[Editor’s Note: This is the second 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.]
–Miguel Ángel Martínez Meucci*
Chavismo appeared in Venezuela’s political scene via a military coup led by Hugo Chávez, on February 4, 1992. A few years later, once transformed in a political project led by Chávez as a presidential candidate, Chavismo’s main proposal was calling to a National Constituent Assembly (NCA). The idea was controversial to say the least, for the Constitution of 1961 had brought great stability, social progress and democratic rule to a country that had previously had over 20 ephemeral constitutions. The 1961 Constitution had been the result of fragile agreements between opposite political forces, settling a struggle that had lasted for many decades. However, it had managed to remain in force for almost four decades.
In spite of this, after his landslide win in the 1998 presidential election, Chávez and his allies got what they were looking for, facing little resistance. The process to elect the 1999 NCA members was deliberately designed to yield a vast majority to the new president (over 95% of the Constituent Assembly deputies). The new constitution – approved by referendum in December 1999 – was considered advanced by some academics and politicians, mainly due to improvements in the nominal recognition and protection of human rights. Yet, it is also true that it dismantled important checks and balances over the executive branch. For example, the 5-year presidential term without immediate re-election established in the 1961 Constitution was replaced by a 6-years term with one chance of immediate re-election; military promotions ceased to be the competence of Congress (now National Assembly) and became the attribution of the President of the Republic; the Senate was eliminated, thus transforming Venezuela into one of the few federal countries with an unicameral parliament; and the figure of a vice-president directly appointed by the president was created, without participation of the parliament. Thus, the President emerged as an empowered actor vis-à-vis the legislature.
Only eight years after the adoption of a new constitution, Chávez himself tried to reform it in depth, seeking to modify at least 100 articles with the purpose of turning Venezuela into a “socialist republic.”
Although the proposal was defeated by referendum in 2007, Chávez implemented several of his initiatives through laws and decrees. Furthermore, in 2009 he succeeded in having another referendum approving a more limited constitutional amendment proposal, which did away with maximum term limits for all elected officials (including the president). This demonstrated a deliberate use of constitutional reform processes to consolidate power, and develop a hegemonic, undemocratic regime that seeks to remain in office indefinitely.
The 2017 Constituent Assembly, proposed by Nicolás Maduro, represents the continuation of that undemocratic project, another blatant exercise of ‘constituent power’ to build autocracy. The NCA was convened and settled outside the procedures expressly contemplated in the Constitution of 1999 (as was the case when the 1961 Constitution was replaced). However, in this case the initiative is characterized by a notable absence of popular support, which became evident in the NCA’s fraudulent election process of July 30, 2017. The election has been condemned by over 40 democratic states and denounced by the Organization of American States (OAS) General Secretary, Luis Almagro, as the “the largest electoral fraud in Latin American history”. As will be discussed in other posts, the election was arranged in terms such that the most unpopulated areas would be grotesquely overrepresented, while the voters would be attached to corporate groups designated by Maduro (peasants, teachers, workers, etc.), overtly violating the principle of one man, one vote.
This new NCA not only aims to draft a new constitution, but also stands as a supra-constitutional body of government in all matters. Few hours after having been installed, the NCA’s most immediate decisions ratified its antidemocratic character. On August 5, during its first working day, its members (all of them supporters of the ruling party, as the political opposition and civil society refused to postulated candidates) unanimously approved that the Assembly can keep its omnipotent character for a period of two years, thus exceeding Maduro’s current presidential term. The NCA also proceeded to dismiss the Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Díaz, originally a chavista figure but increasingly critical of Maduro’s administration, particularly after Maduro convoked the NCA.
The programmatic proposals that should stand behind the new constitutional project are not yet clear. Although some principles (as the organization of a communal state, a “new geometry of power” and other somewhat vague ideas) have been pointed out by chavismo during many years as their key proposals, this is not really the most important point. What really matters here is that any upcoming elections will be made only on the terms that best fit the Constituent Assembly’s interests. Likewise, the structure of the State would be redesigned in such a way that the political opposition will be deprived of any relevant influence, following the path traced by other communist system, like the German Democratic Republic or the Cuban regime.
Obviously, the 2017 NCA has been designed to allow Maduro’s regime to have greater control of Venezuela’s political arena. Given its lack of support, the government is unable to win free and fair elections, and has faced mounting popular unrest. However, several problems could arise for the Venezuelan regime after taking this risky step. In the first place, the constituent process has advanced in such a way that no one doubts, inside and outside Venezuela, that Maduro’s regime is autocratic. Electing and installing the 2017 NCA has earned him wide international rejection, which will surely come accompanied by bilateral and multilateral sanctions.
Second, the 2017 NCA is not supported by every chavista. Some relevant political actors, elite members and many rank-and-file supporters consider the process to be undemocratic, dangerous and inconvenient. These fissures in the government coalition could extend to the armed forces, which until now have been loyal to Maduro. At the time of writing these lines social networks are flooded with messages about the insurrection of a military garrison in the city of Valencia, as conventional media are too pressured to be able to report normally. If military unrest becomes truly relevant, the course of events may become particularly violent and bloody.
Third, we must keep in mind that the 2017 NCA has been conceived to gather all the power in a single body, as well as to modify at will the structure of the State; it is not made to prevent Venezuela from continuing its current path to a failed state. Unfortunately, the suffering and discontent of the population will only grow in the coming months. Thus, the increase of various forms of protest, the deepening of the current humanitarian crisis and the massive departure of Venezuelans as exiles or refugees are likely to persist..
*Miguel Ángel Martínez Meucci is Venezuelan, currently a Professor of Political Science at Universidad Austral de Chile (Puerto Montt/Valdivia). He holds a B.A. in Political Science and International Relations from Universidad Central de Venezuela; a Masters in Political Science from Universidad Simón Bolivar, and a Ph.D. in Political Conflicts and Peace Processes from Universidad Complutense de Madrid. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Suggested Citation: Miguel Ángel Martínez Meucci, Symposium on “Venezuela’s 2017 (Authoritarian) National Constituent Assembly”–Maduro’s National Constituent Assembly: Constituent Power to Build an Undemocratic Regime, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Aug. 29, 2017, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2017/08/symposium-on-venezuelas-2017-authoritarian-national-constituent-assembly/Miguel-Angel-Martinez-Meucci