Venezuela: Maduro calls constituent assembly amid crisis

May 6, 2017
Nicolas Maduro.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro officially called for a national Constituent Assembly to be convened during a May Day march in Caracas on May 1. The call is a bid to bring an end to the political crisis between the national government and the opposition-held parliament.

Speaking to the hundreds of thousands of government supporters who took to the streets for International Workers’ Day, Maduro said he would invoke article 347 of the constitution to trigger the assembly, which will be responsible for re-drafting the 1999 Constitution. 

The president said: “I convoke the original constituent power, a national constituent assembly with the people, with the working class! It is time and it is the path forward … They [the opposition] have left us with no alternatives.  

“I invoke the original constituent power to achieve the peace necessary for the Republic, to defeat the fascist attempts at a coup, so that the sovereignty of the people may impose peace, harmony, and true national dialogue.”

Maduro said there were nine areas in which the assembly would work to reorient the Constitution. These included incorporating the social programs of the late president Hugo Chavez and Maduro governments, as well as the communal councils and communes as new expressions of local government into the Magna Carta.

He also said that orientations towards building a “post-petroleum” economy in Venezuela and stopping climate change should be institutionalised. 

In statements to the crowd, the head of state promised that the assembly would be one of the “people, workers, feminists, communards, campesinos and young people”. 

It is the first time that a constituent assembly has been convened since the 1999 Constitution was approved by referendum. There is little information on carrying out the procedure in the Constitution.

Nonetheless, the government has confirmed that the assembly will be made up of some 500 directly elected delegates, 250 of whom will be elected from among the country’s social movements.

The president has also designated a constitutional commission to organise the process. The commission includes veteran Chavistas such as education minister Elias Jaua, constitutional lawyer Herman Escarra, and indigenous Wayuu activist Noheli Pocoterra, who were all involved in drafting the previous constitution.  

According to statements by Escarra, the aim of the constituent assembly is not to totally redraft the 1999 Constitution but to “transform the state”. He suggested that the priority of the assembly would be to safeguard the gains of the revolution over the past 18 years. 

“We were naive when we originally drafted the 1999 constitution … We didn’t know it would be attacked the way it has been,” he said. 

The convening of the national assembly has become a trending topic on Twitter under the hashtag “ConstituentForPeace,” presumably among government supporters.

Since December 2015, Venezuela has witnessed a stand-off between the Maduro government and the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which swore to use its mandate to remove the government from power. Since then, opposition legislators have consistently tried to pass legislation that has been thrown out by the Supreme Court for violating the Constitution. 

Tensions came to a head at the start of April over another Supreme Court ruling against the National Assembly, leading to violent opposition protests in the streets. The unrest claimed the lives of 32 people as of May 2 and shows no signs of subsiding. 

Opposition leaders have so far refused to enter into national dialogue with the government to bring about a peaceful solution to the deadlock — despite recent encouragement to do so from the Pope. Vatican-mediated talks came to a stalemate last year after opposition leaders walked out, and the opposition is currently demanding snap general elections at least a year ahead of schedule.

The opposition is also pushing for the purging of pro-government officials from the Supreme Court and National Electoral Council. 

Responding to Maduro’s message to convoke the constituent assembly as a way out of the impasse, opposition leaders described the move as a “coup” and a “fraud”. They called on their supporters to block streets and motorways in protest.  

On May 2, National Assembly Vice-President Freddy Guevara tweeted:  “Attention: the great blockade was accomplished today! We call on all of Venezuela to mobilise tomorrow against the constituent fraud of Maduro. All 24 states!”

Despite Guevara’s staunch rejection of the president’s proposal, the Popular Will party leader had actually advocated for a constituent assembly “to change all of the public powers” in 2014.   

The National Assembly head and member of First Justice, Julio Borges, also echoed Guevara’s demands. He charged the government with using the constituent assembly as a pretext to avoid the general elections the opposition is pushing for.  

Borges told a press conference on May 1 after Maduro’s announcement: “Let it be clear to the world, let it be clear to the Venezuelan people, what was announced today is not a constituent assembly, do not be fooled.

“It is ... a ruse to trick the Venezuelan people through a mechanism that will do nothing more than aggravate the state coup in Venezuela … the [Opposition] Democratic Unity Roundtable and opposition legislators call on the people to rebel against it!”

[Abridged from]

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