August 15 is important in Venezuela. It’s the day Simon Bolivar dedicated himself to Venezuelan independence in 1805, the day President Hugo Chavez won a presidential recall vote by a 59 percent majority in 2004, and the day this year Chavez submitted proposed constitutional changes to Venezuela’s National Assembly.
U.S. and European criticism has centered on a proposal that presidents serve seven, not six, years and be allowed to run for re-election, opening the door, according to the Washington Post, to a “president for life.” Venezuelan Cardinal Castillo Lara called Chavez a “paranoid dictator.”
The possible changes would affect only 33 of the 350 articles in Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. National Assembly passage of the reform package is seen as certain because all legislators are Chavez supporters, the result of right-wing parliamentary candidates having withdrawn from the 2005 elections.
The Chavez government has called for nationwide debate following the assembly’s approval of the changes, after which they will be returned for assembly reconsideration. Repeat approval will lead to further public debate, then final assembly action and a national referendum on Dec. 9.
Chavez announced plans for constitutional change a year ago, designating the reform project as the second of five “motors” propelling Venezuelan socialism. Venezuelans are engaged simultaneously in forming “socialist battalions” in preparation for the founding congress of the Unified Socialist Party.
The potential changes, far-reaching in scope, fall into three categories: those aimed at recasting democracy, others at building socialism and the rest at preserving gains.
Political theorizing in Venezuela has called for participatory democracy to replace representative democracy. A revised article 16 would bring about a new “geometry of power,” with states giving way to municipalities formed by cities and surrounding areas. The geographic extensions would comprise “communes” composed of “communities” which, under the new article 16, are designated as the “basic and indivisible nucleus of the Venezuelan socialist state.”
Communal councils, including worker, student and peasant councils, would operate in municipalities and communities as expressions of direct democracy and “popular power.” More than 25,000 communal councils already exist, and 50,000 are anticipated.
Changes under article 141 would incorporate social missions, formed to address massive health care and educational deficits, into existing government structures, the better to compete with and eventually replace them. Popular participation in mission functioning, especially at the local level, has served as a laboratory for participatory democracy.
Constitutional reforms are directed also at promoting Venezuelan-style socialism. Under a revised article 158, “The state will promote as national politics protagonist participation of the people, transferring power to the people and creating better conditions for construction of a socialist democracy.”
To that end, property is re-categorized (article 115) as public, social, communal, collective, mixed or private. Other proposals reaffirm hydrocarbon exploitation as the exclusive province of the state, prohibit monopolies and giant land holdings, and allow for land expropriation in the name of food security. National law would enable “businesses or regional entities to promote the economic activities of a socialist economy” (article 300).
A revised constitution would call for a six-hour workday (a 34-hour workweek), forbid compulsory overtime work and create a “fund for social stability” for independent workers. A model of economic production is proposed with “humanistic values” leading to “collective and cooperative construction of a socialist economy” (article 112). A revised article 100 would promote and protect ethnic diversity among Venezuelans.
The rest of the agenda relates to defending the state and implementing basic changes, one item being the removal of presidential term limits. The Venezuelan army would become the Bolivarian (rather than “national”) Armed Forces. The army is defined as “essentially patriotic, popular and anti-imperialist” (article 328), no longer as “essentially professional.” A reformed article 67 bars foreign funding of elections.
Other revisions, perhaps directed at separatists, would authorize designation of areas as “military territories” or creation of new federal provinces and cities. Added regional vice-presidents would administer popular power directives.
Deirée Santos Amaral, first vice president of the National Assembly, called upon Venezuelans to “study, publicize, discuss and clarify every doubt arising in whatever sector.” She said, “This proposed reform is more social democracy, more political democracy and more economic democracy. It’s socialism and socialism means more democracy.”