The Current Venezuelan Constitution
When written initially, the current Venezuelan Constitution, was a well thought out document that most people would look up to. Written with the best of intentions, solidly debated, and overwhelmingly endorsed by those who live under it, it stands as a model of achievement.
The problem now is the way Chavistas have turned it into a discombobulated document, 86 pages long, consisting of 350 Articles. With so much content, one would assume that everything had been addressed. One would be wrong in this assumption.
The fact remains, that in spite of its length, its spirit has now been corrupted due to the many changes forced upon it. These changes were made to suit the conditional preoccupation of just one man, Hugo Chavez. Most recently, it gave Chavez time to stay out of the country, so he could have his operation in Cuba, and then convalesce there.
While I do not condemn this particular change, I do condemn the motives and remain disgusted as to its timing. I will also repeat what I have said in the past. The only reason Chavez went to Cuba was the self-serving need to keep his condition secret from his own people. Secrecy of this sort is unconstitutional in true democracies. Those who continue to lie about Venezuelan democracy do not know the meaning of the word.
Venezuelan Constitution of 1961
Up until Hugo Chavez took power, the 1961 Constitution had been, and still is, the longest-serving in Venezuelan history.
The points to be aware of in The 1961 Constitution are that human rights were barely addressed, the way they are today. Additionally, elected presidents served for one term lasting only 5 years. They could run again later, but they could not run concurrently.
On 27 February 1989, a popular revolt, known as Caracazo, occurred in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. Some say that up to 3000 died. Intolerance towards the government had brewed for decades, but in this case, the revolt started mainly against free market reform and the rise of gasoline prices. Carlos Andres Perez, Venezuela’s worst president at the time, was the instigator. People hated him immensely, including the upper class.
The Caracazo led to two coup attempts in 1992 with Hugo Chavez leading the first one, the February 1992 Venezuelan coup d’état attempt. At that time Chavez already had a clear vision to how he wanted to change society. By the time his movement, the MBR-200 (Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario), was ready to launch their coup, they had decided to focus on establishing a constitutional assembly.
An interviewed by Marta Harnecker, from her book: Hugo Chávez: Un Hombre, Un Pueblo. (2002) stated that Chavez told her,
Chavez’s failed coupe led to his imprisonment, but his newly found notoriety ensured he would not stay behind bars long. President Rafael Caldera freed him a few years later, fulfilling a campaign pledge he had made. Caldera had been President of Venezuela from 1969 to 1974, and again from 1994 to 1999.
Since Caldera had been elected under the 1961 Constitution, he could not run again. When his presidency expired Chavez, a national hero who had proven that he would fight corruption, went on to succeed him.
When Chavez first took office in 1999, he ran under the old Constitution. He was well aware of its failures, and his main campaign pledge was to change it. At this time, Chavez was more of and idealist than dictator and was well positioned for this task. He would fight for Constitutional changes, and all voters would vote on these changes through a national referendum.
Unfortunately, as happens all too often, the power of office leads to corruption.
Venezuelan Constitution of 1999
The 1999 Constitution, with 350 articles, is one of the world’s longest, most complicated, and most comprehensive constitutions ever written. Adopted in December 1999, it replaced the 1961 Constitution.
It was the first constitution approved by popular referendum in Venezuelan history and passed with over 70% approval. In a country led by the upper class elite, the lower class at the time was a huge majority. Always marginalized in the past, it should come as no shock that the new constitution was the answer to their prayers.
Major changes made regarding human rights gave all Venezuelan society free education, free quality health care, and access to a clean environment. It increased the rights of minorities, especially indigenous people, allowing them to uphold their culture, religion, and language. In other word, it gave people what they wanted, what they expected, and what they deserved.
The new Constitution lessened the powers of the National Assembly, traditionally run by the elite of the country. The power of the president was also increased.
The Constitution also changed Venezuela’s name from República de Venezuela (“Republic of Venezuela”) to República Bolivariana de Venezuela (“Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”). This change was largely due to Chavez’s insistence, but Chavistas were riding high on their newly acclaimed power. They would do anything for their new champion.
Finally, the new Constitution gave Chavez two consecutive terms as president while increasing the term to 6 years.
