The call for a Constituent Assembly by the executive power in Venezuela has opened a new chapter in the political dispute that the country has been experiencing for the past few years. In a scenario of heightened confrontation between the government and the opposition owing to an institutional impasse between the institutions of the state, the opposition is driving a new wave of violent street protests. Chavismo has responded politically, calling on the constituent power of the people to settle the controversies between the opposed sectors, turning to the course of institutional mechanisms. The opposition, paradoxically, has described the call as a “coup d’état”, which augurs a new escalation in the political conflict.
The members of the Constituent Assembly, which President Nicolas Maduro has called for, will draw up a new Constitution and have 500 assembly members elected by social sectors and communities. It can be convoked by the President in a Council of Ministers, two-thirds of the Parliament, municipal councils or 15% of the electorate.
What does the call for a National Constituent Assembly consist of
- On May 1, President Nicolas Maduro announced in a council of ministers the convoking of a Constituent Assembly aimed at resolving the political conflict with the opposition and achieving peace Among the other objectives of the initiative are the institutionalisation of the national system of social missions and super missions; establish the juridical bases for a new post-petroleum economic mission and provide a constitutional standing to popular power.
- The decree signed by the head of the state establishes that: “The members of the National Primary Constituent Assembly will be elected in the sectorial and territorial fields through universal, direct and secret voting, with the supreme interest in preserving and promoting the constitutional values of liberty, equality, justice and immunity of the Republic and the self-determination of the people.”
- In that act, the executive power swore in the designated Presidential Commission for Constituent People’s Power, presided by the former Foreign Minister and current Education Minister, Elias Jaua.
- Article 347 of the constitutional text of 1999 establishes that: "The people of Venezuela are the keepers of the primary constituent power. In exercise of the said power, a new National Constituent Assembly can be convoked with the object of transforming the state, creating a new juridical order and drawing up a new Constitution.”
- Article 348 establishes the mechanisms and the legally authorised powers for initiating the convocation: “The President of the Republic in a Council of Ministers can take the initiative of convoking the National Constituent Assembly; the National Assembly through an agreement involving two-thirds of its members; the Municipal Councils with two-thirds of their members or a fifth of the electorate registered in the civil and electoral registry.”
- The last Venezuelan constituent process happened in 1999 and gave rise to the current constitutional text, which increased the presidential term from five to six years and introduced the recall from office for elected functionaries via referendum. It also introduced for the Constituent Assembly the attribute of “transforming the state” that was not contemplated in the earlier constitutional text of 1961
Key precedents in understanding what is happening in Venezuela
- Since 2015, when the Venezuelan opposition won the legislative elections, achieving a majority in the National Assembly (AN) for the first time since Chavismo gained power, a period of conflict and institutional impasse among the state powers has set in.
- Since 2014, the government of Nicolas Maduro has promoted several attempts at a dialogue with the opposition sectors to untangle the conflictive political situation. The last of them counted with the mediation of a commission of former Presidents backed by Unasur (Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain), Fernandez (Dominican Republic), Torrijos (Panama) and the Vatican. Pope Francis himself hinted n recent declarations that the Venezuelan opposition did not want a dialogue and that its internal divisions obstructed attempts at rapprochement.
- The United Democratic Table (MUD), constituted in 2006, has failed in its attempts at creating a political alternative for the country. It is a fragile electoral alliance in which sectors co-exist with divergent political strategies. This situation has generated strong internal tensions that re-emerge with changing circumstances.
- In the current situation, the sectors of the opposition driving the violent street protests base their political strategy on the premise that a “dictatorship” or a “regime” governs the country, even while there is a government legitimately elected under the same institutional mechanisms that allow opposition parties to govern in municipalities and states and to be elected to the AN. For the Venezuelan Right, the government of Nicolas Maduro — and all of Chavismo — is not a political adversary but an enemy to annihilate. In adopting this posture, they not only try to impugn the root of the profound transformative process that Venezuelan society has gone through in the past two decades but also abandon all genuinely democratic course. From being a political actor, the opposition has passed on to setting itself up as a sector fixated on bringing down a government, utilising for it strategies that oscillate between ignoring the institutional rules of the game and violent anti-system action on the streets.
- Despite using the flags of democracy and human rights for communication purposes, the Venezuelan opposition has an undeniable vocation for coup d’états, the foundational point of which was the coup of 2002, which had as its active protagonists the current opposition leaders (Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez, Maria Corina Machado, Henry Ramos Allup and Julio Borges among many others). The protests of February 2014 known as “guarimbas” (street blockades) carried out in the frame of “La Salida” (The Exit) is the other landmark in the destructive vocation of the Venezuelan opposition.
