[Editor’s Note: This is the third of six parts in our symposium on the subject of “Venezuela’s 2017 (Authoritarian) National Constituent Assembly.” The introduction to the symposium is available here.]
The institutional history of Venezuela has witnessed many “Constituent Processes” and constitutional reforms, resulting in several constitutional texts from 1811 until today. It is important to briefly review these processes to place the current National Constituent Assembly in historical context. Although the last two constitutions (1961 and, if replaced, 1999) lasted about four and two decades, respectively, the country’s history witnessed a remarkable pattern of constitutional instability.
The Constitutions of the 19th Century
During the 19th Century Venezuela emerged as one of the most unstable countries in the region. Its constitutional history reflects its turbulent process to gain independence from Spain, the Venezuelan state’s lack of consolidation after independence, and the perpetual conflict amongst waring factions.
The Supreme Congress of Venezuela, also known as the Constitutional Congress of 1811, was installed on March 2nd of that year, and was the first Parliament in Venezuela’s history. This Supreme Venezuelan Congress was the birth place of the Declaration of Independence of July 5, 1811. After the American Constitution (1787) and the French Constitution (1791), the Federal Constitution for the States of Venezuela, signed on December 21, 1811, was the first in Latin America.
The Constitution of 1811 was followed by the Constitution of 1819, known as “Constitution of Angostura” and influenced by Simón Bolívar’s ideas. This constitution was replaced by the Constitution of 1821, enacted by Bolívar after the Battle of Carabobo, which led to the establishment of the Gran Colombia. Shortly before Bolívar died, the Congress of Valencia dictated the Constitution of 1830. This new Constitution, enacted by José Antonio Páez, sealed Venezuela’s separation from the Gran Colombia. Thus, in less than two decades, the country had four constitutional texts.
The Constitution of 1830 remained in force for a relatively long time; it was replaced almost three decades later by the Constitution of 1857. This Constitution was promoted by President Monagas to ensure his re-election and would be promptly replaced by the Constitution of 1858, as a result of the Great National Convention convened by Julian Castro, leader of an uprising known as “Revolución de Marzo” (Revolution of March). This Constitution, in turn, was reformed by the Constitution of 1864, after the Federal War, reflecting the distribution of power among regional warlords.
In successive years, episodes of military conflict would lead to more constitutions. Thus, the Constitution of 1864 remained in force for about a decade. It was reformed after the “Revolución Azul” (Blue Revolution) and the “Revolución de 1870” (Revolution of 1870), giving way to the Constitution of 1874. This Constitution, in turn, was reformed to give place to the Constitution of 1881, after the “Revolución Reivindicadora” (Vindicating Revolution) of 1879, influenced by President Guzmán Blanco. It remained in force for 10 years, and eventually replaced by the Constitution of 1891. Finally, the Constitution of 1893 would be the last Constitution of the 19th century, after the “Revolución Legalista” (Legalist Revolution).
The Constitutions of the 20th Century
This chronic constitutional instability continued well into the 20th Century.
The 20th century would see its first Constitution in 1901, through the “Revolución Liberal Restauradora” (Liberal Restorative Revolution). From this Constitution onwards, the federal structure that was established through the Constitutions of the 19th century was gradually dismantled. The Constitution of 1901 was then reformed by the Constitution of 1904. After General Gómez came to power in 1908, he promoted seven specific reforms to the Constitution to remain in control. During his presidency, Venezuelans witnessed the enactment of seven new Constitutions in 1909, 1914, 1922, 1925, 1928, 1929 and 1931.
With the death of General Gómez and the inauguration of the Presidency of General López Contreras, the Constitution of 1936 was born. This Constitution was the first to reflect some of the demands of political, social and economic freedoms that the country was increasingly claiming in tandem with the growth of the oil industry and society’s increasing modernization. The 1936 Constitution was thus replaced by the Constitution of 1945, which remained in force only for a few months due to the uprising known as “Revolución de Octubre” (Revolution of October).
