The Venezuelan government's
effort to create "21st century socialism" is moving ahead full-steam
with the December 2nd constitutional reform referendum. While
tensions and confusion about the reform are rising in Venezuela, it is important to
realize that this reform will mean both less and more than most outside
observers seem to think. That is, as usual, many pundits, such as from the
Venezuelan opposition and from so-called international experts, are painting a
picture of a Venezuela that is about to finally slip into "Castro-communism," a
picture that could hardly be further from the truth and that has been falsely
predicted for Chavez's entire presidency of now nine years. While there are
negative or not-so-good aspects of the reform, which for the most part involve
giving the president some more powers, the Venezuelan president, even after the
reform, is still does not have as much institutional power as the U.S.
president. On the other hand, in the process of focusing on the centralizing
aspects of the reform, most observers willfully miss the ways in which the
positive aspects of the upcoming reform have the potential to make Venezuelan
political life more in tune with the interests of the country's mostly poor
Shortly after President Hugo
Chavez was reelected on December 6, 2006, he announced that a reform of the
1999 constitution would be one of the first tasks of his second full term as
president. According to Chavez, the reform was to smooth the path for the
creation of "Bolivarian" or "21st Century" socialism because the
1999 constitution was a product of a more moderate president and population. On
August 15 of this year, eight months after his reelection, Chavez presented his
proposal to alter 33 articles of the constitution to the National Assembly
(AN). The AN, according to the constitution, is allowed to discuss and revise
the president's proposal over a period of two years. However, following a
relatively rushed process that was accompanied by numerous public forums in all
parts of the country, the AN added another 36 article changes and passed the
entire proposal with the required two-thirds majority on November 2. The
National Electoral Council then had 30 days to organize a national referendum
on the proposal, which is now scheduled to take place on December 2nd.
What the Reform is About
Chavez's constitutional reform
project deepens policies in five main areas: participatory democracy, social
inclusion, non-neoliberal (socialist?) economic development,
politico-territorial reorganization, and stronger (or more effective?) central
government. In addition, there are a few changes that don't fit into any of
these categories, mainly because they don't do anything much, except adorn an
already very progressive constitution. While the vast majority of these changes
are progressive, in the sense that they deepen democracy and social inclusion,
some can be considered regressive, in the sense that they weaken earlier achievements
of the 1999 constitution. Also, one must recognize, just as some in the Chavez
government have argued, that the reform represents a "transition" towards "21st
century socialism," not its full implementation, which is still somewhat
unclear. As such, it misses elements that progressives in many countries would
consider essential for real socialism. Let us briefly review each of the
above-mentioned aspects of the reform, before turning to the political context
of the reform.
Deepening Participatory Democracy
In one of the greatest
departures from the 1999 constitution, the reform proposal introduces a new level
of government, the "popular power" (art. 136 of the reform proposal). This
power is in addition to the municipal, state, and national powers of the
political system. The popular power represents the "lowest" level of
government, in that it is the organization of communities in forms of direct
democracy. Because of this, the reform states, "The people are the depositories
of sovereignty and exercise it directly via the popular power. This is not born
of suffrage nor any election, but out of the condition of the human groups that
are organized as the base of the population."
The opposition has tried to
twist the meaning of this article, claiming that it lays the groundwork for
dictatorship because it supposedly means that the authorities of the popular
power are named from above, since they are not elected.
This, however, represents a willful misunderstanding, as the popular power is
supposed to be the place where democracy is direct, that is, unmediated by
elected representatives. This is not to say that there wouldn't be any
elections at this level, but that those who are elected are not
representatives, but are delegates of the community, who are to execute the
community's decisions. Currently this popular power takes the form of the
citizen assemblies and their communal councils. According to the reform, it
would also take the form of worker, student, youth, elderly, women, etc. councils.
Another more sophisticated
criticism has been that incorporating popular power, in the form of the various
forms of popular organizations, into the state's structure implies a cooptation
of civil society. That is,
citizens, by virtue of their activism, would be turned into civil servants.
