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Introduction to I-CONnect Symposium: Venezuela’s 2017 (Authoritarian) National Constituent Assembly

[Editor’s Note: I-CONnect is pleased to feature a special symposium on Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly. The symposium will feature six parts, including this introduction. We are grateful to Professor Raul A. Sanchez Urribarri for partnering with us to host what promises to be an informative, insightful and provocative symposium.]


Raul A. Sanchez Urribarri (LLM, PhD) is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Crime, Justice and Legal Studies at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia). E-mail:  r.sanchezu@latrobe.edu.au.

It has been quite challenging to follow Venezuelan politics in the last few months, as it has become one of the most volatile countries in the world and its trajectory has remained uncertain and increasingly hard to predict. I have been meaning to report in this blog on the constitutional dimension(s) of Venezuela’s ongoing social, economic, and political crisis.  Yet, like other observers, I have been unable to keep up with the events’ fast succession, and, most worryingly, their unprecedented character.

Only a year ago, the country’s main political issue was whether there would be a recall referendum against President Nicolás Maduro before he completed the first half of his term in early 2016–and, therefore, new presidential elections would need to be called, according to the 1999 Constitution–or that, instead, the referendum would end up taking place sometime this year and the Vice-President would finish Maduro’s term until 2019.  Despite the government’s efforts to block the recall referendum–which became apparent almost as soon as it became a serious proposition–the expectation was that the opposition would collect the signatures needed to activate the referendum; that the referendum would take place and that President Maduro would be removed.  The political conversation of the day was centered on these premises.

That is to say, it was hard to imagine that the 1999 Constitution would be egregiously bypassed, and much less subject to reform via a Constituent Assembly at the behest of Maduro’s unpopular government.  Delays, obstructions and excuses were to be expected–after all, Venezuela has been a competitive regime for years, and the regime’s unwillingness to comply with the Constitution had become evident, particularly with respect to the government’s open disregard for the opposition-controlled legislature.

Yet, I think most observers–and, more painfully, most Venezuelans–did not expect the events that unfolded in the past months: the government’s blatant refusal to proceed with the referendum; the indefinite delay of regional elections; the Supreme Court’s attempt to definitively annul the opposition-leaning National Assembly; or the hefty repression that the National Guard carried out against opposition demonstrators demanding respect for democratic rule–leading to over 150 deaths, thousands wounded or jailed.  Moreover, we would not expect that, in the end, this confrontation would end with the President calling a National Constituent Assembly to replace the 1999 Constitution, and form this body via an election perceived as fraudulent, illegitimate and undemocratic by a vast sector of Venezuelan citizens and dozens of countries.

The overt authoritarian route was at some point perceived as too costly for the Chavista regime.  Yet, facing an emboldened opposition and clear institutional constraints, turning to dictatorship became the regime’s preferred option.  Thus, there is an urgent need to understand the origins, election, key features and likely operation of the 2017 National Constituent Assembly, looking at this ongoing effort as part of a process of consolidation of an openly authoritarian regime.  The emerging consensus is that Venezuela has unfortunately become Latin America’s newest dictatorship.  This is where Venezuela stands today, and this is what motivates this symposium.

To explore these issues, we have sought and received contributions from distinguished constitutional scholars and political scientists who have a strong knowledge of Venezuelan politics and constitutional affairs, including several Venezuelan scholars who are publishing in this Blog for the first time.  We appreciate that the authors have written these posts in haste, and that they have strived to explain the Assembly and its significance with as much detail as possible.  I hope these essays are a pivotal effort towards an edited collection in the near future.

This is Venezuela’s first overtly authoritarian constitution-making exercise in more than six decades.  Understanding this process is essential for a better evaluation of the regime’s current stance and direction.  More importantly, the topic is of utmost relevance for constitutional scholars, especially in the context of democratic deterioration and rising authoritarianism that has taken place across the world recent years.

Suggested Citation: Raul A. Sanchez Urribarri, Introduction to I-CONnect Symposium: Venezuela’s 2017 (Authoritarian) National Constituent Assembly, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Aug. 28, 2017, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2017/08/introduction-to-i-connect-symposium-venezuelas-2017-authoritarian-national-constituent-assembly/raul-a-sanchez-urribarri

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Published on August 28, 2017
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