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Why Are People Worried About Constitutional Reforms in Venezuela?

(Oct. 30, 2007) Are the constitutional reforms to be voted on in December a threat to Venezuela's democracy, and if so, what implications does this have for the region?

In a strong statement denouncing the proposed constitutional reforms a number of influential academic and social academies have recently spoken out against President Hugo Chávez's proposed constitutional reforms calling them illegitimate and undemocratic. The controversy centers on two fronts, the institutional process and the proposed reform to presidential term limits.

The issue of institutional process revolves around the 2005 national assembly elections in which government opposition parties refused to participate in what they called unfair elections. The opposition said that it did not believe the national electoral council (CNE) could offer the necessary guarantees to ensure free and fair voting. Their refusal to participate effectively handed total control to the president and his allied political parties in the National Assembly, the highest legislative body in the nation. Chavez has since been moving forward quickly with his "21st century Socialist Bolivarian Revolution," using this legislative body to codify his policies into law.

The second issue deals with a series of proposed reforms, in particular the proposed amendment to article 230 of the 1999 constitution, changing presidential term limits from six years to seven with the option of indefinite re-election. Some call the proposed reform a constitutional coup d'état, but the government defends it by noting that there are still two checks remaining on presidential power; popular elections and recall-referendums.

But do these two issues represent a threat to Venezuela's democracy?

That's the tricky question for a number of governments in the region. If they think it is and decide to speak out, they would be obligated to protest the government and call for the return of democracy. For instance, within the Union of South American Nations (Unasur), the regional integration institution Chávez is using to build a South American pipeline and the new Banco del Sur, democracy is a precondition of membership. If other Unasur nations actually agreed that these new reforms and his past actions (like the closing of RCTV, an opposition media station earlier this year) represent a usurpation of democratic rule, then the region would have a big problem on its hands. However, this is unlikely to happen.

Chávez spreads his love all around. From Argentina to the ghettos of Boston, Venezuela has given new definition to the term petro-diplomacy. Even if other regional nations were concerned about the upcoming reforms, an ongoing energy crisis in the southern cone makes the possibility of losing future access to one of the continent's richest energy producers a serious deterrent to speaking out against Venezuela's constitutional reform process.

But are the proposed constitutional reforms undemocratic?

Not technically, many people forget that democracy is often called a "tyranny of the majority." All one has to do is control a large enough segment of the voting population to be able to impose their will on the minority. Most constitutions have a series of checks and balances that afford certain basic protections centering on human rights, the rule of law, and private property. So long as these are respected most citizens are resigned to let politicians fight it out amongst themselves. Recent public unrest in Venezuela seems to grow out of a perceived threat to these basic protections.

In particular are two proposed reforms, amending article 337, calling for the suspension of certain political liberties during what is known as a "state of exception," or national emergency and article 115, establishing the right to private property with the exception that "any property may be taken by the government if just cause – the public good – is given and adequate compensation granted."

Notice here that the public good is equated with justice and the public is defined by numerical majority. In both cases, the ultimate decision to decide the public good rests with the President; his only immediate check is the pro-government National Assembly.

These reforms do touch on some of the basic liberties afforded by any nation and the decision to tamper with them has opened Chávez up to criticism that he is trying to become a dictator. However, his popularity ensures that the transition is "democratic."

Since taking office in 1998 Chávez has won 3 major political battles, in 1999, 2002, and 2006. His broadest base of support comes from the lower socio-economic classes, the largest beneficiaries of domestic petro-patronage. So long as he can continue to please this majority he will stay in power.

Interestingly enough, another proposed constitutional reform would move Venezuela's Central Bank under executive control. With oil prices high and a firm grip on the nation's purse strings, Chavez can continue to buy support at home and around the region, effectively ensuring his permanence in national politics for the foreseeable future.

Ironically, it seems the opposition's greatest hope lies in worsening economic conditions at home. If high inflation and currency devaluation continue as they are, Chávez could very well lose the 2013 elections, but that's still a long way off.


  1. Am I wrong in my understanding that all the Constitutional reforms (including Articles 337 and 115) ARE included in the referendum package. Your piece seems to say that these 2 reforms are being handled by the Assembly only. Unless I have my facts wrong, I believe the Assembly had to first agree to the reforms (which they did), and now they will be put before the public.

  2. Leftside: Thanks for the comment, you are right, the final reform package decided upon by the President and the National Assembly will be put to a national referendum for what I understand is to be a simple majority vote.

    My article was not clear about that.

    Thanks for bringing the issue to my attention.

    Would you be interested in giving us a longer reply? Let me know.

    -Nathan Gill

  3. Thanks for the clarification...

    I don't have a lot of time to expand, nor sure what you are looking for, but there was a big piece of news today. Chavez made a major concession to the opposition in saying he would allow the ammendments to be voted on in blocks, rather than all in one (the independent Elections Commission already disallowed that option favored by the opposition). Chavez was vague, but said this would apply particularly to the ammendments the Assembly added to referendum, which includes possibly the most contentious issue - the expansion of State powers during a state of emergency (as well as increased gay rights, a reduction of the voting age and others).

    Regards and I look forward to continue reading your blog. You can check mine out, but it is largely inactive at the moment, as I'm quite busy getting married...


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