Venezuela's Constitution: Fifteen Years of Achievements

The Bolivarian Revolution's founding document celebrates its 15th anniversary with a record of turning constitutional rights into everyday reality.

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A Venezuelan holds up a copy of the 1999 constitution at a celebratory march in Caracas on Monday, with late president Hugo Chavez looming large on banners and signs. (Prensa Miraflores)
A Venezuelan holds up a copy of the 1999 constitution at a celebratory march in Caracas on Monday, with late president Hugo Chavez looming large on banners and signs. (Prensa Miraflores)
By TeleSUR English
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The Venezuelan constitution is widely recognized one of the world's most progressive and forward-thinking magna cartas.

The constitution – which was crafted and approved with citizen participation – challenged the historic political dominance of the country’s elite, while establishing mechanisms for popular exercise of decision-making.

Under the leadership of former president Hugo Chavez and 131 directly elected members of the deciding constituent assembly, the constitution radically opened the doors to transforming Venezuelan society. The constitution engages historically marginalized sectors of society into the political arena and decentralizes elite governance of the nation.

In laying out the rights, responsibilities and guarantees of the Venezuelan people and their governmental bodies, the constitution includes nine sections ranging from human rights to the structure of public powers and the national ownership of natural resources.

The constitution also officially changed the country's name from the Republic of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, a proposal that came from late Venezuelan activist Eliezer Otaiza in honor of the liberator of numerous South American countries Simon Bolivar.

In addition, the constitution also implements gender inclusive language using the Spanish masculine and feminine vowels among other notable elements.

Below are some of the accomplishments of Venezuela's constitution:

Rights for Indigenous Nations Ancestral Lands and Identities

Articles 9, 119, 121 and 123 are among many of the constitutional provisions detailing the rights of Venezuelan indigenous nations. The constitution directly opposes the continued occupation of indigenous lands and the genocide of indigenous peoples and their societies.This year, the Venezuelan government formed an institute to protect native languages and turned in communal land titles to 14 indigenous communities.

Chapter eight of the Bolivarian constitution explains, ''The State recognizes the existence of native peoples and communities, their social, political and economic organization, their cultures, practices and customs, languages and religions, as well as their habitat and original rights to the lands they ancestrally and traditionally occupy, and which are necessary to develop and guarantee their way of life.''

Defense of Venezuelan Sovereignty

The Bolivarian constitution declares the nation a sovereign state, guaranteeing Venezuela's right to self determination and protects the country from foreign intervention. Additionally, the constitution provides that all Venezuelan territory belongs to the state and therefore, to the Venezuelan people. This protects some of Venezuela's most valuable resources such as petroleum from foreign interests.

All ''mineral and hydrocarbon deposits of any nature that exist within the territory of the nation, beneath the territorial sea bed, within the exclusive economic zone and on the continental sheaf, are the property of the Republic, are of public domain, and therefore inalienable and not transferable. The seacoasts are property of the public domain.''

Venezuela Free of Discrimination

The Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence (2007) and the Law Against Racial Discrimination (2011) were approved through a grassroots organizing effort resting on article 21 of the constitution.

The constitution reads, ''No discrimination based on race, sex, creed or social standing shall be permitted, nor, in general, any discrimination with the intent or effect of nullifying or encroaching upon the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on equal terms, of the rights and liberties of every individual.'' Venezuelan social movements regularly refer to the law that makes all forms of discrimination, hate crimes and persecution for one's identity unconstitutional.

Popular and Democratic Participation

The Bolivarian Revolution encourages everyone's active political participation on all levels of state governance. Articles 62 of the constitution guarantees that, ''All citizens have the right to participate freely in public affairs, either directly or through their elected representatives. The participation of the people in forming, carrying out and controlling the management of public affairs is the necessary way of achieving their involvement to ensure their complete development, both individual and collective. It is the obligation of the State and the duty of society to facilitate the generation of optimum conditions for putting this into practice.''

Additionally, article 68 protects citizens' ''right to demonstrate, peacefully and without weapons, subject only to such requirements as may be established by law.''

Civil disobedience and public protest in Venezuela were criminalized and heavily repressed before the beginning of Chavez’s presidential mandate.

Children, Youth and Elderly Recognized with Rights

In Chapter V detailing social and family rights, ''young people have the right and duty to be active participants in the development process. The State, with the joint participation of families and society, shall create opportunities to stimulate their productive transition into adult life, including in particular training for and access to their first employment, in accordance with law.'' Venezuelan law guarantees that the state must provide job opportunities, education and recreational activities as well as other rights for children and youth.

