In recent weeks, U.S. policymakers and pundits have warned that a set
of constitutional reforms being considered in Venezuela are but a step
little calm, and context, is in order. Since President Hugo Chavez's
first election in 1998 and his most recent reelection in 2006,
Venezuela has undergone a dramatic revolution in peace and democracy.
The Venezuelan government aggressively works to expand political
participation, create an equitable and sustainable economy and address
long-standing social deficits.
The numbers indicate that the
changes are working. The economy has entered its fourth year of
consecutive growth, poverty has fallen from 55.1% of the country in
2003 to 30.4% in 2006, and Venezuelans are the second-most-likely
population in the region to call their government "very democratic."
Venezuela is slowly establishing the basis for a new model of democracy
and development — "socialism of the 21st century," as it has been
termed — one founded on grass-roots democratic participation, a social
economy and equality in access to vital services such as healthcare and
deepen those changes, Chavez in August proposed 33 reforms to the 1999
constitution aimed at helping to speed the redistribution of national
resources to Venezuela's neediest; to decentralize political power and
grant communities more say in federal affairs; and to 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.
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 Aug. 16 to Oct. 7 — about
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. More than 10 million copies of the
reforms were distributed to the public, and one poll found that more
than 77% of the Venezuelan people read them. The reforms are set to be
voted on in a national referendum Sunday — leaving their fate in the
hands of the Venezuelan people.
One reform would extend
the presidential term 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 while
restating rights to private ownership. Another reform would limit
certain political liberties during national emergencies while
maintaining key due-process rights, in keeping with international
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 in Austria this year. Still other reforms
would formalize the right to adequate housing and the right to free
public education, create a social security fund for the self-employed,
protect Afro-Venezuelan heritage and guarantee the full rights of
Proposing that a constitution be reformed is
consistent with democratic norms. And as societies change, so too
should their laws and constitutions. As Thomas Jefferson once remarked,
"No society can make a perpetual constitution. … The earth belongs
always to the living generation."
As with any proposal for
change, debate and dissent are to be expected. But what critics have
missed is that these reforms are democratic and have been widely
discussed by the people. More important, it is the people who will
decide whether the reforms succeed.
Venezuela is changing, and
this change continues in peace and democracy. The national referendum
is nothing to fear, and nothing to warn against.
Angelo Rivero Santos is the deputy chief of mission of the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.