Venezuelan President Congratulates Ecuador for Ratifying New Constitution

In a phone call, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez congratulated Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa for the ratification of a new national constitution by 63.9% of voters in a nation-wide referendum Sunday.

Mérida, September 28, 2008 (– In a phone call, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez congratulated Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa for the ratification of a new national constitution by 63.9% of voters in a nation-wide referendum Sunday.

After the preliminary results of the referendum were announced by Ecuador's Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) Sunday, Correa declared, "Today, Ecuador has decided on a new country… the old structures have been defeated."

The new constitution was written over an eight-month period by an elected constituent assembly, in a similar fashion to the Venezuelan Constitution passed during Chávez's first year in office in 1999.

Chávez told reporters on Saturday that the people of the United States ought to initiate a similar process to produce a new constitution.

"If I were in the United States government, I would do the same as Ecuador, I would undergo a constituent process to advance a new democratic model," Chávez said. He urged United States citizens to revive the idea of a government "of, for, and by the people."

A member of Ecuador's constituent assembly, Eduardo Zambrano, said during an interview with the Venezuelan government television station VTV that the constitution approved on Sunday is different than previous constitutions because it was debated by the citizenry at large.

According to Zambrano, the new constitution also obligates the state to ensure basic social services such as health care, education, and social security to all, includes the citizenry in the election of Supreme Court judges, and increases state control over the economy, including natural resources such as oil, Ecuador's principal export.

According to Zambrano, the new constitution "consecrates sovereignty, it does not permit the presence of foreign troops in the country." This measure institutionalizes Correa's previous pledge not to renew the concession for the U.S. military base in Ecuador next year.  

Zambrano said the next step for Ecuador will be to "re-legitimize" all of its public officials, including the president, through another national vote conducted by a new national electoral council, in accordance with the new constitution.

Correa said the new constitution is just a first step in a long process. "This constitution signals the path we shall follow… the importance is the direction and not the time it takes us," he said Sunday.

The Catholic Church opposed the constitution because it legalizes same sex marriage and, although government officials deny it, abortion.

The private business sector also opposed the initiative, saying it would concentrate excessive power in the state and threaten private property.

According to the Venezuelan daily El Universal, the new Ecuadoran constitution and the Venezuelan constitution of 1999 are similar in that they permit the government to expropriate private property to benefit the public good.

Jaime Nebot, the mayor of the opposition-dominated Ecuadoran coastal city of Guayaquil, led the fierce opposition movement against the new constitution. Latin American journalists have speculated that Nebot has ties to separatist groups in eastern Bolivia, where wealthy Bolivians waged violent protests over the past month to call for autonomy.

Correa called for unity Sunday and said he is willing to dialogue with Nebot. "Finally we have a constitution that clearly defines the autonomies," Correa said on Sunday. "The doors are open and we will always be open to dialogue if Nebot wishes to sit down democratically to dialogue with the revolutionary government," he said.

According to the TSE, Slightly more than 28% of Ecuadorans voted against the referendum.

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, recognized "the approval, by a wide margin, of the constitutional text" and congratulated President Correa "for the decisive support that the Ecuadoran people have given to their political project."

Some Venezuelan government officials participated as international observers in the Ecuadoran referendum. Germán Yépez, an official from the Venezuelan National Electoral Council (CNE), and Gabriela Ramírez, the head of the Venezuelan Public Defenders Office, reported that election day was calm and turnout was substantial.

"This has been from the beginning a festive display of the great majority of Ecuadorans," said Yépez.