Maduro is trying to subvert popular democracy

June 5, 2017

For months, Venezuela has been wracked by political and economic crisis, including widespread protests and rampant inflation, that is shaking the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Hundreds of thousands of people--both supporters of Maduro's ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and opponents of the government--have taken to the streets in Caracas. The demonstrations have involved violence and looting, and the response of the security forces of Maduro's government has been similarly bloody.

Recently, Maduro called for a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the country's constitution. This has drawn opposition not only from the right, but from many on the left, who see this as an undemocratic attempt by Maduro to avoid elections that the PSUV might lose and a further step in the increasingly repressive direction Maduro has taken since becoming president following Hugo Chávez's death in 2013.

In this editorial, the revolutionary organization Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide)--which was part of the PSUV from its founding by Chávez in 2007 until leaving the party in 2015 in protest of Maduro's authoritarian turn--explains why it opposes Maduro's call for a Constituent Assembly, on the basis of the experience of writing a new constitution under Chávez. The editorial was translated into English for International Viewpoint.

MORE THAN 30 dead; the beginning and the extension of widespread looting; the word "peace" in the mouth of the rifles, and the rapid growth of a dynamic of lawlessness and hunger. And in the midst of this scenario, there is the announcement of a Constituent Assembly without parties or clear universal participation, and without respect for the consultation of the people in a referendum.

This government initiative is contrary to the constitutional process that led to the development, discussion and adoption of the constitution of 1999, with the active participation of a sovereign majority, a process that we in Marea Socialista claim as a democratic method. The Official Gazette, with the announcement made by Maduro, as well as the declaration of Aristóbulo Istúriz, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Constituent Assembly, that "there is no need to ask anything from the people because today the constitution provides for the Constituent Assembly," indicates a proposal of corporate and anti-democratic characteristics, with an arbitrary 50 percent participation of bodies co-opted to the state and without consultation. This only serves to add more fuel to the fire started by the political leaders, which presents us with a much more threatening atmosphere.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro

On the one hand, this Constituent Assembly is neither necessary nor helpful in coping with the most urgent and immediate problems suffered by our people. The emergency in the lack of food and medicine demands concrete measures, contrary to those being implemented by the government--such as the suspension of payments on the foreign debt so as to meet the needs of the people. This "Constituent Assembly" is intended to fit with the model of the Congreso de la Patria, a Congress made in the image and likeness of the leadership of the PSUV, where nobody knows what measures are taken or if the government is applying them. This excludes a large part of the Venezuelan people.

As indicated by Attorney General Luisa Ortega, you cannot ask for legality from the people if it is the state that violates the law. On this point, we must be absolutely clear: The current dynamics of violent repression, of excessive and, in some cases, brutal violence by state forces recklessly accompanied by armed civilians, go far beyond any control or supervision of social protest to become an open violation of essential human rights. Among other things, it is good to remember that the crimes caused by this violation have not become less severe with time.

OF COURSE, we reject the action of foquista groups or trained snipers, which are covered up by the [right-wing] Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) leadership. But without having anything in common with the politics of that leadership and its demands, it should be noted that most of the deaths of unarmed civilians, young people and women, have been in the context of demonstrations demanding the legitimate right to protest. The same goes for the more than 700 injured and the hundreds arrested. In this case, we without reservation recognize that the right to legitimate defense is exercised by demonstrators when the state violates the expression of citizens' rights. This constant violation is the main characteristic of authoritarian regimes that lead to totalitarianism, and is one of the main factors that incite violence.

It should also be remembered that the immediate origin of the present situation is part of a chain of indisputable events in the context of a prolonged political, economic and social crisis: the repeal of the right to vote and the breaking of the constitutional thread, produced by judgments 155 and 156 of the Supreme Court of Justice [under which the judiciary assumed the powers of the National Assembly, where the right wing holds a majority]. The indefinite suspension of the regional elections and the violation of the rights of citizens who signed in favor of the recall referendum are sufficient actions to denounce the manipulation by state institutions of the rights of the people and the bowing to the government by both the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council.

