Presentation by Bernardo Alvarez Herrera, Ambassador of Venezuela to the US at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.
As Venezuela prepares to vote on a number of reforms to its 1999 Constitution, it’s useful to put the changes into context.
As societies evolve and their needs change, so too must their laws, customs and constitutions. In 1816, Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, wrote on this very point: “I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times.” Similarly, in 1824, he argued, “We have not yet so far perfected our constitutions as to venture to make them unchangeable. But still, in their present state, we consider them not otherwise changeable than by the authority of the people.” Jefferson even went as far as to argue that constitutions should change with every new generation, or, in his time, every 19 years.
Since President Hugo Chávez’s first election in 1998 and his most recent re-election in 2006, Venezuela has undergone a dramatic revolution in peace and democracy. After a failed coup attempt in 2002 and a sabotage of the oil industry in 2003, the Venezuelan government has aggressively worked to expand the means for political participation; create an equitable and sustainable economy; and address longstanding social deficits.
To that end, and in accordance with Article 342 of the 1999 Constitution, on August 15 President Chávez proposed 33 reforms to the constitution. The reforms were aimed at helping speed the redistribution of national resources to Venezuela’s neediest; decentralize political power and grant communities more say in federal affairs; and outline the legal foundations of the country’s new system. After the reforms were proposed, the National Assembly debated the reforms in three rounds, approving a final slate of 69 reforms in late October.
But unlike traditional political debates, the discussions of the reforms occurred throughout Venezuela and were open to massive public participation. In a 47-day period – from August 16 to October 7 – some 9,020 public events were held and 80,000 phone calls made to a special hotline, mechanisms through which the Venezuelan people were free to offer opinions and critiques. Over 10 million copies of the reforms were distributed to the public, and one poll found that over 77 percent of the Venezuelan people had read them. The reforms are set to be voted on in a national referendum on December 2 – leaving their fate in the hands of the Venezuelan people.
Much has been made of the reforms, most of it ignoring or distorting key details. One reform would extend the presidential term limit to seven years and do away with term limits. Of course, the president would still have to face regular elections and the recall referendum, an innovative democratic mechanism that allows the Venezuelan people to cut short the term of any elected official. Another set of reforms would codify new forms of public property, though while restating the rights to private ownership. And another reform would limit certain political liberties during national emergencies, though while maintaining key due process rights and the right to life and personal integrity – thus keeping with international standards.
Of course, critics tend to ignore many of the most progressive reforms. One would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or health. Another would lower the voting age to 16 – following a similar move made in Austria this year. Two others would formalize the right to adequate housing and right to free public education, while others still would create a social security fund for the self-employed, protect Afro-Venezuelan heritage and guarantee the full rights of prisoners.
The critics of the reforms not only misunderstand their purpose, but they also fail to recognize that since President Chávez was first elected, their worst fears and warning have not come true. Democracy remains vibrant in Venezuela (the 2007 Latinobarometro finds that Venezuelans are again second most likely in the region to express satisfaction with their democracy), the economy continues to grow (four consecutive years of 11.9 percent average growth) and social programs are yielding important advances (a drop in poverty from 55 percent in 2003 to 30 percent in 2006). Moreover, many of the critics of the reforms seem to underestimate the capabilities and intelligence of the Venezuelan people. Even though Venezuela’s process of change has proceeded peacefully, democratically and openly, there is still a poor understanding of the capacities of the Venezuelan people to determine their own interests and govern themselves. To these critics, the Venezuelan people – the great majority of which are literate, educated and engaged – are easily manipulated. This simply isn’t true.
The reforms to the 1999 Constitution are fully consistent with the changing needs of a democratic country like Venezuela that is seeking an alternative model of participation and development. The process by which the reforms were debated indicates a high level of civic engagement and participation, a key element of any democratic system. When you remove the reforms from the usual political dynamic surrounding Venezuela, it becomes clear that many of the reforms’ basic principles – increased participation and social justice – are agreed on by most people. Ultimately, the Venezuelan people will be able to decide whether or not these reforms succeed in the national referendum set for December 2. The basic request of the Venezuelan people is that this democratic process be understood and be respected.
Venezuela Ambassador to the United States.
November 19, 2007
An audio clip of the conference can be downloaded in MP3 fromat at http://www.csis.org/media/csis/events/071119_ambven.m3u