Changes to Venezuelan Constitutional Reform Proposal Provoke Strong Criticism

As the Venezuelan constitutional reform proposal undergoes a third round of discussions in the Venezuelan National Assembly, changes in the reform proposal have provoked strong criticism from both Chavez supporters and from Human Rights Watch.
National Assembly Member Ismael Garcia criticizes the constitutional reform proposal (Union Radio)

Mérida, October 17, 2007 ( As the
Venezuelan constitutional reform proposal undergoes a third round of
discussions in the Venezuelan National Assembly, changes in the reform proposal
have provoked strong criticism. The US-based organization Human Rights Watch
criticized the proposed Article 337, which would allow for a suspension of some
constitutional rights in the case of a state of emergency. Also, pro-Chavez
parties PODEMOS and the Venezuelan Communist Party (PCV) criticized aspects of
the reform.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez' original reform proposal
would have modified 33 articles of the national constitution, but an additional
25 articles were added to the changes after the reform proposal was submitted
to a special commission in the National Assembly.

Among the changes included by the special commission is
Article 337, which would allow the federal government to suspend some constitutional
rights in the case a state of emergency is declared. Human Rights Watch warned
yesterday that this article could be used to abuse basic human rights.

"This reform, upon being approved, would permit
President Chavez to invoke a state of emergency to justify the suspension of
certain rights that are untouchable under international law," said Human
Rights Watch director Jose Miguel Vivanco.

Among the basic rights that could be suspended in the case
of a state emergency are the right to due process of law, the right to
information, the right to an attorney, and the right to a trial, among others.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that under international law
"many of these rights are considered so fundamental that nations do not
have the right to revoke them, not even in case of an emergency."
According to Human Rights Watch, these rights have been recognized as
inalienable by the United Nations and the Inter American Court of Human Rights.

The Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) also announced its opposition
to Article 337. The general secretary of
the party, Oscar Figuera, made the announcement this week and pledged to oppose
this article when it comes up for debate in the National Assembly.

"We are convinced that President Hugo Chavez will not
take any measure to violate the human rights of the Venezuelan people, but we
cannot give that discretion to any state official," said Figuera.

Figuera emphasized that in a socialist revolutionary
democracy justice is an essential element and that the state should not be able
to take this element away "under any circumstance." He said that this
article must be worded "very carefully," and insisted that the right
to information should be guaranteed regardless of the circumstances.

The leader of the social democratic party PODEMOS, Ismael
Garcia, has also been a stern critic of the constitutional reform proposal.
Garcia says that the reform proposal seeks to make fundamental changes to the
structure of the 1999 constitution, for which he claims a constitutional
assembly is necessary.

On Tuesday, Garcia criticized the process of the reform
debate in the National Assembly after the 25 new articles were added to the
reform proposal by the special commission.
He criticized the use of the special commission, claiming that the
addition of the 25 articles to the reform was unconstitutional.

"The special commission shut themselves in there, and
we made a group of considerations to the commission, but they didn't pay
attention to us, they ignored them," he said.

"The worst of all is that these gentlemen started to
debate in the special commission and we found out that they put together a new
proposal on top of the one that already exists without it going through all the
steps it has to go through."

Garcia and others from PODEMOS have emphasized from the
beginning of the constitutional reform process that certain parts of the reform
would need to be changed since they change the fundamental structure of the
constitution. They have also demanded more time to debate the proposal.

"We have said since the beginning of the project that
there are aspects that violate the constitution; articles that are not viable
because they violate Article 136 and Article 5 that are in the fundamental
structure of the constitution and cannot be changed without a constitutional
assembly. We began to debate about those
topics and we demanded much more time," said Garcia.

PODEMOS opposes other parts of the reform, such as the
designation of public property as belonging to the states. Garcia said that
they would make all efforts to oppose the reforms by taking the case to the
Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council.

The three pro-Chavez political parties that have not
merged with the United Socialist Party, PCV, PODEMOS, and Patria Para Todos
(PPT), said yesterday that they would continue to protest the parts of the
reform that they do not agree with.