The current attempted coup d’état in Venezuela began with Washington puppet Juan Guaido proclaiming himself “interim president” on January 23. Since, it has rightfully claimed Venezuela’s international media headlines and has dominated internal political life in the country.
As pro-government forces close ranks to defend the country’s democracy and national sovereignty, and opposition forces look to achieve their regime change objective, the spotlight has been taken off a number of internal contradictions of the Bolivarian process. These tensions have not disappeared, but have merely been put on the backburner, to be resolved at a later date. One example of this is the increasing disillusionment with Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly (ANC).
While hardcore opposition sectors violently campaigned against the body even before it was elected into existence in 2017, Chavistas placed their faith in it as a solution to the country’s political standoff. However, as the months pass by, the public’s faith in the ANC has waned, and before Guaido’s attempted (and failing) coup d’etat, it was very common among the organised grassroots to hear people asking the question “How long does it take to write a new constitution?”
What was the ANC charged with achieving?
The ANC was elected on July 30, 2017 with two objectives. Firstly, and most immediately, to use an act of suffrage to end the insurrectionary right-wing street violence which was running riot in the country, and which had left over one hundred people dead between April and July that year.
Secondly, the body was tasked with rewriting Venezuela’s 1999 Magna Carta. Within this second objective, it was stated that it would take decisive action to resolve the country’s deep and systematic economic crisis, as well as to restructure the state.
The body is – according to Venezuela’s 1999 constitution – a temporary organism, created to serve a purpose before dissolving itself. While not specifically stated so, it is understood that it is not intended to govern the day to day affairs of the country. It is also defined as a “superseding” state organism, essentially ruling over Venezuela’s five independent powers of state (1) while it sits.
The length of its mandate is constitutionally undefined. In its first act upon being sworn in, the ANC decreed that it was to be six months. It then later extended this to two years, a period which is due to expire in July this year. Statements from ANC President Diosdado Cabello in August 2018, however, hint at a further extension to four years.
The election of the body inspired great hope in Venezuela’s socialist circles, with many seeing it as an opportunity to achieve a qualitative leap forward in creating the conditions needed to build socialism, to break with the bourgeois state apparatus, and to restructure the county’s still old-fashioned, and at times reactionary, dynamics of power.
Twenty months on, in the minds of many, the ANC has rather come to represent everything it was meant to fix: bourgeois values, rampant inefficiency, power politics and leeching off the state.
The ANC’s record
When assessing the concrete results of the ANC so far, first we must recognise that it did achieve its immediate goal of ending the street violence. In this regard, the ANC’s contribution to Venezuela’s stability, peace, and the prevention of further loss of life cannot be undervalued.
That said, this in itself does not excuse its utter failure to advance with the second objective: the writing of a new draft constitution.
The ANC has existed for nearly two years and apparently has not made any headway into the new draft Magna Carta. The body has shown no sign of any discussion, debate, or let alone the approval of a single clause, preamble, or maybe even the title for the text. The only progress we do know of is that the Constitutional Commission has met and has collated a number of proposals to (potentially) be included in the new text, and is currently “ordering” them.
In 1999, when Venezuela’s current constitution was drawn up by a different ANC, less than five months were needed to publicly debate, draw up, and even hold a referendum on the 37,000 words of the new draft text. Given the historical precedent, many are asking, why the delay?
The ANC has not, however, been idle in this time. With the notable if sparse exceptions of some important laws passed by the body, including the Hate Crime Law, and the appointment of some key officials, such as the new attorney general, the ANC busies itself with issuing public statements rebutting US intervention and other foreign meddling. It has also green lighted the national budget and the Homeland Plan 2019-2025, both without any real internal or public debate.
