IMMIGRANT VOTING RIGHTS IN VENEZUELA
The Immigrant Voting Project and
New York University Law Students for Human Rights
Venezuela’s granting of local voting rights to non-citizens with ten years’ residency appears potentially redundant at first glance, since foreigners are eligible for naturalization cards—and therefore full voting rights—following ten years (or, in the case of nationals of certain countries, five years of residency in the country) However, historically, the Venezuelan naturalization process has been slow and inaccessible, with the result that few foreigners have been able to become citizens.
By Ellen Van Scoyoc
In Venezuela, the right to vote in municipal, parish (county), and state elections extends to foreigners over the age of eighteen who have ten years’ residency or more in the country. The provision for non-citizen voting appears in Article 64 of the Venezuelan Constitution of 1999, and has its constitutional roots in a 1983 Amendment to the previous Constitution of 1961.
Venezuela’s first modern experience with non-citizen voting occurred under inauspicious circumstances. In 1957, during the dictatorial regime of President Marcos Pérez Jimenez, the President announced that foreigners over the age of 18 with more than two years’ residence in Venezuela would be allowed to vote in a plebiscite to determine whether his presidency should continue. President Jimenez’s announcement came near the end of a ten-year period of open immigration to Venezuela, during which the government had encouraged skilled laborers from Europe to migrate to the country. The decision to include foreigners in the plebiscite reportedly angered many Venezuelan workers, who resented the recent immigrants from Italy, Spain, and Portugal. In any case, Jimenez’s purpose in allowing non-citizens to vote stemmed solely from his desire to boost voter turnout in a sham election in which no other candidate was offered for the presidency. After the plebiscite, in which voters were coerced into casting their ballots for the dictator in proportions approaching 90%, the short-lived policy of non-citizen voting ended.
Twenty years later, non-citizen voting returned to Venezuela in a more favorable climate. During the country’s oil boom of the 1970s, Venezuela adopted immigration policies designed to attract needed skilled workers from European and Latin American countries. In addition, thousands of primarily undocumented, low-skill workers from Colombia poured into the country in response to the increased demand for labor. Following the period of increased immigration, in 1978 Venezuela began to allow foreigners with more than 10 years’ residency to vote in municipal elections.
The innovation was constitutionalized in an amendment of 1983, which stated that “El voto para elecciones municipales podrá hacerse extensivo a los extranjeros, en las condiciones de residencia y otras que la ley establezca” (“The vote in municipal elections may be extended to foreigners, on condition of residency and other conditions established by law”). The provision was extended and revised in the Constitution of 1999, under President Hugo Chávez, to read: “El voto para las elecciones municipales y parroquiales y estadales se hará extensivo a los extranjeros o extranjeras que hayan cumplido dieciocho años de edad, con más de diez años de residencia en el país” (“The vote in municipal, parish, and state elections will be extended to foreigners who are eighteen years of age or older, with more than ten years’ residence in the country”).
At first glance, Venezuela’s granting of local voting rights to non-citizens with ten years’ residency appears potentially redundant, since foreigners are eligible for naturalization cards—and therefore full voting rights—following ten years, or, in the case of nationals of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Caribbean and Latin American countries, five years of residency in the country. However, historically, the Venezuelan naturalization process has been viewed as slow and inaccessible. Although the 1990 census indicated that at least 5.7% of Venezuela’s population of over 18 million was foreign-born, during the entire decade of the 1990s, a mere 20,000 foreign nationals naturalized. The low naturalization rates meant that a significant population of long-term Venezuelan residents would have been left without a political voice, but for their ability to vote in local elections.
In more recent years, the issue of national voting rights has played a prominent role in debates over the Venezuelan government’s plans to increase the speed of the naturalization process. In a Decree dated 3 February 2004, President Hugo Chávez announced a new “Regulation for the Regularization and Naturalization of Foreigners Found in the National Territory.” Among other provisions, the new regulation requires the National Office of Identification and Immigration to decide within six months of the receipt of a naturalization application whether or not to grant the application; for nationals of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Caribbean and Latin American countries, the Office must decide on naturalization applications within four months.
Following the Decree on fast-track naturalizations, President Chávez’s government quickly granted citizenship to over 200,000 foreign nationals, primarily Colombians, and announced plans to naturalize thousands more. Opposition supporters have charged that the naturalizations undertaken by the government in 2004-2005 were part of an attempt by President Chávez to increase the pool of voters supportive of his movement, particularly in the period leading up to the national referendum on the Chávez presidency during the summer of 2004. Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel denied these accusations at a ceremony in July 2005 during which 17,504 foreign nationals become Venezuelan citizens: “These ceremonies are not done for electoral reasons. They are not held to make you vote for Chavez or Chavez’s movement. They are held because you have the right to be Venezuelans.”
Susan Berglund & Humberto Hernández Calimán, Los de Afuera: Un Estudio Analitico del Proceso Migratorio en Venezuela, 1936-1985 (1985).
Adela Pellegrino, Historia General de la Inmigración en Venezuela (1989).
Ermila Troconis de Veracoechea, El Proceso de la Inmigración en Venezuela (1986).
Venezuela: Record number of voters give President Hugo Chavez win in recall referendum,NotiSur South American Political and Economic Affairs, Aug. 20, 2004.
Venezuela: Opposition denounces ‘fraud by naturalization,’ Latin American Weekly Report, July 31, 2004.
Venezuelan authorities to grant citizenship to roughly 100,000 immigrants, AP Worldstream, June 22, 2004.
Highlights: Venezuela political press, World News Connection, July 15, 2005.
Venezuelan government grants citizenship to 17,500 immigrants, AP Worldstream, July 14, 2005.
Elvia Gomez & Maria Lilibeth Da Corte, Venezuelan opposition is confident international observers will check referendum, World News Connection, June 15, 2004.
Venezuelan authorities grant citizenship to 20,000 illegal immigrants, AP Worldstream, Mar. 30, 2004.
Tad Szulc, Venezuela votes today on regime, N.Y. Times, Dec. 15, 1957, at 20.
Foreigner Vote in Venezuela, N.Y. Times, Nov. 21, 1957, at 8.
Consejo Nacional Electoral, http://www.cne.gov.ve/
Instituto Nacional de Estadística, http://www.ine.gov.ve/
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance,http://www.idea.int/vt/intro.cfm
Oficina Nacional de Identificación y Extranjeria, http://www.onidex.gov.ve/
Decreto No. 2.823 de Hugo Chávez Frías, Presidente de la República, Gaceta Oficial No. 37.871 del 3 de febrero de 2004.
Venezuela (2005). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved October 24, 2005, from Encyclopaedia Britannica Online http://search.eb.com/eb/article-32719.
 In order to obtain naturalization cards, foreign residents are generally required to provide proof of identity and constant residency in the country, as well as certification that they have passed exams on the Spanish language and Venezuelan history, geography, and government. Foreigners who marry Venezuelans and children whose parents naturalize are also considered “Venezuelans by naturalization” under certain circumstances (Constitution Art. 33(2) & Art. 33(3)), and are exempt from the examination required of other foreigners.
 The most recent census, taken in 2001, indicates that 4.4% of the total population of 23+ million is foreign-born. Censuses generally underestimate the numbers of non-citizens present in a country, since they are likely to undercount the undocumented population. Non-governmental sources have estimated the undocumented Colombian population alone at 1-1.5 million.