This would be true if all of civil society, in its totality, were to be
absorbed into state structures. However, the reform limits the popular power to
those councils or groups that are organized in accordance with the constitution
and the law as being part of the popular power. In other words, rather than co-opting
or absorbing all of civil society into the state, the reform proposes to
provide more democratic and more consistent channels for citizen involvement in
their self-governance. Civil society groups that are organized outside of these
channels would still be free to organize and mobilize independently of the
However, since power is to be
devolved from municipal, state, and national governments to the popular power
(art. 168, 184, 264, 265, 279, 295), that is, to the communal and other
councils, consistent channels for the use of this power must be established,
which is done via the councils of the popular power. Many reform articles, for
example, state that communities are to be involved in the co-management of
businesses (art. 184), that municipalities must involve the popular power in
their activities (art. 168), that they have a role in the nomination of members
of the judicial, electoral, and citizen branches of government (art. 264, 265,
279, 295), and that they receive at least 5% of the national budget (art. 167)
for their community projects.
Deepening Social and Political Inclusion
The second area that the
constitutional reform deepens is social and political inclusion by giving all
citizens the right to equal access to city resources ("right to the city," art.
discrimination based on sexual orientation and health condition (art. 21), including
young people in the political process by lowering the voting age from 18 to 16
years (art. 64), requiring gender parity in candidacies for elected office
(art. 64), protecting people from having their primary home expropriated due to
bankruptcy (art. 82), introducing a social security fund for self- and
informally employed Venezuelans (art. 87), guaranteeing free university
education (art. 103),
recognizing and promoting the culture Venezuelans of African descent (art.
100), and giving university students parity in the election of university
authorities (art. 109). These are all forms of social and political inclusion
that, if realized, would place Venezuela
at the forefront in the world in this regard.
Deepening Non-Capitalist (Socialist?) Economic Development
Next, the reform would move Venezuela
further along a path of non-capitalist economic development. That
is, the effort to deepen non-capitalist and perhaps socialist development is
centered on strengthening democratic control over the economy while weakening
private sector control. For example, the central bank, which is normally under
the sway of international financial institutions, would no longer be
independent (art. 318, 320, 321) and the state may turn food producing and
distributing businesses over to public or collective control in order to
guarantee food security (art. 305). Also, the state oil company PDVSA will face
stronger restrictions against privatization (art. 303).
The 1999 constitution had
stated that PDVSA may not be privatized, but that its subsidiaries could.
However, since PDVSA is a holding company that consists only of subsidiaries,
it could, in theory, be entirely privatized by a government so inclined. The
reform would prohibit the privatization of any national components of PDVSA. In
other words, the often money-losing international subsidiaries of PDVSA could
still be privatized at some point.
In addition to strengthening
the state's involvement in the economy, the reform also strengthens the role of
organized communities and of workers in the economy. For example, land reform
is made more effective by allowing its beneficiaries (mostly cooperatives) to
occupy land they have been granted before court challenges to the land
redistribution are settled in court (art. 115). Until now, the land reform has
often been hampered by land owners who would tie up the reform in court for
many years, while the land would remain idle.
Reducing the workweek from 44
to 36 hours per week would give workers more power, vis-à-vis employers (art.
rights are also strengthened in that the reform opens the possibility for
greater workplace self-management, via worker councils (art. 70, 136) and
directives that publicly owned enterprises should involve greater
self-management (184 no. 2).
Also, eliminating intellectual
property while maintaining authors' rights to their creations, makes it more
difficult for companies to profit from the creative work of others, while still
protecting authors' rights over their productions (art. 98).
In addition to strengthening
the position of the state and of workers relative to private capital, the
reform would also strengthen the position of domestic business relative to
international business because it removes the requirement that foreign
companies be treated the same as national companies (art. 301).
Finally, and perhaps most
controversially, the reform introduces a variety of new forms of property that
move the notion or property away from purely individualistic conceptions (art.
115). These new forms are collective, social, and public property. Critics have
pointed out that the differences are poorly defined, which is true.
Nonetheless, these different forms open up the possibility for the creation of
socialist production enterprises, as the state has planned.
Altogether, these forms of
strengthening workers and of the state with regard to private capital
definitely represent a move away from classical capitalism. The degree to which
it represents 21st century socialism rather than social democracy or
state socialism will depend on exactly which direction and how far these moves
are taken in the laws that will work out the details of the constitutional
Developing a "New Geometry of Power"
The "New Geometry of Power" is
perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of the constitutional reform. The
opposition and the oppositional media consistently interpret it as a blatant effort
to give President Chavez dictatorial power over states and municipalities.
