Rewriting the Constitution in Bolivia and Venezuela

The successes of the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly offers hope for Bolivia’s embattled assembly, and more fledgling processes in Ecuador. But it also points to the long road that lies ahead for bringing about social change.

After gathering proposals during a six-week trip around the country, members of Bolivia’s National Constituent Assembly met on April 30, 2007, to present the proposals and draft recommendations for synthesizing these proposals into a new constitution. As in Venezuela, where a new constitution followed the swearing in of leftist president Hugo Chávez, hopes were high for constitutional reform in Bolivia that could alter entrenched inequalities and facilitate the inclusion of indigenous majorities into society.

But more than nine months after this process was initiated in Bolivia under President Evo Morales it has become delayed by debates over procedure, weakened by the exclusion of social movements, and bogged down in partisan conflicts. Is it possible for radical change to be achieved through constitutional reform? How does the Constituent Assembly in Bolivia compare to Venezuela’s? These are important questions to consider, especially as other leftist leaders in the continent such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are embarking on a similar process of rewriting the constitution.

The demand for a constituent assembly in Bolivia originally came from indigenous social movements in the east of the country who sought greater participation in decisions about land use and ownership, distribution of natural resources, and development policy. This demand for an assembly was taken up by social movements who participated in several protests and campaigns in the early 2000s against the privatization of water (the Water Wars) and for the nationalization of gas (the Gas Wars). After successive governments were forced to resign and Morales was elected in December 2005, he initiated the process of rewriting the constitution. There were demands for new articles to address issues of land distribution, resource management, and regional autonomy, among others. On July 2, 2006, there was a nationwide election of the 255 assembly representatives, who would be in charge of rewriting the constitution.

The failure of Morales’ supporters to gain a majority during the July 2 elections of the constituent assembly introduced certain constraints for progressive forces from the start. Morales’ party Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Towards Socialism, MAS) won 135 seats, which was 35 seats short of the two-thirds required in order to control the assembly. Further, the exclusive control by political parties over the electoral process meant that social movements leaders not belonging to political parties were left out of the assembly. In order to participate, social movement organizations needed to gather 15,000 signatures, fingerprints and identification numbers in the space of a few weeks, while political parties were automatically included on the ballot. Key movement leaders such as Oscar Olivera, who played an important role during the 2000 Water Wars, were not even included on the ballot. Requests from indigenous organizations to elect representatives to the assembly according to their own customs were rejected; the indigenous leaders who were elected belong to MAS or other political parties.

In August 6, 2006, the Constituent Assembly was sworn in. For six months, the Constituent Assembly was not able to achieve anything, as it was caught up in a procedural debate about voting, that was finally resolved on February 14, 2007. As the assembly now embarks on the deliberation process, it will also be strongly divided along partisan lines, as a two-thirds vote is required in order to approve each of the articles, and MAS and its aligned parties do not have these numbers. Many are concerned that MAS will be forced to water down its proposals in order to seek support from the opposition parties and fulfill the required two-thirds vote.

By contrast, the rewriting of the constitution in Venezuela, which began in August 1999, was not hampered by a divided assembly, as Chávez supporters won 125 out of the 131 seats in the assembly. Like in the Bolivia case, political parties dominated the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly. Chávez’s Movimiento Quinta Republica (Fifth Republic Movement, MVR) and allied parties who formed the Polo Patriotico (Patriotic Pole), won 120 of the seats. In order to speed up the process of deliberation, the assembly met in 22 commissions rather than a larger plenary. The new constitution was completed over the next few months and approved by referendum in December 1999.

Despite the dominance of political parties over the constitutional process in Venezuela, the process was fairly fluid, and there was space for the participation of diverse social organizations and groups. Women’s groups organized to elect women-friendly candidates to the Constituent Assembly and they lobbied to include articles pertaining to sexual and reproductive rights. Many of those elected to the assembly had been human rights advocates under previous governments, and they incorporated a broad concept of human rights as both civil rights and social rights of public health, education, and welfare.

