Venezuela: Reforms to strengthen democracy, promote 'social economy'

"Thousands of government supporters converged on Venezuela's National Assembly, carrying banners reading 'Yes to the reform, on the path to 21st Century Socialism'", the BBC's website reported on August 16, as Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez announced proposed constitutional reforms to provide a legal framework for the increasingly radical direction of the revolutionary process led by his government. This process aims to create a system of popular power and socialism.

By promoting popular power and working to redistribute the nation's oil wealth — via an array of "social missions" in areas as diverse as health, education, housing, food, environmental protection, the promotion of cooperatives, and land reform — Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution has won significant improvements in the livelihood of the country's poor majority. An August 2 post on the Oil Wars blog highlighted figures prepared by the private polling firm ACNielson and Datos showing that the real income of the poorest 50% of the population has increased by 130% since 2003.

The proposed changes will be debated in the National Assembly and then put to a national referendum. They include a reduction in the working day to just six hours and granting of the right to social security for the great mass of so-called informal workers (almost 50% of the work force). Bloomberg reported on August 16 that the proposed changes would also give the government direct control over the Central Bank of Venezuela, as well as the nation's international reserves. The government has previously clashed with the bank's management, which has attempted to resist government demands that it hands over a portion of Venezuela's sizeable reserves to help fund the government's development plans.

Bloomberg reported that the proposed reforms would nationalise Venezuela's natural gas and coal resources, grant the government the power to nationalise companies without waiting for a court order and outlaw latifundios (large, privately owned landholdings). The ABN news agency reported on August 16 that the proposals included codifying the concept of a "social economy", whereby the state promotes the development of an economic model based on "humanistic values such as the cooperation and the preponderance of the common interests that guarantee the fulfilment of the social needs of the people".

The most significant changes are the moves to boost popular power by increasing the power of institutions — such as the communal councils — that are organised from, and under the direct control of, local communities.

On August 15 ABN quoted Chavez as explaining: "These changes allow to start a new era for the construction of the Bolivarian and socialist Venezuela." Chavez predicted that while the "great majority" would support the changes, there would be strong opposition from the old elite, saying the proposed changes would provoke a "great battle". An August 15 BBC article reported that a poll suggested as many as 70% of Venezuelans would back Chavez's proposals in the referendum.

Venezuela's US-backed opposition and the international corporate media have overwhelmingly focused on one likely reform: the removal of the limit on the number of terms a president can serve in office (currently two). This has been presented as a move by Chavez towards a centralised, authoritarian dictatorship.

However, not only will any changes be voted on in a popular referendum, under the current constitution, adopted by a referendum in 1999, after Chavez was first elected, even after any new measure is adopted, their repeal can be put to a national referendum at any time (as can any law) if 10% of the electorate sign a petition.

The constitution also enshrines the right to recall elected officials, including the president, halfway through their term if 20% of their electors sign a petition calling for a referendum. The opposition has already used this measure against Chavez, forcing a referendum on whether or not to recall him in 2004 during his first term. Chavez won the referendum with almost 60% of Venezuelans voting in his favour.

Moreover, the constitutional changes move in the opposite direction from the centralisation of power in the hands of any individual, towards greatly deepening institutions of popular power. Following his re-election in December, Chavez has spoken of the need to "deepen" the revolution in order to create an "explosion of communal power", with grassroots communal councils as the base of a new "revolutionary state".

The BBC reported on August 15 that there are now 26,000 communal councils, with the government aiming to establish 50,000 by the end of the year. The councils are elected from communities of no more than 200-400 families, with a general assembly of all community members as the highest decision-making body. The aim of the councils, which were initiated by grassroots activists and given legal standing by the National Assembly in April last year, is to run and control projects aimed at transforming their communities and implementing the redistribution of the nation's oil wealth to the poor. The BBC's report noted: "If changes being proposed to the country's constitution are accepted, then it will be these councils that have more say in what happens in their local communities."

The functioning of the councils is still highly uneven across the country. They are intended to bypass existing state institutions, which have been heavily criticised by both grassroots activists and Chavez as afflicted by bureaucracy and corruption, and as frustrating the implementation of many of the government's pro-people policies. Chavez has pushed a policy of increasingly relying on the self-organisation of working people — the social force that benefits most from, and is the strongest backer of, the revolution.

Chavez has raised a number of new ideas for the councils, such as a new police force organised by the councils in each neighbourhood, according to a May 22 El Universal.com article. Creating a new, revolutionary, police force is a pressing issue because Venezuela's police are infamously corrupt and violent. Chavez has also raised the idea of the councils helping to elect judges.