Indeed, the reform lends itself to this misreading because it says the
president may designate a variety of new politico-geographic areas, such as federal
territories, federal municipalities, federal cities, and "functional
districts," and may name the respective authorities, without defining the power
of these authorities or the function of these new territorial divisions (art.
However, it is absurd to claim
that the lack of a clear definition in this regard means that these new
territorial divisions or the respective authorities would take power away from elected
representatives if the reformed constitution does not say that their powers
would be diminished in any way. Rather, the main purpose of this new geometry
of power, according to government representatives, is to allow the president to
designate national resources and presidential powers to particular areas. That
is, the idea is to concentrate national attention and resources on specific areas,
regardless of their existing politico-geographic boundaries, that are in need
of such attention because of their poverty or their unused human or physical resources.
Existing local power structures would remain untouched and unaffected by the
designation of these areas, other than in the sense of receiving more national
government attention. If anything, the reform implies that communal councils can
form governing structures at the city-wide level, thereby moving power down to
the communities, rather than up to the president.
The real question in regard to
this aspect of the reform is whether it is necessary to include the president's
ability to designate federal territories in the constitutional reform at all,
since they do not alter existing power structures. The president already has
the power to focus national government attention on specific regions, which he
has done via the nuclei of endogenous development. These are zones for special
government attention that appear to be quite similar to those proposed in the
constitutional reform, but which were created by presidential decree, without specific
constitutional authorization. Including this aspect of the territorial reorganization
in the reform thus appears to give additional authorization for something that
the president can already do.
More importantly, though, for
the reform and for a new geometry of power, is the president's and the National
Assembly's new ability to re-organize municipal boundaries (art. 156 no. 11,
236 no. 3). While the politico-territorial division of states within the
country's borders was always and still is a matter of a national law, with the
reform the president appears to have the authority to re-organize the
municipalities within the individual states, which used to have that power.
This is an important change because Venezuela's municipalities are
organized in a completely irrational manner that goes back as much as 200 years
and has rarely been changed. The rationale for giving the president the power
to reorganize these is that this needs to be done with a national-rather than
parochial-vision in mind.
Strengthening Of the Presidency and the National Government
This last point, about the
reform giving the president the power to reorganize municipal boundaries,
touches on the larger issue of the reform slightly strengthening the
president's powers in a variety of ways. Of course, the oppositional media
(including the international pundits) consistently present this as "sweeping
new powers," without backing this up. The most controversial changes in this
regard include the removal of the two-term limit on serving as president (art.
230). However, over half of the heads of government in the world have "sweeping
power," including some of the world's most respected democracies, such as France, Germany,
Britain, and Italy.
Removing the limit on the
number of reelections and extending the presidential term from six to seven
years (art. 230) are meant to strengthen the presidency in order to carry out
the long-term project of Venezuela's
political and economic transformation from capitalism to socialism. In a way,
opponents ought to be grateful that Chavez is not proposing a transition within
his current presidential term (which lasts another five years), but a
transition with a much longer time line, which would be far less traumatic and
thus gives the opposition far more opportunities to reverse the project.
Extending Chavez's presidency
(if reelected) is a mixed problem, though. On the one hand, Chavez supporters
are right to say that it is more democratic if citizens are free to elect
whomever they choose, as often as they choose, without artificial limitations.
On the other hand, supporters of this principle ought to address the main
reason such unlimited reelections are often prohibited, which is that
presidents tend to accumulate power and can use the advantages of their office
to make it more difficult for challengers to eventually win the presidency. This
would mean placing strict restrictions on using the office of the president in
one's presidential campaign. Currently limitations of this sort are rather
limited in Venezuela.
The other controversial
strengthening of the office of the president is the reform's toughening of
states of emergency. According to the reform, the right to being informed would
be suspended during a state of emergency, which implies that censorship may be
used in such situations (art. 337). The rationale for this is that the April
2002 coup attempt was based on manipulating the media to fabricate events that
ended up justifying the coup. A state of emergency, according to Chavez
supporters, would have to take such a course of events into account. Contrary
to most news reports, though, the state of emergency still includes the right
to defense, to a trial, to communication, and not to be tortured. This is more
than one can say for the current situation in the U.S., where the president has the
authority to arrest people without due process, according to the recently
passed Military Commissions Act.