The fractured opposition was in no position to fight back. In fact, at that time there was barely any opposition at all.
Venezuelan Constitutional Referendum of 2007
On December 2, 2007, Chavez tried to change the constitution again by overturning the two-term limit. The Venezuelan constitutional referendum of 2007 would essentially allow him to be president for life. He even boasted at that time that he would stay on as President past 2020.
Chavez’s plan to abolish presidential term limits was bundled with many constitutional changes. Some of them were dangerous, some made no sense, and some were just outright silly. However, the last vestige of checks and balances to presidential power was too much for the country.
By this time, the opposition had regained some of their footing. Joined by students, and even disenchanted people from Chavez’s own party, Venezuelans saw through this danger and voted against it by a narrow margin. For the time being, Chavez had scared enough people, which led to his first major defeat.
One of those campaigning against the change was Raúl Baduel, a former Defense Minister and Chavez insider. He became the highest-ranking military person opposed to Chavez’s constitutional changes, and a prominent voice of dissent.
In July 2007, Baduel said,
Baduel’s siding with the opposition against Chavez led to his arrest. Trumped up charges were filed, resulting his being sentenced to seven years and eleven months.
Chávez conceded defeat saying, “For now, we couldn’t.” (-Por ahora no pudimos-) echoing the phrase he used after the failure of his February 1992 coup d’état attempt.
Although Chavez lost his bid, he was not done. Listed below are some of the silliest, and most dangerous, amendments he wanted ratified.
- Abolish presidential term limits, allowing for indefinite re-election of the president (not allowed for any other political post).
- End the autonomy of the central bank, giving control to the president.
- Place the president in charge of administering the country’s international reserves.
- Prohibit large land estates, and allow the state to provisionally occupy property slated for expropriation before a court has ruled.
- Reorganize the country’s administrative districts, and allow the president to control elected state governors and mayors.
- Reduce the working week from 44 to 36 hours, and cut the workday from eight to six hours.
- Lower the voting age from 18 to 16.
- Increase the presidential term from six to seven years,
- Allow the president to declare an unlimited state of emergency,
- Change the name of Caracas to “Bolivar’s Cradle and Queen of the Guaraira Repano” (La Cuna de Bolivar y Reina del Guaraira Repano)
The world was quick to placate Chavez, by praising him for his acceptance of defeat. Many people talked about Venezuela’s maturing democracy. While they were doing this, Chavez was fuming, stacking the decks, and already planning his revenge.
On December 5, 2007, Chávez let it announced that he intended to launch a second attempt to change the Constitution. According to El Universal newspaper, he lashed out at those who opposed him in his normal bellicose fashion,
He also described the opposition’s victory as “full of shit” and his defeat as “full of courage, valor and dignity.”
Venezuelan Constitutional Referendum of 2009
In 2009, Chavez tried again. This time he left out the chaff he had added in 2007, and went straight to the heart of the matter. This time his only change would deal with term limits.
Chavez had once stated that those below the president should not be reelected indefinitely because it increased the danger that a caudillo would arise. His hypocrisy was at its finest.
While the Referendum back in 2007 did not address the reelections of subordinates, Chavez’s mind had changed. By this time, Chavistas filled most offices and it made sense to allow them to stay in their positions. Most importantly of course, was increasing his own term limits.
After the Referendum of 2009, it became final. Terms limits were abolished for Governors, legislators, Mayors, deputies for the National Assembly, and most important that of the President.
On February 15, 2009, Chavez had the last laugh. Then shortly afterwards, he came down with terminal cancer. Who says God does not have a sense of humor.
January 5, 2013
The most recent Constitutional change was just a few months ago. This time there was no discussion, no debate, no transparency, and certainly, no referendum offered for the people to vote on.
The new change took effect after officials hastily met. Their mission was to ratify by decree, a new law giving Chavez the right to rule once he missed the January 10 swearing-in deadline. We all knew he would not make it, some of us already predicted his death. (See: Hugo Chavez is Dead)
There was only one outcome acceptable to government officials. This outcome would not only placate Chavistas, by giving them hope without reason, but it would also weaken the opposition. In the end, desperate times called for desperate measures. A Chavez in a vegetative state was better than no Chavez at all.