It also appears that the ANC has taken over the day-to-day legislative duties of the country, exceeding its mandate and raison d’etre, and perhaps to the detriment of the completion of its mission. Without a doubt, the creation of the ANC has also certainly caused a greater sidelining of the opposition-controlled traditional legislative body, the National Assembly (AN), which right wing leaders were looking to use as a launch point for regime change. The day-to-day running of Venezuela’s lawmaking by the ANC is, it is claimed by authorities, a pragmatic solution to fill a legislative vacuum since the AN was ruled to be in contempt of court in 2016, after a series of irregularities were not corrected, and as such all of its decisions declared “null and void.” Right wing leaders, however, accuse the government of political power play in leapfrogging the AN.
One of the further positive effects of the both the current and the previous ANC (1999) which the current body’s feet-dragging has essentially reduced to zero is the spark of public debate which goes hand in hand with the formation of the ANC. What form should the new state take? How should Venezuela restructure its economy? What does a revolutionary constitution look like?
In 1999, this debate contributed to a deepening of popular consciousness, and as such created the conditions for the staunch defence of constitutionality vis-a-vis the US-backed opposition’s relentless regime change efforts, on display in 2002, 2013-2014, 2017, 2018, and presently. Upon election, this debate was vivid, but the loss of momentum in the new constitutional project led it to quickly peter out, effectively nullifying any potentially positive social impact.
A people’s assembly?
The 545 deputies which make up the constituent body were elected in 2017 with a new and innovative electoral system combining territorial representatives (one for each municipality plus an extra deputy for capital municipalities) with, for the first time in Venezuela’s history, sectoral representation for organised sections of society (trade unions, women, pensioners, students, disabled citizens, indigenous people, communards, etc). Non-organised sectors of society had no extra representation on the body.
Deputies were not elected on party political platforms as they are for other elections, and while the territorial candidates included a number of seasoned local government officials, the “sectoral” deputies were considered to be more representative, with a number of social leaders elected to a public position for the first time. Many Venezuelans saw this as a step forward in bridging the gap which has widened between the people and the higher echelons of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV). Likewise, they hoped that these grassroots leaders would draw the government’s attention to day-to-day problems which some consider that the party leadership has failed to grasp.
This hope has, however, also dwindled, as the days became weeks and the weeks months. Many of those elected by the people have moved on to other public posts, and those remaining are perceived to have become accustomed to the comforts which go with the position. The tales of daily hardship have been whispered, but have not caused the desired impact, with some more outspoken revolutionaries in the ANC being sidelined by the experienced PSUV politicians who assumed the reins of the body from its inception.
The ANC also seems to revel in its closed door processes, leaving many Venezuelans to wonder what it is hiding. Despite occasional press releases, no real information has been offered concerning what (if any) progress the body is making in drafting the new constitution, the criteria for incorporating grassroots proposals, and when a draft will be put to a popular vote.
Meanwhile, state and community media, busy covering the ongoing coup and threats of foreign invasion, have been silent on the issue. Where are the critical voices holding the ANC to account? Where are the deputies informing the country about the progress of the new Magna Carta and giving citizens ammunition to respond to mainstream media claims that the government is merely attempting to “hang on to power”?
As years of economic crisis and endemic corruption have metastasized into a deeper crisis of representation and trust in public authorities, battle-hardened Chavista leaders of the likes of ANC President Diosdado Cabello must surely be aware of the political and psychological toll of this foot-dragging on the Venezuelan revolutionary forces, many of whom had to brave deadly right-wing violence to come out and vote in 2017, and for whom it is becoming increasingly difficult to defend the political role of the ANC. The completion of the constituent process would form an important step forward in restoring confidence in the leadership and political direction of the Bolivarian process.
What may the new text contain?
While the ANC hasn’t offered any information on the content of any new draft text, revolutionary movements and parties in Venezuela have presented a number of proposals encompassing a diversity of issues. Unfortunately, as time goes by, most advocacy groups (with a few honourable exceptions) have lost their wind as the daily grind of an economy in hyperinflation and a country under foreign military threat takes its toll.
Some have focused on specific reforms, while others have been more overarching, for example focusing on economic restructuring.