Indigenous groups and urban social movements were given a role to play in the drafting of the Venezuelan constitution. Three seats on the assembly were reserved for indigenous leaders, and these leaders were responsible for the section on indigenous rights, which recognizes the existence of indigenous communities, and guarantees their right to demarcate their own territory. Urban social movements, community radio organizations, Afro-Venezuelan groups and others all formulated proposals. Many of the progressive changes incorporated into the new constitution reflected struggles that had been waged for several decades by a range of social movements. These included self-management, citizen participation, and the principle of co-responsibility.

One of the notable features of the constitutional process in Venezuela was the impact that it had in everyday life and subsequent social struggles. Mass copies of the constitution were printed and made available to the population, who carried around their copy with them, invoking relevant articles at opportune moments. When residents in the popular parish of San Agustin occupied the Teatro Alameda on April 13, 2004, they made constant references to the constitution, as giving them the right to take over spaces that are not being used and convert them into centers for the community. One resident said, “When we did this occupation it was peaceful, by the norms of the constitution.” The residents were broadly interpreting Article 70, which states: “There are medium for the participation and protagonism of the people in the exercise of their sovereignty, in the political…and in the social and economic: the instances of citizen attentions, self-action, cooperatives in all forms including financially, savings banks, community enterprises and other associative forms guided by values of mutual co-operation and solidarity.”

The mention of participation and protagonism in the Venezuelan constitution has provided the impetus for these kinds of occupations, which have also taken place in other parishes such as La Vega and 23 de Enero. On April 13, 2002, when Chávez was restored to power after a coup attempt, the residents of La Vega briefly occupied a police module. A few years later, in the sector La Cañada, of 23 de Enero, the militant organization Coordinadora Simón Bolívar (CSB) organized together with residents of the sector to take over the local unit of the Metropolitan Police. After years of harassment, repression and abuse by the local police, it was an empowering act for the activists and residents of La Cañada to take over this locale and turn it into a cultural center. The takeovers are not expropriations, in the sense that it is the people rather than the state who are occupying the installations. But nevertheless, changes in the constitution have given people the impetus to engage in these kinds of occupations and activities.

Indigenous groups in Venezuela have also embarked on a process of demarcation of their ancestral lands, as mandated in the constitution. Under Title II, “Of Geographic Space and Political Division,” there is a Chapter VIII, entitled, “The Rights of Indigenous People.” According to Article 119 of this chapter, the State recognizes indigenous peoples and communities, and their “originary rights over the lands that they have ancestrally and traditionally occupied and which are necessary to develop and guarantee their ways of life.” Following this constitutional guarantee, the Law of Demarcation was passed in 2001, allowing for a stage of self demarcation or mapping of ancestral lands by indigenous communities themselves, which would then be ratified by a process of official demarcation. In the Amazon region, this process has been strongly driven by indigenous communities. In July 2004, I met with the Piaroa community nearby to Puerto Ayacucho, and I observed their fifth meeting of several days duration to construct a map of Piaroa territory to submit to the government for ratification.

But the degree to which the government can enforce constitutional principles remains to be seen, especially where established interests are at stake. In cases where indigenous ancestral lands are owned by the government, the transfer will be easier, but in cases where that land is owned by private businesses or criollos (whites), it will likely be a long and protracted process of conflict and confrontation. Likewise, the new constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, or creed and guarantees equality before the law. But as the Fundación Afro-Venezolana (Afro-Venezuelan Foundation) has pointed out, since President Chávez has come into power, there have been 1,154 examples of racist messages in the mostly opposition controlled media. Yet not a single individual or media corporation has been penalized under the law.
The act of rewriting the constitution is certainly not a new phenomenon. Latin American countries have been through many constitutions and reforms of the constitution. But rewriting the constitution has taken on special significance across Latin America during this moment as the bearer of hopes for a changed social and political order. After years of technocratic decision making by economic and business elites, and limited constitutional reforms enacted in previous decades, the prospect of a Constituent Assembly offers hopes for democratic participation of a broader range of social groups. In cases such as Bolivia’s gridlocked constitutional process, it dramatizes the antagonistic worldviews about democracy and development, that are not limited to Morales versus the opposition, but include the dynamic tension between political parties and grassroots social movements. The successes of the Venezuelan Constituent Assembly offers hope for Bolivia’s embattled assembly, and more fledgling processes in Ecuador. But it also points to the long road that lies ahead for bringing about social change.

Sujatha Fernandes: [email protected]