Venezuela: Radical proposals spark debate

On August 15 — the third anniversary of President Hugo Chavez's victory in the recall referendum of 2004 and the 202nd anniversary of Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar's famous oath not to rest "until the chains of oppression are lifted from my people" — tens of thousands of people turned out to an extraordinary session of Venezuela's National Assembly (AN) to hear the president's proposed constitutional reforms.

Chavez said it was necessary to reform the 1999 constitution because the document was "ambiguous" and "a product of the moment". Arguing that changes were needed to reflect the growing radicalisation of the pro-poor Bolivarian revolution his government is leading, Chavez said: "I am emotional today, because I believe this proposal will open doors to a new era." Chavez said that the new constitutional reforms are "essential for continuing the process of revolutionary transition".

The proposals are aimed at transforming the existing state, which Chavez has argued is a block to radical change, via creating a "new geometry of power". This change would alter the current powers of regional areas, and allow for municipalities, "with the acceptance of the people within the municipality", to create territory or land in common that would be under the direct government of the community and, according to Chavez, would constitute "the basic nucleus of the socialist state".

Chavez argued the "profoundly revolutionary" changes to the existing state structures are necessary "to remove the old oligarchic, exploiter hegemony — the old society — and, in the words of [Italian Marxist Antonio] Gramsci, to weaken the old 'historic block'. If we don't change the superstructure, the old superstructure will defeat us."

The proposals also include measures to recognise the social missions that redistribute Venezuela's oil wealth to the poor as official state structures; reduce the working day from eight to six hours; grant the right to social security for workers in the "informal economy"; give the government control over the state-owned Central Bank of Venezuela; further extend and protect the rights of indigenous Venezuelans; make it easier for the government to carry out nationalisations; introduce legal recognition for, and promotion of, new forms of collectively owned property as part of promoting a "social economy"; reorganise the military to transform the reserves into a "popular militia" and to codify the armed forces as an "anti-imperialist" force; and introduce a new branch of the state based on institutions of "popular power".

Chavez spoke of the importance of the measures to recognise "popular power", saying there was a need to decentralise and transfer power to the organised communities to create the best conditions for socialist democracy. "Sovereignty rests with the people", Chavez argued, "and should be exercised directly through the organs of popular power". Popular power would be expressed through various forms such as the communes, self-government of the towns and cities, the communal councils, workers' councils, campesino (peasant) councils, student councils, and others councils indicated in the law.

In a move singled out by the international media and the Venezuelan opposition, the length of a president's term would be increased from six to seven years and the current two-term limit would be scrapped, allowing for indefinite re-election. This has been attacked as an attempt by Chavez to centralise power and potentially become "president for life". Opposition leader Manuel Rosales (who was defeated by Chavez in the presidential elections last December) called the proposals a "constitutional coup", and said the opposition would mobilise against them.

The president of the business group Conindustria, Ismael Perez Vigil, also expressed concern about the proposed reduction in the working day, on the basis of its potential to negatively affect capitalist profits, asking: "If we paid a certain salary for eight hours, now are we saying that we are going to pay the same salary with less work hours?"

Supporters of the proposals argue that with the latest polls showing a 70% approval rating for Chavez, opposition to allowing Chavez to stand for re-election is a tacit recognition that he would win the next election hands down. Supporters also argue that if the majority of Venezuelans want Chavez to continue as president after his current term finishes in 2012 then that is their democratic right.

AN president Cilia Flores said during an August 21 parliamentary discussion on the proposals that the "same people that attacked the Bolivarian Constitution of 1999, are now using the same arguments to attack the reforms proposed by the president" — a reference to the April 2002 US-backed military coup led by the opposition, which briefly removed Chavez from power and installed Pedro Carmona, one of Venezuela's richest men, as president.

Before a popular uprising of the poor restored Chavez, the coup junta issued a decree dissolved the constitution. The infamous "Carmona decree" was signed by more than 400 individuals, including a number of the opposition leaders — such as Rosales — who are currently opposing Chavez's proposed reforms on the basis of defending the constitution the same constitution they dissolved.

Making opposition claims to be opposing a dictatorship even more hollow, during the junta's brief time in power, police under the control of an opposition-aligned mayor gunned down protesters who took to the streets demanding Chavez's return, killing dozens.