Another area where the office
of the president is being strengthened is in his ability to promote all military
officers, not just high-ranking ones, as was previously the case (art. 236 no. 8).
While this strengthens the president's control over the military and will
probably increase the premium placed on loyalty to the president, it is not a
"sweeping power" that will turn Venezuela
into a dictatorship. Rather, this is something that ought to be within the
purview of the military's commander in chief, even if it might not be the
wisest way to handle promotions.
Another common criticism of the
reform with regard to the president's "sweeping powers" is that the president
may name as many vice-presidents (including regional ones) as he or she chooses
(art. 236 no. 5). However, considering that the reform text does not say what
these vice-presidents' powers would be, the only possible interpretation is that
they have none except those that the president is already authorized to give to
other members of his cabinet. Contrary to common perception, the powers of the
vice-president thus cannot usurp the powers of any other elected official. In
effect, vice-presidents would be nothing else than glorified ministers.
A change that has received
little attention from the opposition, presumably because they support it, is
that the reform makes citizen-initiated referenda more difficult by
substantially increasing (by up to 100%) the signature requirements for
launching such referenda (art. 71-74). The argument for this change is that
frivolous referendum petitions must be prevented, especially since the
referendum procedure is quite costly for the Venezuelan state. For example, few
people noticed that none of the referendum petitions for members of the
national assembly succeeded in 2004, even though dozens of petitions had been
filed to recall pro-Chavez and opposition representatives. The signature
collection and verification process costs millions of dollars and may be
initiated on the whim of groups that claim they have the ability to collect the
However, by increasing the
signature requirements, in most cases more petition signatures will be needed
to organize the referendum than votes will be needed for the referendum to
pass. Such a situation reverses the logic of the signature collection process,
which is merely supposed to indicate sufficient interest in a possible
referendum, not represent a higher hurdle than the vote itself. In the end, the
referendum process is thus significantly weakened (and the national government
thus strengthened) in the name of greater efficiency, when other procedures
might have been found that do not weaken the citizen-initiated referendum
process as a whole.
Chavez has argued that he needs
these relatively modest increased powers in order to defend the project against
those who would oppose it by illegal means and in order to bring about more
changes more effectively.
In other words, the strengthening of the president's office continues the
slightly contradictory trajectory of the Chavez years, where greater democracy
and greater citizen participation is introduced from the top, by the president.
Strengthening the presidency thus, in this process, is also supposed to mean
strengthening participatory democracy.
While the vast majority of
proposed changes to the 1999 constitution indeed deepen participatory democracy
and social inclusion, there are several changes that don't seem to add much
other than nice words to the constitution. This is particularly the case with
the terms "socialism" and "socialist" that the reform introduces in at least 11
of the reform articles, without ever defining what the term means (art. 16, 70,
112, 113, 158, 168, 184, 299, 300, 318, 321). Again, critics have attempted to
interpret this as an effort to eliminate political pluralism, saying that using
this term would mean that non-socialists would not be allowed to participate in
the political system.
Such an interpretation is perhaps justified by the way the term was used in
state socialist countries of the East Block, but there is no indication in the
current constitution that this is a valid interpretation. As former education
minister Aristobulo Isturiz points out, Spain's constitution refers to its political
system as a parliamentary monarchy, but this does not mean that those who are
opposed to monarchies are not allowed to participate in Spain's
political system. In other words, there is nothing in the reform that could
explicitly pluralist political system (article 2) in any way.
Still, the inclusion of the
term "socialist" in many parts of the referendum seems unnecessary, other than
to give a label to something that has not been proven to deserve this label. Also,
given that the meaning of the concept of socialism (unlike that of monarchy) is
a hotly contested one, putting such a label on Venezuela's political and
economic system opens it up to abuse. The danger that the label is confused
with the ideal is quite real. After all, the state socialist countries of the
East Block were labeled socialist, but that alone does not mean that they were.
It seems far wiser to simply go about creating socialism in the sense of
achieving liberty, equality, and social justice for all and then leave it to
historians to decide whether the Venezuelan system deserves the label "socialist."