In this context of constant ignoring Hugo Chávez's Constitution and the growing violation of human rights, the government has opened a suspicious "constituent process" since its very anti-democratic announcement. It calls for a "Constituent National Assembly," with corporate characteristics, with the division into two types of the constituents that would form it--and little or no transparency in its objectives. These are the elements that are provoking distrust and a rejection of the government's move, the purpose of which seems to be in preparation for a retrograde counterreform in violation of the Constitution of 1999.

IN ADDITION there is a new violation of popular sovereignty: the failure to convene a consultative referendum to validate the realization of the Constituent Assembly--so that after the end, whether the people approve or reject it, the outcome becomes clear and transparent. As is stated in article 71 of the constitution, consultation must be made for the big decisions in this so-called "constituent assembly process," and the government says that it is big decisions that now must be taken. Thus, the experience and tradition of the process of convening the Constituent Assembly of 1999 is completely ignored.

In case there is any doubt about the way in which Articles 347, 348 and 349 of the Constitution are being manipulated by the regime, it is useful to compare Article 71 with the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador, which were inspired by ours:

Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela: Article 71
Subjects of special national significance may be submitted to a consultative referendum on the initiative of the President of the Republic in the Council of Ministers; by agreement of the National Assembly, approved by a vote of the majority of its members; or at the request of not less than ten percent of the voters registered in the civil and electoral registry.

Consultative referendums may also apply to matters of special parish, municipal and state importance. The initiative corresponds to the Parish Board, the Municipal Council or the Legislative Council, by agreement of two-thirds of their members; to the mayor or state governor, or to a number not less than ten percent of the total enrolled in the corresponding district, upon request.

Constitution of Bolivia: Article 411
The total reform of the Constitution, or anything affecting its fundamental bases, rights, duties and guarantees, or the primacy and reform of the Constitution, will take place through a plenipotentiary original Constituent Assembly, activated by popular will by referendum. The convocation of the referendum will be carried out by citizens' initiative, with the signature of at least 20 percent of the electorate; by absolute majority of the members of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly; or by the President of the State. The Constituent Assembly will self-regulate to all effects, having to approve the constitutional text by two-thirds of the total of its present members. The validity of the reform will require a constitutional referendum.

Constitution of Ecuador: Article 444
The Constituent Assembly can only be convened through popular consultation. This consultation may be requested by the President of the Republic, by two-thirds of the National Assembly, or by 12 percent of the persons registered in the electoral registry. The consultation should include the form of election of representatives and the rules of the electoral process. The new Constitution, for its entry into force, will require approval by referendum with half plus one of the valid votes.

IN THE current situation of crisis and growing violence, it is essential to assert the voice of the people--to demand that the call is approved in sovereign in referendum and that the results of the Constituent Assembly, if it happens, must be approved in the same way. That is why we call for the formation of a broad front to demand and activate these consultative referendums. And meanwhile, we insist on the full validity of the Constitution of 1999.

The seriousness of the current situation obliges us to warn that if, on the contrary, the government continues to ignore the claim of a part of society--a claim that begins to appear from the ranks of Chavismo itself--if the level of repression continues to increase and the constitutional mandates are ignored, and all the roads to the democratic participation of the people continue to be closed, the government will be proceeding with the assassination of the Chávez Constitution.

The immediate result of the call made by Maduro, in addition to the confusion generated in the majority of the population, contrasts with the increase of the repressive violence of the state towards demonstrations. An example of this is the activation of the Zamora Plan in the state of Carabobo, which should be understood as a test, with the intention of being extended to the whole country, of the activation of military tribunals for detained demonstrators who are denied ordinary justice, and the de facto installation of detention camps in military units. This is alarming and can lead to the crossing of a red line to an openly repressive and totalitarian government.

This single example should be sufficient for all those who reject the spiral of increasing violence initiated by the state power to together demand that the Electoral Council restore the functioning of the 1999 Constitution to assume its historic responsibility; activate the suspended regional elections for governors and mayors; and ensure the presidential election next year, installing a timetable for all of them. All this should occur with ample guarantees of democratic participation of all the political expressions of the country.

The struggle we are proposing is far-reaching and requires the construction of a social and political force with unity of action that will build itself on the march, on the basis of the defense of democratic rights.

First published in Spanish by Marea Socialista and translated into English for International Viewpoint.

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