VENEZUELA: Right-wing protests as constitutional reform debate continues

After receiving the modified project of constitutional reform, which includes an additional 36 changes proposed by the National Assembly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, announced on October 31 that the proposed changes, which will be put to a referendum on December 2, should be voted on in separate blocs, rather than as one single bloc.

Chavez made 33 original proposals for reforms to Venezuela's existing constitution (adopted by a referendum in 1999 following Chavez's initial election and which incorporates principles of social justice and particpatory democracy) on August 15. Chavez has argued for the reforms, which, if adopted, will institutionalise new forms of popular power and social property, as well as other pro-worker measures such as lowering the working week to 30 hours, in order to assist Venezuela's transition towards socialism. However, the right-wing opposition has jumped on aspects of the proposals, such as the proposal to allow a president to be reelected for more than two terms, to claim they are an attack on democracy and an attempt by Chavez to secure dictatorial powers.

"I believe that we can present it in various blocs, as indicated in the constitution. I believe that the original proposal should be voted on in one bloc" and the other articles added by the National Assembly, "could form a second or third bloc", Chavez said during a speech at the seventh anniversary of the National Women's Institute, celebrated on October 31 at the Teresa Carreno Theater in Caracas.

However, opposition party Justice First is challenging this interpretation of the constitution in the Supreme Court and calling for the reforms to be voted on article by article. The Supreme Court is yet to rule on this.

Other opposition groups are calling for the referendum to be postponed or suspended altogether and have threatened the National Electoral Council (CNE), saying that if it continues preparing for the referendum this would be an "incitement to the people". However, the law requires the CNE to hold a referendum within 30 days of receiving the proposal, which will be submitted on November 2.

According to the results of a poll carried out between September 20-30 by the Venezuelan Institute for Data Analysis (IVAD), 50.6% of those interviewed think the reforms proposed by President Chavez are necessary, while 36% think they are
not. However, this poll was conducted before the further 36 changes proposed by the National Assembly.

Another poll by IVAD indicates that Venezuelans are divided roughly equally for and against the reforms. However, it shows that while the majority of those who support the reforms will participate in the referendum, the majority of those who oppose the reforms will abstain.

Opposition parties remain divided over what strategy to adopt in the face of the referendum, with some calling for a 'No' vote and others for a boycott. More radical sectors, such as Hermann Escarra from the National Resistance Command, have called for the reforms to be stopped, "through all means possible", prompting fears among some Venezuelans of an attempted repeat of the failed military coup against Chavez on April 11, 2002.

According to the October 24 edition of Diario VEA, senior US officials met with Venezuelan opposition groups in Prague between October 7-9 to demand that the Venezuelan opposition ask the Supreme Court to consider the proposed reforms as a "constitutional coup", and that it should call for "social upheaval, organise acts of economic sabotage against infrastructure, destroy the food transport and delivery chain … and organise a military coup with all means possible, including bloodshed by means of paramilitary force".

On November 1, 20-30,000 protesters from opposition students groups and political parties marched to the CNE in Caracas, overturning trash cans, starting fires, throwing rocks, and clashing with police and the National Guard. A delegation of 15 students were allowed into the CNE and then attempted to chain themselves to the stairwell, before being removed by police.

As the march passed through the relatively poorer area of Parque Central, it was met with spontaneous cries of "Chavez is not going" and "they will not return" — a reference to the pre-Chavez political leaders. Several thousand pro-Chavez students and supporters from Caracas's poorer neighbourhoods gathered at the CNE in a counter-protest in support of the reforms.

Chavez has called on opponents of the reforms to participate in the referendum and refrain from the use of violence. "Those who don't agree with the project, have the right not to. They should prepare themselves for December 2 and try to convince people to vote against the reform", he said.

"If the majority of Venezuelans say 'No' to the proposal, then no is no, it is simply the voice of the people … if the majority of the people approve the reform then we will deepen [the revolution]."

However, Chavez warned it is "the same sectors of April 11" that aim to "return to violence" in order to avoid the referendum. He asked that these sectors reconsider their plans to carry out violent actions. "I make a call to those who are not in agreement with the reform, to go out into the streets and carry out your campaign through the referendum, this is democracy, and afterward accept the results", said Chavez.

Chavez has rejected opposition calls to postpone the referendum and affirmed that campaigning would begin on November 2. Opposition groups are set to march against the reforms in Caracas on November 3, while pro-Chavez groups will launch their campaign for a "Yes" vote with a demonstration on November 4.

[Based on articles published at . Kiraz Janicke is a member of the Green Left Weekly Caracas bureau.]