Another clearly unnecessary
change is the inclusion of the social programs known as missions in the reform
(art. 141). Given that the missions are operating just fine within given social
framework, it is not clear at all why these need to be "legitimated" by being
mentioned in the constitution.
Despite the large number and
large reach of the changes that the National Assembly and President Chavez are
proposing, these changes fail to include issues that would go even further in
creating socialism in Venezuela.
For example, if socialism means true equality of opportunity, then it ought to
include a woman's right to an abortion. This, though, is still not part of Venezuela's
constitution, largely because there is no consensus within the government
coalition in favor of such a change. Also, if socialism means real self-determination,
then the reform should include much stronger provisions for self-management in
all workplaces, both public and private. Next, if citizen participation is a
key feature of 21st century socialism, then the power of communal
councils should be extended to regional and even national levels, not just
city-wide levels, to either compete with or displace representative democracy
on these levels. Finally, if 21st century socialism means assuring a
fair and sustainable production and distribution of goods and services that go
beyond the distribution mechanisms of the market and of the state, then new
forms of distribution and production need to be invented. The reform does not
touch on this at all, though, presumably because such a change would require a
completely new constitution, with the convocation of another constitutional
Prospects for the Reform
As the above review of the
constitutional reform shows, the vast majority of changes would deepen
participatory democracy, social inclusion, and non-capitalist economic
development. Those relatively limited changes that strengthen the presidency,
which Chavez and his supporters say are needed for pushing the other reforms
even further, cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered "sweeping
new powers," as critics and the media like to call them. Although the necessity
and wisdom of some of the changes are definitely debatable, the most
controversial changes that strengthen the president's powers, such as eliminating
limits on reelection, eliminating central bank autonomy, tightening control
over the military, strengthening states of emergency, and increasing the
president's ability to reorganize the politico-territorial divisions of
Venezuela do not represent dictatorial powers – not even close.
The only reason Chavez appears
to have dictatorial powers in the eyes of the opposition is because he and his
supporters control all branches of government, which, indeed, makes "checks and
balances" against presidential power more difficult. But whose fault is it that
Chavez and his supporters control all five branches
of the Venezuelan state? Ultimately, the Venezuelan people and the opposition
are responsible for this situation. The Venezuelan people are responsible because
they are the ones who have voted in support of Chavez and his coalition parties
over and over again, with overwhelming majorities (the last time with a near
2/3 majority of 63% of the vote in last year's presidential election). The
opposition is responsible because they have consistently messed-up, boycotted,
and otherwise obstructed the democratic process in Venezuela, thereby losing political
credibility and popular support.
Despite this rather depressing
state of affairs for the opposition, Chavez handed the opposition yet another
chance to redeem itself when he launched the constitutional reform. Chavez says
that this move was necessary for the deepening of Venezuela's socialist
transformation, but, strictly speaking, many of these changes could have been made
without the reform and those that could not, could have waited until 2012 for a
more deliberate reform process than the one that took place.
By rushing the reform process
Chavez presented the opposition with a nearly unprecedented opportunity to deal
him a serious blow. Also, the rush in which the process was pushed forward
opened him to criticism that the process was fundamentally flawed, which has
become one of the main criticisms of the more moderate critics of the reform.
The loss of these former moderate Chavez supporters serves to strengthen the
opposition. Also, the rush makes it easier for the opposition to paint the
reform on its terms than on the government's terms. After all, it is always far
easier to spread disinformation about something quite complex such as the
reform than it is to spread serious and well-reasoned explanations about it
while also correcting the disinformation.
This is why the reform appears
to have suffered some setbacks in public opinion. Opposition-affiliated and
government-affiliated opinion polls appear to be farther apart than they have
ever been, compared to earlier electoral contests during the Chavez presidency.
Part of the explanation for this divergence is, first and foremost, the confusion
about the reform and the consequent unwillingness of a large segment of the
population to commit to vote either for or against it. Abstention will thus be
relatively high. And high abstention makes voting trends notoriously difficult
to predict, which means that it is more likely that opinion polls will reflect
the biases of their contractors.
In the end, it all boils down
to which side mobilizes more supporters. That is, while it seems that the
undecided lean against the reform, Chavez supporters tend to be far more
enthusiastic about their support for their leader and thus far more easily
mobilizable than the opposition is. In other words, if turnout is high, around
60 to 70%, it is likely that the vote will be very close, while if it is low,
around 50% or less, the yes side will win.
