Venezuela: towards elected dictatorship

Phil Gunson
13 September 2007

Many are the nations that have had democracy snatched from them. Few indeed are those offered the chance to vote for it to be taken away. That is the choice that will face Venezuelans when they go to the polls on (most likely) 2 December 2007 to ratify, or reject, President Hugo Chávez's constitutional-reform project.

Phil Gunson is a journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela Also by Phil Gunson on openDemocracy:

"Hugo Chávez's provocative solidarity"(14 June 2006)

"Venezuela's media in a Bolivarian storm"(7 August 2006)

"Venezuela: a seat at the top table"(16 October 2006)

"Bolivarian myths and legends"(1 December 2006)

"Hugo Chávez: yo, el supremo" (13 April 2007)

Now, fifteen years after the former army lieutenant-colonel failed in his bid to overthrow an elected government, he will - if successful - finally be able to bury the country's half-century-old tradition of alternability in power.

Once described, by its progenitor, as the most perfect constitution in the world, Chávez's original, 1999 charter has already outlived its usefulness to the "revolution". Most irksome of all is Article 230, which limits the president to two consecutive, six-year terms. But the reform, of which the president himself is the author, goes far beyond the removal of term limits and the increase (from six to seven years) of each term.

Just thirty-three of the constitution's 350 articles - many fewer than had been thought - are to be amended. But the intention is quite explicitly to make the revolution irreversible, by rendering unconstitutional any alternative political project and placing the state, its productive and financial capacity and - crucially - its monopoly of violence at the service of chavismo.

Article 6 of the 1999 constitution defines the Venezuelan state and its component parts as plural and subject to the principle of alternability. To have amended this, or any of the other "fundamental principles" of the constitution would have required the convening of an elected assembly - something the president wished to avoid.

Instead, the principle has been rendered meaningless. The new constitution obliges the state to create "the best conditions for the construction of a socialist democracy". The central bank (which will lose the last vestiges of its autonomy) will be required to help the government achieve "the essential goals of the socialist state". To this end, the president will be given personal control over the country's foreign reserves, enabling him to spend as he sees fit on "socialist development".

What is happening in Venezuela? openDemocracy's many articles on the Hugo Chávez years offer detailed, independent analysis and argument in the interests of informed understanding. They include:

Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"(10 February 2006)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez at his peak"(28 March 2007)

Julia Buxton, "The deepening of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution: why most people don't get it" (4 May 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?" (9 August 2007)

What Chávez means by "socialism" can be discerned in the constitutional rights that citizens will lose: the right to engage in "the economic activity of their choice", for instance, or the right to "use, enjoy and dispose of" their private property.

If Venezuelans were in future to decide to elect a non-socialist administration, the vote could be deemed unconstitutional. According to the proposed reform of Article 70, elections (and other forms of political participation on the part of the people) are defined as being, "for the construction of socialism". And this is by no means a purely legalistic hindrance, since the armed forces are also to be placed at the service of the revolution, and thus required to put down - by force of arms if necessary - any challenge to its hegemony.

Article 328 of the 1999 constitution defines the armed forces as "essentially professional" and "without political militancy". They are "exclusively at the service of the state [and not] any person or political tendency". All this is swept away by the reform, which defines them as "patriotic, popular and anti-imperialist" and replaces "national" with "Bolivarian" (the adjective the revolution applies to itself) as their denomination.

All military promotions, from the rank of sub-lieutenant to general, will be determined by the president, whose popular militia is incorporated into the armed forces as a new component, alongside the army, navy, air force and national guard. Political loyalty is thus enshrined as the sine qua non of a military career.

As if this were not enough, sweeping new powers are granted to the president. He will, for instance, be able to declare any part of the country a "federal territory", to be administered directly from the presidential palace. Or appoint any number of vice-presidents, whose powers will override those of elected state governors.

Chávez insists that he is not concentrating power but devolving it to the people, via a new branch of government, based on communal councils and to be known as the "popular power". These councils (18,000 of a planned total of 60,000 have already been set up) are derived not from a secret ballot but by votes taken in open assemblies. Their powers, and their financial resources, are derived exclusively from their relationship with the presidency, which authorises and funds their operations.

The referendum process is gathering momentum. The date was provisionally confirmed on 12 September by Tibisay Lucena, chair of the National Electoral Council [CNE]). On the same day, the national assembly approved the proposals for a second time (after a first approval on 21 August); a third such vote when the the final draft of the amended constitution is discussed will open the way for December's decisive vote.

If the "yes" vote wins on 2 December 2007, the prospects for a non-violent change of government in Venezuela will be sharply reduced. Now might be a good time for the neighbours to take a closer look at what is brewing in their midst.

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