Venezuela’s Constitutional Reform Proposal Provokes Strong Reaction from Opposition

The proposed reform to the Venezuelan constitution presented by President Hugo Chavez this week has generated criticisms and concerns among different sectors of the opposition.

Mérida, August 17, 2007 (— The proposed reform to the Venezuelan constitution presented by President Hugo Chavez this week has generated criticisms and concerns among different sectors of the opposition. Opposition leader Manuel Rosales immediately rejected the proposal, calling it a "constitutional coup," and vowed to mobilize a campaign against it. Others voiced concern about changes to labor regulations and the inclusion of socialism in the constitution.

"The president's proposal is an attempted constitutional coup," said Manuel Rosales, the former presidential candidate and leader of the opposition political party Un Nuevo Tiempo (A New Era), at a press conference yesterday. Rosales said the reform was evidence of Chavez' "narcissism" and "authoritarian militarism."

Chavez presented his proposal for a constitutional reform to the National Assembly on Wednesday night, explaining that the changes are necessary to transition to "a new society" and complete the country's transition to socialism. Chavez said the intention is to "remove the old oligarchic exploiter hegemony" of the old society and set the socialist revolution on its course.

Chavez's opponents, however, see the proposed reform as an attempt to stay in power beyond 2012 when his current presidential term ends and to centralize power in his hands. Many critics say that Chavez seeks to turn Venezuela into a Castro-style communist dictatorship.

"We will go from town to town in order to mobilize the population and confront this constitutional coup attempt," promised Rosales yesterday. "A constitutional reform is not needed. What the people want is that they obey this constitution," he said.

Rosales also criticized Chavez for what he called the "destruction" of the national oil company PDVSA, and said that none of the reforms proposed by the president would benefit the Venezuelan people. He accused Chavez of lying to the people and trying to deceive them into passing the reform by including in the proposal "populist measures that don't require a constitutional reform."

"The people don't know that reducing the work day from 8 to 6 hours does not require a constitutional reform," he said. "Nor is a reform needed to give legality to the community councils, or the social missions. One of his presidential decrees would have been enough for that to happen. That is why I think he is tricking and deceiving the people, because [Chavez] is a liar," insisted Rosales.

Other opposition figures also responded to the proposal yesterday after learning the details of the reforms. Hermann Escarrá, former member of the National Assembly and co-writer of the 1999 constitution, also called the changes a "presidential coup d'état" and criticized the reform for "violating constitutional principles" such as alternation of power and term limits.

Constitutional expert Asdrubal Aguiar said the reform would change the constitution into a "copy of the Cuban Constitution." "The question is if through this democratic mechanism like popular vote an undemocratic model will be legitimated," he said.

Concerns arose from the private sector as well, regarding the proposal to change the workday from 8 to 6 hours. President of the business group Conindustria, Ismael Perez Vigil, expressed concern that the change in the workday could affect the nation's industries and would need to be cleared up.

"If we paid a certain salary for eight hours, now are we saying that we are going to pay the same salary with less work hours?" he asked. He expressed concern that the decreased work hours would mean greater costs for their companies.

"Will we be able to raise prices or will they stay controlled? We have to see how they are going to compensate the businesses for that cost," he said. Perez Vigil also voiced concern with the proposed changes to property.

"They talk about private property and its use, but they don't say anything about its transfer or possession like in the current constitution. I mean, you are free to use it, but are you free to dispose of it?"

Other business owners and business leaders also expressed concern over the new definition of property, but the principal business organization Fedecamaras has not commented on the reforms yet and said they are reviewing the proposed changes.

Vicente Diaz of the National Electoral Council (CNE) also expressed concern that the changes proposed by President Chavez go beyond a simple constitutional reform, and would require a constitutional assembly. Diaz said that article 342 of the Constitution establishes that a constitutional reform could only be used for a "partial revision", but not affect the fundamental principles and structure of the document.

Diaz also questioned the denomination of a "socialist state" in the constitution. "If Venezuela is declared a socialist state what happens then with political pluralism? Do the activities of political parties that declare themselves liberal or communist stop being constitutional?"

Diaz suggested that the National Assembly "review very carefully the proposals that the president made in order to guarantee all Venezuelans that the reform does not modify the fundamental principles of the constitution."