Unfortunately, if the
constitutional reform passes by a small margin, this increases the likelihood
that the opposition will falsely claim fraud and will mobilize its more radical
elements to launch a destabilization campaign. Such a claim, though, as many
opposition supporters have begun to recognize,
will have no basis in reality because the electoral system has become more
transparent and more verifiable than nearly any electoral system in the world.
All eyes will be on Venezuela
and only a sound defeat of false fraud claims, both nationally and
internationally, will avert greater tensions in Venezuela's still deepening
political process that has created more democracy and more social inclusion.
Gregory Wilpert is
author of Changing
Venezuela by Taking Power (Verso
Books, 2007) and is principal editor of Venezuelanalysis.com
For more informtion, see:
Venezuela’s Constitutional Reform: An Article-by-Article Summary November 23rd 2007
What is Venezuela’s Constitutional Reform Really About? November 23rd 2007
constitutional reform actually constitutes only one of five "motors" to bring
about 21st century socialism. The other four motors are enabling
law, which allows Chavez to pass laws by decree for an 18 month period, an
education campaign in favor of socialist values, the creation of a "new
geometry of power" that would reorganize political boundaries within the
country among other things, and the "explosion of communal power," to
strengthen the role of communal councils in the country's system of
party Podemos, which was part of the pro-Chavez coalition, challenged the
National Assembly's ability to add articles to the reform and has, as a result,
broken from the coalition.
 Most of
the opposition's campaign literature makes this argument.
 Made by
people such as the sociologists Edgardo Lander and Margarita Lopez-Maya (see: "López
Maya: La reforma se traducirá en inestabilidad," El Nacional, November 25, 2007 and "Contribution
to the debate on the proposed Constitutional Reform in Venezuela," by
Edgardo Lander in: Transnational
Institute, November 23, 2007
specialists on poverty argue that one of the greatest obstacles to overcoming
poverty is the limited access that the poor have to city resources, such as
housing, banking, and utilities, often largely as a result of the neighborhood
they live in. Giving people a right to equal access implies substantially
increasing the chances poor people have to overcome poverty.
though public university education is free now, the current 1999 constitution
only guarantees free education through high school.
According to the reform text itself, this would be called a socialist economy,
but since the text does not define socialism, it is not too clear what is meant
by this. A negative definition, as non-capitalist, is thus more useful.
opposition argues-correctly, for a change-that altering the constitution is not
necessary for reducing the workweek, since the current constitution already
states that a lower workweek may be legislated. There has been some confusion
about whether the workday would be six instead of eight hours, as has been
widely reported. The reform text states that the workday may not exceed six
hours OR 36 hours per week. The labor minister has interpreted this to mean that
employees of the public administration might work 8 hours per day Monday to
Thursday and 4 hours on Friday.
here, for example, Edgardo Lander's critique, Contribution
to the debate on the proposed Constitutional Reform in Venezuela
Chris Carlson, "What is Venezuela's
Constitutional Reform Really About?" Venezuelanalysis.com, Nov. 23,
16 refers to "communal cities," which can be created when all communities in a
city have communal councils and communes. Chavez's original reform proposal
described communes in greater detail, but the National Assembly removed this
part in an effort to simplify the reform. Communes are larger groupings of
communal councils. Exactly how these will function is to be determined by a
 See: "Chavez: Reform Strengthens
Venezuelan State in Fight against Neo-Liberalism", Venezuelanalysis.com,
November 14, 2007
 Phil Gunson
has made this claim in: "Venezuela:
Towards Elected Dictatorship" (http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/democracy_power/politics_protest/elected_dictatorship)
 In a
meeting with foreign journalists October, 2007.
addition to the usual three independent branches of executive, legislature, and
also has an independent electoral branch and an independent prosecutorial branch
(consisting of Attorney General, Comptroller General, and Human Rights
Moderate critics include Edgardo Lander, Margarita Lopez-Maya, and the Podemos
 See for
example, the recent comments on the electoral system of opposition blogger
Francisco Toro (http://caracaschronicles.blogspot.com/2007/11/this-again.html)