Many of the economic proposals are centered around a rejection of any effort to create a constitutional framework for recent backdoor moves by the government to open up Venezuela’s economy to large private, often transnational capital, frequently on “unfavourable” terms for the country.
The groundwork for these deals was laid down by the December 2017 “Foreign Investment Law,” approved by the ANC, which offers advantageous conditions and guarantees for foreign investments in Venezuela, including tax breaks and special access to credit. Special economic zones have also been created to spur foreign investment, and foreign firms have been welcomed into the country’s lucrative Orinoco Mining Arc project.
Further alarm bells have been raised by efforts to break down Chavez’s golden “majority stake rule” in which the Venezuelan State is legally obliged to maintain 60 percent majority stakes in all mixed enterprises, especially in the oil industry.
In place of neoliberal reforms, a number of revolutionary groups are rather pushing to make worker- and community-led economic projects the centerpiece of any new economic shakeup. The Venezuelan Communist Party have reiterated on numerous occasions their call for the ANC to amplify constitutional measures which point towards a more diversified and industrialised economy, ban outsourcing, and restructure wage-cost relations, while communards have led calls for community-led economic projects to be granted constitutional safeguards.
The organised communities have also been pushing to formalise one of Chavez’s dreams in the new Magna Carta: the recognition of a communal assembly and the transversal inclusion of communal organisation as the foundation of a communal state structure, to supersede and eventually replace the current bourgeois (petro-) state. Such demands touch at the very heart of what the ANC was (supposed) to do, as well as providing one of the main motivating factors for millions to come out to elect the body in 2017.
Reorganisation of the structure of government has been another call by those on the left of the PSUV, with ideas oscillating between a collective leadership, a council of social movements and a council of patriotic parties. These calls have come from prominent members of the all-but-defunct Great Patriotic Pole alliance which see PSUV hegemony as unhealthy for the revolutionary project.
Another prominent campaign is that which is demanding the legalisation of abortion. Coupled with this are demands from the LGBTIQ community regarding the legalisation of the equality of identity, equal access to inheritance, adoption, credits, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage among other legal benefits heterosexual couples enjoy.
Impunity, anti-corruption measures and the fight against crime is another demand frequently heard in relation to any new constitutional text. Here, support for harsher penalties for criminals, especially for those who abuse a public position such as public employees or elected officials, crosses political divides. The re-imposition of the rule of law is widely viewed as a key element of any reordering of the country.
Democratic reforms are also being pushed by many on Venezuela’s left, potentially lowering the voting age and modifying the democratic system in the country. Proponents claim that Venezuelan elections, while secure from a technological perspective, are still ensnared by capitalist vices, including 100 percent private funding for campaigns and a host of other financial advantages for those who can afford to run a campaign.
How far will these proposals go in the ANC? At this point it is impossible to know. Apart from inefficiency, a lack of transparency, and external factors which have contributed to slowing the writing of a new Carta Magna, many grassroots groups also have to contend with reformist and/or conservative elements within the body, especially in positions of power, who may not take on their demands with great enthusiasm. One such example of this is the the struggle being waged by LGBTIQ groups to have their demands included by the president of the Constitutional Commission of the ANC, Hermann Escarra, an open homophobe.
If guided by the right revolutionary leadership driven from below, the rewriting of the constitution could be a chance for Venezuela to move forward and break the bourgeois state structures, inherited from the neoliberal Fourth Republic, whose enduring vices have limited many advances of the Bolivarian Process since 1998. Whether this will be achieved, however, is far from certain.
Meanwhile, the questions on everyone’s lips are: when can we expect to see a draft of the new constitution; what will it contain, and is it already too late?
(1) According to Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution, five independent powers of State co-exist in the country. They are: the legislative power (National Assembly); electoral power (National Electoral Council); executive power (government); legal power (Supreme Court) and the moral power (a combination of the ombudsman office, the attorney general’s office, and a citizens rights’ office).