After a special gathering to discuss the proposed changes, the August 21 AN meeting voted to give the proposals its initial approval. The assembly has launched a plan to facilitate a national debate and discussion on the reforms, including "parliaments of the streets" and a series of activities to ensure participation from all sectors of society, including the opposition.

The text of the proposed changes are being distributed in hard copy and CD format, house by house, as part of the AN-initiated "National Plan to Debate the Constitutional Reforms", which aims "to activate a national political debate and the participation of the people in the process of constitutional reform aimed to strengthen revolutionary consciousness, stimulate popular mobilisation, and guarantee the sovereign expression of the majority on the occasion of the referendum".

The plan includes organising 80,000 promoters to agitate for a "yes" vote. It is expected that the 80,000 promoters will emerge from the most active militants that have been participating in the battalions of the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), a new party under construction that aims to unite Chavista militants in a new democratic party built from the ground up.

The plan will conclude with the holding of a "National Assembly of Popular Power", where elected spokespeople from state and municipal assemblies will deliver proposals and suggested changes to the AN, followed by a final extraordinary session of the AN to consider the changes. Once the reforms have been passed by the final AN meeting, they will have to be put to a national referendum within 30 days.

Differences over the proposed changes have emerged from within the broad pro-Chavez camp. Three pro-Chavez parties — Podemos, Homeland for All (PPT) and the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) — which after Chavez's own Movement for the Fifth Republic (which has now dissolved into the PSUV) have received the greatest electoral support of all pro-Chavez groups, have expressed varying degrees of difference with the plan. These are also the three largest pro-Chavez parties that have so far refused to join the PSUV.

On August 20, Podemos, the group with the second largest number of AN delegates after the MVR, distanced itself on from comments by its party president, Ramon Martinez, governor of the state of Sucre. Martinez had called for an alliance of governors and mayors to "defend regional autonomy" against Chavez's plan for a "new geometry of power".

Echoing the opposition, Martinez stated: "Not only are we in defence of regional autonomy, but of the constitution." He claimed that "In this struggle, I am accompanied by more than 46 mayors throughout the country. I'm not going to give you more details of the plan. I am the only one sticking out my nose."

Podemos AN deputy Ricardo Guitierrez clarified that the party does not support these comments, and would express its position on the proposed changes in discussion in the AN. However he acknowledged Podemos had differences over the proposed geopolitical reorganisation of the country.

Opposition parties argue that the "new geometry of power" would centralise power in the executive and weaken governorships. However Chavez argues the aim is to transfer power to the people. During an inauguration of a Children's Cardiology Hospital on August 20, Chavez declared, "I am not an enemy of decentralisation." Rather, he argued, he is an enemy of the "bureaucratic, corrupt state".

Podemos, regarded as the most right-wing grouping in the Chavista camp, has now replaced leading opposition group Accion Democratica as the Venezuelan representative of the Socialist International — an international alliance of "social democratic" parties, including the British Labour Party, the Australian Labor Party and the socialist parties of France and Spain.

PPT is organising 3000 open forums all around the country to discuss the proposed constitutional reforms. Jose Albornoz, a PPT AN deputy, said that his party supported removing the restriction on the re-election of a president, however, they believe this should apply to all publicly elected positions, which Chavez has rejected.

Geronimo Carrera, president of the PCV (the third Chavez-aligned party that has declined to be part of the PSUV), was quoted in the August 18 El Nacional as saying that "The country is tired of constitutions". He argued that the solutions to the social problems Venezuela faces are more pressing than constitutional reform. Carrera also criticised the proposed reforms for retaining respect for private property in the constitution, arguing: "In a revolutionary change ... you cannot permit coexistence with private property."

Delegate elections for the founding congress of the PSUV, which 5.8 million people have expressed interest in joining, have been postponed to provide space to debate the proposed changes, identified by Venezuelan Vice-President Jorge Rodriguez as a greater priority. Rodriguez said the process of constructing the PSUV would occur alongside the constitutional debate.

Participants in a PSUV assembly in Nueva Caracas told that the decision to delay the elections of delegates to the PSUV founding congress was positive as it would give more time for the formation of the battalions, as well as political debate and discussion. They also said they believed the proposed constitutional reforms would provide "more popular power, more autonomy and more sovereignty".

[Based on a series of articles first published at Kiraz Janicke works for Venezuela Analysis and is a member of Green Left Weekly's Caracas bureau.]