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Monday, March 1, 2010

Venezuela: Issues in the 111th Congress

Mark P. Sullivan
Specialist in Latin American Affairs

Under the populist rule of President Hugo Chávez, first elected in 1998 and reelected to a six-year term in December 2006, Venezuela has undergone enormous political changes, with a new constitution and unicameral legislature, and a new name for the country, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. U.S. officials and human rights organizations have expressed concerns about the deterioration of democratic institutions and threats to freedom of expression under President Chávez, who has survived several attempts to remove him from power. The government benefitted from the rise in world oil prices, which sparked an economic boom and allowed Chávez to increase expenditures on social programs associated with his populist agenda. These programs have helped reduce poverty levels significantly. 

After he was reelected, Chávez announced new measures to move the country toward socialism, but his May 2007 closure of a popular Venezuelan television station (RCTV) that was critical of the government sparked protests, and his proposed constitutional amendment package was defeated in a December 2007 national referendum. State and local elections held in November 2008 were a mixed picture of support for the government, with the opposition winning several key contests. In February 2009, Venezuelans approved a controversial constitutional referendum that abolished term limits and allows Chávez to run for re-election in 2012. Since 2009, the government has increased efforts to suppress the political opposition, including elected officials. In January 2010, the government shut down broadcast of the cable station RCTV-Internacional, prompting domestic protests and international concern about freedom of expression. 

The United States traditionally has had close relations with Venezuela, the fourth major supplier of foreign oil to the United States, but there has been friction with the Chávez government. U.S. officials have expressed concerns about human rights, Venezuela's military arms purchases, its relations with Cuba and Iran, and its efforts to export its brand of populism to other Latin American countries. Declining cooperation on anti-drug and anti-terrorism efforts has also been a concern. In September 2008, bilateral relations worsened when President Chávez expelled the U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, and the United States responded in kind. Under the Obama Administration, Venezuela and the United States reached an agreement for the return of respective ambassadors in July 2009. While some observers are hopeful that the return of ambassadors will mark an improvement in relations, others emphasize continued U.S. concerns about the Venezuelan government's treatment of the news media and political opposition and about interference in the affairs of other countries in the region. 

In the 111th Congress, House-passed H.R. 2410 includes a provision noting the close relationship between Iran and Venezuela, and requiring a report on the actions of Iran and Hezbollah in the Western Hemisphere, and House-passed H.R. 2194 would amend the Iran Sanctions Act to make gasoline sales to Iran subject to U.S. sanctions. The Senate approved an amendment (S.Amdt. 1536) to the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2010, S. 1390/H.R. 2647, that would have required a report on Venezuelan military and intelligence activities, but the measure was not included in the enacted legislation. Among other initiatives: H.R. 375 would, among its provisions, place restrictions on nuclear cooperation with countries assisting the nuclear programs of Venezuela; H.Res. 174 and H.Con.Res. 124 would express concern about anti-Semitism in Venezuela; and H.Res. 872 would call for the designation of Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. For more information, see CRS Report RS21049, Latin America: Terrorism Issues.

Date of Report: February 8, 2010
Number of Pages: 45
Order Number: R40938
Price: $29.95

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