Sunday, August 19, 2007

Constitutional Reforms

This will be the first post in an inevitable series of posts reflecting on the recently proposed changes to the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999. For more details and on-going debate on the reforms, you might want to check out the goings-on at

On Wednesday Chávez came to the National Assembly to deliver his proposed package of Constitutional reforms. In true Chávez form, the speech lasted over four hours, and touched on much more than the 33 (of 350) articles of the 1999 constitution he would like to change. Private media outlets in Venezuela have almost exclusively focused on the changes he would like to make to articles pertaining to the executive – a change in term length from 6 to 7 years and the removal of term limits – as evidence of his pretensions to ruling Venezuela ad infinitum. These are, unsurprisingly, decidedly not the most important of his proposals. And let’s face it, the opposition is less upset with the idea based on any sort of democratic principle than it is aware that they don’t have a chance in hell of ever competing with Chávez electorally. This betrays yet another misperception on the part of the opposition. The other reforms envisioned by Chávez are indeed more threatening to their pretensions of one day returning to power. That is to say, should the majority of the other reforms – which the National Assembly now has to debate and approve or reject – have their intended effect, the presidency itself in the new Venezuela will become increasingly obsolete.

Here are, thematically organized, the reforms Chávez wants to make to the 1999 Constitution other than the changes to the norms governing the executive. Generally speaking, the reforms make ‘soft’ elements of the old constitution ‘hard’ – from an ‘ought’ to a ‘will’ or provide details where they were previously lacking.

1. Territorially, Chávez wants to realign the country’s geo-political landscape according to the new geometry of power—an authentic ‘decentralization,’ if you will. This takes a few forms. On the one hand he wants to change the language of Article 11 to allocate more power to the federal government in times of natural or national emergency. On the other, he wants to open up the field of possibility for new forms of local power to be created and exercised. For example, the constitutional recognition of communes and the emergence of the Distritos Federales would, he asserts, allow for entrenched regional powers to be unseated by popularly initiated and federally backed exodus. The key to this is making a longtime slogan of Chavismo reality, and making public or popular power the true key to sovereign power in Venezuela. For example, proposed changes to article 136 read:

“Public power is distributed territorially in the following form: popular power, municipal power, state power, and national power…the people is the depository of sovereignty and it exercises this power directly through popular power. [Popular power] is not born in suffrage nor in any election, but is born in human organization…popular power is expressed in the organization of communities, communes and the self government of cities through communal councils, worker councils, peasant councils, student councils and other entities signaled by he law”
Thus whereas nearly every liberal constitution in the world—including the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999—ostensibly finds its authority in the sovereign people in the theoretical ultimate instance and the watered down spectacle of regular elections, these proposed changes look to make popular power a fact of quotidian existence.
----A bit of background: in Venezuela, mayors and governors have only been popularly elected since the 1980s. This reform was seen as a major step towards de-centralization by many political scientists and other observers who see the key to ‘democracy’ as being strong institutions. However, Venezuelan decentralization, such as it was, more often than not served only to add a degree of democratic legitimation to a still functioning corrupt system.

(Although it should be noted that there were important inroads made by parties such as La Causa R [Radical Cause] in Caracas and in the oil producing areas of the south which should be understood as part of the prehistory of the Fifth Republic. On the subject of Venezuela’s ostensible ‘democracy’ during the Fourth Republic, it is also important to note that many social scientists considered the country to be the ‘democratic exception’ surrounded by dictatorships and civil war torn neighbors. This despite the fact that the country was BY DESIGN run exclusively by two equally corrupt parties (AD and COPEI) that banned third parties and regularly assassinated opponents.)----

Though Chávez did not outline a specific plan in this respect, he also called for the reorganization of Caracas. This move is both necessary and dangerous in that the current organization, a strange form of power sharing between 5 mayors and one ‘mayor-mayor’ is not only hard for gringos to understand, it also makes addressing the problems of the capital city – from infrastructural concerns to road and garbage maintenance, to who has the right to issue parking tickets, to astronomical crime rates and the ever-expanding population – all but impossible. However, of the 5 municipalities 3 of them – Chacao, Baruta and El Hatillo – are for all intents and purposes the heart and soul of oposicionismo. Centralizing, or at least aligning the jurisdictional map of Caracas is without a doubt a necessary first step in addressing the problems of the capital, but the opposition will without a doubt battle to the death to maintain their islands of power. They would be stupid not to.