- In the past year and a half, the Venezuelan opposition has worked on three fronts to promote a premature exit of the current government which it does not recognise and which it accuses of having taken an authoritarian turn: 1) The National Assembly, from which it has illegally promoted a “political trial” of the President, a juridical power not contemplated in the Venezuelan Constitution; 2) pressure by the “international community”, which includes illegal persecution by the OAS (Organisation of American States), particularly that of its secretary general, Luis Almagro, as also an impressive media construct promoting a negative image of chavismo; and 3) pressure from the streets through calls for protests that frequently end up in violent acts on part of the “demonstrators” .
- The Rulings 155 and 156 of the Supreme Court to the National Assembly for falling into unconstitutionality were “interpreted” as a “self-coup” by the Executive branch (despite the fact that it did not emit these rulings), deepening the institutional destabilisation and generating a new cycle of violence on the streets “in the name of democracy”, backed by an international pressure campaign led by the secretary general of the OAS and the governments of Mexico and Argentina.
(Mis)interpretations about the Constituent Assembly as a “coup d’état”
The term coup d’état refers to a sudden and violent seizure of political power undertaken by a centre of power that violates the institutional legitimacy of a state and directly attacks an established order. Is this what is happening in Venezuela with the call for a Constituent Assembly?
- It is not sudden because it is an action announced by the government in the framework of a long trajectory of calling upon its citizens to participate through a direct vote. These calls to vote are the best demonstration that Venezuela is constructing a democracy that is overcoming the limits of liberal procedural democracy to set up a participative (not merely representative) democracy which, in this case, guarantees a truly popular Constituent Assembly.
- It is not violent because President Maduro followed all the established steps to call for a Constituent Assembly. It is not a measure pushed through by the security forces; moreover the raison d'être and the objective of this call is to safeguard the institutional order and re-establish social peace (that is to say, avoid more violence).
On the contrary, sticking to the definition of coup d’état provided, the actions of the opposition could be considered as a coup because:
- The inability to exercise its role as opposition and its appeal to violent means for destabilising the existing order and defeating the governments in turn from 2002
- Refusal to heed the warnings of the Supreme Court regarding the occurrence of fraud in the National Assembly elections in December 2016, ignoring the division of powers, as also the investiture and decision-making of the judicial branch.
- The call for presidential elections outside the (previously established) constitutional norms like the pressure exercised during 2016 calling for a referendum without attending to what is established in the Constitution, particularly to the time-frame in the Magna Carta for these types of elections.
- The opposition’s alliance with local, regional and international groups and institutions to disrespect the figure of the President, and functionaries, as also to destabilise the actual government, whatever be its motive. Among the actions that could be mentioned are: economic boycott, campaigns to discredit and destabilise in the hegemonic media like CNN and El Pais; pressure through alliance with other governments as in the case with the US government, with which the opposition has had no qualms in meeting and associating (especially with members of the US Congress).
- Finally, the above-mentioned definition of a coup d’état also applies to the downfall of Zelaya in Honduras, Lugo in Paraguay and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, cases which, while there are important differences among them, are characterised by the way in which the institutions and popular will were violated in dismissing heads of state elected by a majority vote, preventing them from concluding their mandate in due time and form .
The US role
- In March 2015, the Obama administration decreed (through an executive order) that “Venezuela constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat for national security and foreign policy of the United States”.
- According to official and unofficial documents, the State Department was involved in the destabilisation process in Venezuela through its development assistance agencies and its links with local organisations (associated with campaigns to discredit and destabilise through different ways, including the media and social networks)
- The government offered implicit support to the OAS secretary general for his proposal to apply the Democratic Charter against Venezuela.
- The US Southern Command planned strategies to intervene in Venezuela in case it was necessary .
- The current President Donald Trump did not focus his speeches on Venezuela during his campaign but met members of the opposition in February 2017.
- The same month, the Treasury Department sued the Venezuelan Vice President, Tarek El Aissami, for alleged links with drug trafficking.
- The US Congress has been strongly pushing to increase pressure on Venezuela:
- In February 2017, a bi-partisan commission comprising 34 members of the Congress (Democrats and Republicans) pressure the Executive to impose sanctions on high-ranking Venezuelan officials.
- In May 2017, US Senators present a proposed Bill that includes the call to set apart $10 million in humanitarian aid and sanctions against individuals responsible for blocking democratic processes or being involved in corruption. Moreover, they ask the Executive that Rosneft, the Russian state petroleum agency, be prevented from taking over the US energy infrastructure in Venezuela.
Courtesy of CELAG
Publication date of original article: 04/05/2017
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