This period led to the Constituent Assembly of 1947, presided over by Venezuela’s renowned politician and intellectual Andrés Eloy Blanco, which dictated a Constitution the same year that included important advances in the recognition of the rights of Venezuelans and in the regulation of the increasingly complex Venezuelan State. The Constitution of 1947 remained in force for a brief period due to the coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Rómulo Gallegos. The military government (“Junta Militar de Gobierno”), in an action that would constitute a setback in the rights conquered, declared that the Constitution of 1945 would apply. In 1953, under the military dictatorship, a Constituent Assembly dictated another Constitution, which remained in force until 1958 – year when the dictatorship was deposed and replaced with a democratic government, which passed the 1961 Constitution by congressional approval.
The Constitution of 1999 and the National Constituent Assembly of 2017
The last “Constituent” experience in Venezuela took place in 1999. A year earlier, the main electoral offer of then presidential candidate Hugo Chávez was to convene a National Constituent Assembly. This process led to the Constitution of 1999, which has been in force until the present day. In spite of the hasty, arbitrary and fraudulent nature of the 1999 Constituent Assembly process, President Chávez would regularly praise the text of the Constitution of 1999. For the ruling party, that Constitution became a true “founding document”.
After being re-elected in 2006, President Chavez raised the need to go through a Constitutional reform. On December 2, 2007, Venezuelans rejected in a referendum a reform proposal. One of the arguments used by those who rejected the proposal was that the changes that it implied were of such magnitude that a National Constituent Assembly would need to be convened in order to implement them.
One of the aspects that were included in the rejected proposal for the 2007 Constitutional reform was to establish the indefinite reelection of the President of the Republic. Although this particular proposal had been rejected by Venezuelans voting against the entire constitutional draft, the following year President Chávez proposed a more limited constitutional amendment to allow the indefinite reelection of the President, Governors, Deputies to the Legislative Assemblies, Mayors and Deputies to the National Assembly. In 2009, Venezuelans voted in favor of the proposed amendment, so that the indefinite reelection of these authorities was incorporated to the 1999 Constitution.
After the adoption of the amendment, the relevance and validity of the 1999 Constitution was not openly questioned by the regime until May 1, 2017, when President Maduro proposed a Constituent Assembly. This process, in violation of the Constitution of 1999, was “convened” by President Maduro, even though according to articles 347 and 348 of the Constitution the people of Venezuela are the true conveners of a Constituent process (see Hernandez’s upcoming post in this symposium).
The first actions of the National Constituent Assembly have been pointed towards (1) removing the Attorney General of the Republic, (2) appointing a new Attorney General of the Republic, (3) appointing a new Ombudsman. The National Constituent Assembly is taking over the functions of the National Assembly, which are established in the Constitution of 1999. As such, they are gradually setting aside the 1999 Constitution, and becoming a true, ongoing ‘constituent power’, with ill-defined limits and an outcome that remains unknown. More importantly, this constitution-making process could well generate the country’s first non-democratic constitution in more than six decades.
The instability that characterized the country for so long now seems to have come back.
Carlos García-Soto holds a Law Degree (Magna Cum Laude) from Universidad Monteávila (Caracas, Venezuela); a Diploma in Administrative Law from Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and a PhD (Sobresaliente Cum Laude) at Universidad Complutense de Madrid. He is currently a Professor in Administrative Law at Universidad Central de Venezuela (Caracas), and a Professor of Legal History at Universidad Monteávila. He is the Editor of the Law Journal Derecho & Sociedad, based at Universidad Monteávila. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @cgarciasoto.
Suggested Citation: Carlos García-Soto, Symposium on “Venezuela’s 2017 (Authoritarian) National Constituent Assembly”–The National Constituent Assembly in Venezuela (2017) in its Historical Context, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Aug. 30, 2017, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2017/08/symposium-on-venezuelas-2017-authoritarian-national-constituent-assembly/Carlos-Garcia-Soto