2. Chávez also proposed to constitutionally restrict the working day to 6 hours. While this is massively important in terms of workers’ rights, the vast majority of non-state or petrol sector employment takes place in the informal sector, which definitionally doesn’t care what the constitution says.

On a related front, he wants to modify article 112, which allows workers to ‘freely’ choose how and where they want to work in order to include new forms of property – communal, public, mixed and social – in addition to the more standard of private property. Article 114 will also be revised. Whereas in the 1999 constitution questioned monopolies and described them as contrary to the interests of the people, they would now be banned, as will the latifundio (Article 307).

This last point is also rather interesting in that Chávez seeks to change the government’s responsibility vis-à-vis food production from providing ‘alimentary security’ to ‘alimentary sovereignty.’ In other words, this reform would constitutionally mandate the government to develop domestic production of necessary foodstuffs which are now being imported. The project, then, is not only to massively realign the productive structure of the country – from a petrol-import-economy to a self-sufficient sovereign one – but also to do it while in the process of developing new forms of land ownership. Not only will the emphasis be on the small farmer, agricultural production in the new Venezuela will take place on collective farms, communes, mixed use government-private sector initiatives and common public space. The days of the massive plantation worked by campesinos are over.

3. Chávez also called for the full-scale state-ization of the Banco Central de Venezuela. In other words, he is seeking to politicize and revolutionize the Venezuelan Central Bank. More on this later.

4. The Armed Force will also undergo a thematic overhaul, incorporating militias for the popular defense of the country and the revolution in asymmetrical warfare situations. Chávez has often remarked that the Bolivarian Revolution is “peaceful, but armed” and of late has emphasized the fact that the only real external threat the country faces is the same as any other in the world: The United States. The fact that the empire to the north (and west, hola Colombia!) has a military and a military budget that outstrips the GNP of most countries means that Venezuela simply cannot fight toe to toe with the giant and would be stupid to try.

However, and more importantly, I think, is the civic project of building a citizen army (as opposed to the mercenary style of public-military service currently employed in the Empire). This of course ruffles the feathers of the democracy fetishists who have long decried the ‘militarization’ Venezuelan society (by this I mean the social scientists and apologists for capital that see democracy as synonymous with formal institutions separated by firewalls). Keep in mind that the function of the Armed Force in the Bolivarian Revolution has been increasingly as a public servant – first in the Plan Bolívar 2000 and subsequently in many of the Misiones, public works projects and national emergencies. It is hoped by Chávez and others that the development of civilian militias will not only help organize the population to more effectively take control of their own lives, but also induce in them an identification with the state and nation to replace the cynicism germinated by 40 years of kleptocracy.

(Which, of course, opens a whole different can of worms which I will flag here and mention in subsequent posts. The revolutionary government has done more for the majority of the Venezuelan people than any other government since independence. This all but an undeniable fact at this point. However, it largely remains ‘developmentalist’ in its discourse and its policies.)

5. Chávez also seeks to incorporate the Misiones and communal councils into the constitutionally defined governing structure of the country. So, while the 1999 constitution states that the right to education and health care are the patrimony of every Venezuelan and that all sovereignty resides in the pueblo not in the final term but in the immediate, the proposed changes would mandate the mechanisms for making it so. The misiones thus become definitionally the duty of the government to the people and communal power becomes ever more the direct expression of governance. Also, the current project of delivering direct budgetary and fiscal powers to communal councils will be included in the constitution.

Thus we get yet another example of the dialectic between Chávez, a dialectic increasingly antagonistic to any attempt at mediation. Institutional political power is increasingly realized and exercised at the poles of the traditional map of power – on the one end the power of the executive, with Chávez propelling the initiatives and innovations of the revolutionary process. On the other, there is the increasing responsibility, creative influence, benefit and activity of the organized population. Quite apart from the dreams of moderate Chavistas to turn Venezuela into a Scandanavian-style welfare state social democracy, constitutional reforms and quotidian political reality here in Venezuela point toward the need for a pushing beyond a friendlier face to capitalist develepment.


Cristina said...

I'm so glad I read this post before I saw Nikolas Kozloff being interviewed by Jon Stewart the other night. Stewart kept going on about what a very bad man Chavez is, and I thought Kozloff's responses were just OK. And Jon Stewart talks like he reads the New York Times religiously, and they are really freaking out over the proposals. The interview was pretty painful to watch.

Eugene Weixel said...

Thank you for this explanation of some of the constitutional reforms. I wish you and your blog success.