patrol and coastal combatants, three missile craft, three offshore patrol craft, four amphibious craft, three combat aircraft, and nine armed helicopters. The Marine Corps has 11 landing craft, 25 APCs, 18 towed artillery pieces, and six air defense guns. The coast guard has 2 offshore patrol craft and 16 inshore patrol craft. The air force has 125 combat aircraft and 31 armed helicopters, as well as 15 reconnaissance aircraft, 3 electronic countermeasures aircraft, 23 liaison aircraft, and 57 training aircraft. The National Guard has 20 armored infantry fighting vehicles, 24 APCs, 150 mortars, 14 small aircraft, 26 helicopters, and 52 inshore patrol craft.

Venezuela traditionally purchased much of its military equipment from the United States. U.S. foreign military sales to Venezuela in 2002 totaled US$20 million. However, Venezuela increasingly is turning to other countries for military equipment. In April 2004, Venezuela’s Ministry of Defense embarked on a US$2-billion arms-acquisition program and subsequently signed an agreement, which was expanded later in the year, with Russia for various armaments for the army. In February 2005, Venezuela also was evaluating Russian MiG-29 fighters as replacements for its U.S.-made F-16s and seeking to purchase 24 Super Tucano multipurpose fighter aircraft from Brazil. In January 2005, Spain agreed to sell Venezuela up to four offshore patrol boats or light corvettes and a number of Casa military transport aircraft. In September 2004, Ukraine began providing light to medium military equipment to Venezuela, and negotiations were underway for Ukraine to supply more sensitive and strategically important military equipment.

Military Service: Military service of 24 to 30 months is in theory compulsory for all male citizens from the age of 18, but in practice the draft system is selective. Only about 20,000 conscripts are serving at any given time, out of an estimated pool of 250,730 males who reach military age annually, and an estimated total pool of 4,953,803 males who are between the ages of 15 and 49 and deemed fit for military service. On completion of their term of military training, many conscripts choose to enlist in the National Guard, which is a voluntary force.

Military Forces Abroad: Participation in international peacekeeping missions is part of the Venezuelan Army’s mission statement. In 2002 Venezuela contributed slightly less than US$1 million to United Nations peacekeeping operations, as compared with Argentina and Brazil, which each contributed about US$10 million. Venezuela is a member of the UN Military Observer Force in Pakistan and India and the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observer Mission and has contributed to the UN Peacekeeping Force in Haiti.

Security Forces: Police forces are organized at the national, state, and municipal levels. At the national level, the two main investigative forces are the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services (Dirección de los Servicios de Inteligencia y Prevención—Disip), an internal security force under the Ministry of Interior and Justice that is responsible for dealing with crimes against the state, such as subversion, arms smuggling, narcotics trafficking, and kidnapping; and the Judicial Technical Police (Cuerpo Técnico de Policía Judicial—PTJ), which also is under the Ministry of Interior and Justice and is responsible for investigating federal crimes not already covered by the Disip. Another agency that is responsible for collecting intelligence related to national security is the General Directorate for Military Intelligence (Dirección de Inteligencia Militar—DIM), which is controlled by the Ministry of Defense. The National Guard also serves as a federal police force. It has arrest powers and is largely responsible for maintaining public order. The internal security role of the armed forces was strengthened in September 2002 when President Chávez decreed 107 security zones in the national territory, including eight in Caracas. Until then, the armed forces traditionally had security zones only in the border areas. National Guard or police members man the countrywide police checkpoints, which are common on the roads outside cities.

State- and municipal-level police forces include the following: Metropolitan Police; Municipal Police; Transport Police, under the Ministry of Interior and Justice; and Traffic Police, under the Transportation Ministry. Each state has a uniformed police force, which is partly regulated by the local Police Code. However, there are proposals to merge these state forces into a single national force. Municipal mayors and state governors are responsible for local and state police forces, which maintain independence from the central government. Urban police entities are under the command of National Guard officers. The Caracas Metropolitan Police is the main civilian police force in the five municipalities or departments that form the capital district and is headed by a career police officer, rather than a military officer. Civilian authorities generally maintain control over security forces, but individual members of the security forces reportedly have committed numerous and serious human rights abuses. Vigilante groups formed by police officers have been linked to an average 10 killings a month since 2001.

The number of police in 2004 totaled 26,000 (state, municipal, and metropolitan police forces: 18,000; Disip: 3,000; PTJ: 3,000; and Traffic Police: 2,000). Venezuela has 505 police officers per 100,000 inhabitants. Although this ratio compares favorably with other countries, public confidence in the police is low, and the density of police officers varies widely. For example, the wealthy Caracas municipality of Chacao has 1,228 policemen per 100,000, whereas the city’s poor municipality of Libertador has only 63 per 100,000.