The National Youth Law and the Popular Power Ministry for Youth and Sports provide the state’s principle mechanisms to encourage youth political participation and guarantee these rights.

Article 80 also recognizes the state's responsibility to protect the elderly and provide social security, pensions, as well as proper work if senior citizens want to and can work. In addition, ''The State, with the solidarity participation of families and society, is obligated to respect their human dignity, autonomy and to guarantee them full care and social security benefits to improve and guarantee their quality of life.'' One of the latest social missions in Venezuela, the Great Love Mission, looks to equitably distribute social security to the elderly.

Free Healthcare for all

One of the huge achievements of the Bolivarian Revolution has been widened access to healthcare. Health is deemed "a fundamental social right and the responsibility of the State, which shall guarantee it as part of the right to life." As a result, "the State creates, exercises guidance over and administers a national public health system ... governed by the principles of being free (and) universal" It adds that "Public health assets and services are the property of the State and shall not be privatized.

Free and High Quality Education

Education in Venezuela is at the forefront of the country’s social and political transformation. As with health care, Venezuela provides universally free education at all levels from pre-school to undergraduate studies. The government provides transportation to and from school sites as well as free meals.

Chapter VI of the Venezuelan constitution highlights culture and educational rights for citizens. Article 103 explains, ''Every person has the right to a full, high-quality, ongoing education...Education offered at State institutions is free of charge up to the undergraduate university level. To this end, the State shall make a priority investment in accordance with United Nations recommendations.''

The state also provides services for individuals with special needs.

The Right to a Home

Venezuela's constitution also grants people the right to proper housing, a guarantee that has been turned into reality through the Great Housing Mission. Article 82 explains that "Every person has the right to adequate, safe and comfortable, hygienic housing, with appropriate essential basic services, including a habitat such as to humanize family, neighborhood and community relations."

Venezuela Prohibits Monopolies

As global corporations continue to amass more economic power, placing profits over people, Venezuela has declared monopolies unconstitutional. Article 113 reads, ''Monopolies shall not be permitted. Any act, activity, conduct or agreement of private individuals which is intended to establish a monopoly or which leads by reason of its actual effects to the existence of a monopoly, regardless of the intentions of the persons involved, and whatever the form it actually takes, is hereby declared contrary to the fundamental principles of this Constitution.''

The constitution also works to protect natural resources from exploitation for economic gain. Therefore, the constitution mandates economic re-distribution of wealth to serve the people when acquired by state-owned enterprises, such as the oil industry.

Society in Balance with Mother Nature

With recent discussions taking place at the COP 20 in Peru about climate change and the future of the planet, the Venezuelan constitution sets an example by guaranteeing citizens the right to a safe, healthy and ecologically balanced environment. The government along with the people will ensure ''that the populace develops in a pollution-free environment in which air, water, soil, coasts, climate, the ozone layer and living species receive special protection, in accordance with law.''

Article 127 continues, ''It is the right and duty of each generation to protect and maintain the environment for its own benefit and that of the world of the future...The State shall protect the environment, biological and genetic diversity, ecological processes, national parks and natural monuments, and other areas of particular ecological importance.'' The constitution also prohibits the patenting of the genome of any living being.

Latin American and Caribbean Integration Key to Independence

Cooperation and integration stand at the forefront of Venezuela's political vision. Regional bodies such as such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (Celac), the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and Petrocaribe have their root in the vision to build solidarity, cooperation and integration across the Americas outlined in the Bolivarian magna carta.

Article 153 reads, 'The Republic shall promote, and encourage Latin American and Caribbean integration, in the interest of advancing toward the creation of a community of nations, defending the region's economic, social, cultural, political and environmental interests. The Republic shall have the power to sign international treaties that implement and coordinate efforts to promote the common development of our nations, and to ensure the welfare of their peoples and the collective security of their inhabitants.''

Communal Power

Perhaps one of the constitution's most forward thinking articles speaks to the development of ''open and flexible mechanisms'' meant to decentralize state power. The Venezuelan government and commune movement are in the process of moving toward a communal state, where political authority is exercised by organized communities directly rather through elected representatives or politicians. According to recent data, there are approximately 40,000 communal councils and 600 communes in Venezuela, comprising millions of people.

Article 184 details in several points how a communal state would put in the hands of the people: distribution of goods and services, the power to run worker-led enterprises, direct political participation, creation of new economic models and community project as well as other responsibilities.

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