In addition to the official security forces, Chávez has distributed weapons to the estimated 10,000 members of the Bolivarian Circles, independently organized groups of Chávez supporters at the grassroots level of Venezuelan society. These groups are modeled on Cuba's Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and operate in groups of between seven and 11 people.

Internal Threat: In contrast to neighboring Colombia, Venezuela does not have any insurgent or terrorist groups seeking to overthrow the government. Venezuela does, however, suffer spillover violence from Colombia. Since 2001, the number of incidents of extortion and kidnapping perpetrated by Colombian armed groups against ranchers in the border states of Venezuela has been increasing, and Colombian right-wing paramilitary forces also have been using the Venezuelan border areas for logistical support since early 2003. Venezuelan security forces have clashed repeatedly with the various armed Colombian groups operating in the border region, but the security situation has continued to deteriorate. The ranchers, who are generally strong opponents of Chávez, have complained about having to supply National Guard troops with food and fuel in order to receive protection.

Crime levels in Venezuela are more comparable to those in Colombia, with the main exception of kidnappings, which are not nearly as common in Venezuela as in Colombia. Violent crime is a major problem in the largest cities, in particular Caracas, which has one of the highest crime rates in South America. Venezuela’s homicide rate has increased sharply since the early 1990. More than 11,000 murders were reported in 2003, as compared with only 2,000 in 1991. In a terrorist-like incident unusual for Venezuela, the controversial public prosecutor, Danilo Anderson, who answered directly to President Chávez, was assassinated by a car bomb in Caracas in November 2004.

As of January 2005, two pro-Chávez leftist militant groups whose objective reportedly is to confront intervention by U.S. and other foreign forces were known to be operating in Venezuela. Chávez himself has acknowledged the existence of the 500-member Bolivarian Forces of Liberation (Fuerzas Bolivarianas de Liberación—FBL), which reportedly has been operating in the Venezuelan border area as a local kidnapping and extortion “franchise” of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The other pro-Chávez militant group is the Armed People’s Army (Ejército del Pueblo en Armas—EPA), which emerged in January 2005.

Narcotics Production and Trafficking: Large quantities of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana transit the country from Colombia, bound for the United States and Europe. Increasing signs of drug-related activities by Colombian insurgents on the border and significant narcotics-related, money-laundering activity, especially along the border with Colombia and on Margarita Island, have been noted. Coca and opium poppy are cultivated along the Colombian border in small amounts, although Venezuela has an active eradication program, primarily targeting opium. In 2003 cocaine seizures increased dramatically, reaching 32 tons, nearly double previous year record seizures of 17.8 tons, according to figures provided by Venezuelan authorities. In 2003, for the fourth straight year, Venezuela led the continent in heroin seizures (about half a ton), ahead of Colombia. Venezuela received about US$4 million in U.S. international narcotics control and counterdrug funding in 2004 and about US$3.6 million in 2005.

Human Rights: Of the 350 articles in the 1999 constitution, 116 are dedicated to duties, human rights, and guarantees, including a chapter on the rights of the indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, according to the U.S. Department of State, the Chávez government's human rights record remains poor, having deteriorated further in 2004. This record is characterized by extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects committed by the police and military, alleged police links to vigilante death squads responsible for hundreds of killings in at least 11 states, and increasing numbers of arbitrary arrests and detentions. The harsh prison conditions are characterized by continuing torture and abuse of detainees and inhumane and degrading treatment resulting from violence and severe overcrowding. Meanwhile, impunity remains one of the country's most serious human rights problems; the government has failed to punish police and security officers guilty of abuses. Corruption, lengthy pretrial detention, and severe inefficiency in the judicial and law enforcement systems also are problems. Investigations into the forced disappearances by the security forces of criminal suspects are extremely slow. Crimes involving human rights abuses often do not proceed to trial as a result of judicial and administrative delays.

In the human rights report released on March 28, 2005, the U.S. Department of State reported that in 2004 the Chávez government increased its control over the judicial system and its interference in the administration of justice. The National Assembly passed a law in May that enabled it to pack the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with Chávez sympathizers and to exert greater control over the justices. Judicial harassment and baseless political prosecutions against opposition and nongovernmental organization leaders continued. Moreover, the new media law passed by the legislature in December erodes freedom of speech and promotes self-censorship by media owners. The Chávez government also has conducted illegal wiretapping of private citizens and intimidated political opponents.

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