Venezuela showdown

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Dec 15 08:00:44 MST 1999

NY Times, December 15, 1999

A Divided Venezuela to Vote on New Constitution


CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuela has the chance Wednesday to accelerate what
President Hugo Chavez terms a "peaceful revolution," or to reject what his
opponents say would be a constitutional dictatorship benefiting Chavez at
the expense of the millions of poor citizens he says he represents.

Rarely has a political fight divided this country, the world's third
largest oil exporter and major supplier to the United States, with such
passion and invective.

Chavez, elected a year ago on a promise to strip power from Venezuela's
traditional parties and wealthy elite, has branded critics of the
constitution that is to be voted upon Wednesday "degenerates," members of
"a rancid oligarchy whose only motherland is capital and profits" and
"enemies of the nation."

They are, he has charged, "a truckload of squealing pigs" and "a batch of
bandits who have betrayed, pillaged and humiliated the people."

For its part, the anti-Chavez camp has sought to link the president to
Fidel Castro and Cuban communism, using Chavez's own words against him. "I
feel happy to follow the path of Fidel," he said during a state visit to
Havana last month, adding that Venezuela was swimming "toward the same sea
as the Cuban people," which he described as "a sea of happiness, social
justice and true peace."

To the alarm of those already suspicious of Chavez, the new charter,
drafted in less than four months by an elected Constitutional Assembly in
which his supporters won 90 percent of the seats, would significantly
extend the powers of the executive branch of government.

It abolishes the Senate, one of the two existing houses of Congress, and
gives the president authority to dissolve the legislature in certain
specified circumstances. The presidential term of office would expand to
six years from five, and Chavez would be allowed to seek immediate
re-election, which is prohibited under the current 1961 constitution.

In addition, the powers of states and municipalities would be significantly
curbed, and the role of the military and its ability to take part in
government and politics would increase.

"In many basic respects, this constitution is a step backward from the
democratic change the country has been demanding," said Allan Brewer
Carias, a prominent lawyer here and an opposition member of the
Constitutional Assembly. "It opens the door to authoritarianism, and the
authoritarian provisions it contains are certainly going to be used, if not
by Chavez, then by someone else."

Even the constitution's main intellectual author has now begun to express
doubts about the document. Hermann Escarra, a prominent professor of
constitutional law and chairman of the committee that drafted the charter,
said he still planned to vote yes in the referendum Wednesday, joining what
opinion polls indicate will be strong support for the document.

But Escarra describes the final product as "a populist model under military
tutelage" and says he will immediately introduce amendments to weaken those

Escarra, who has been one of Chavez's closest legal advisers, said last
week in an interview with the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia that "the
constitution has grave incongruencies" that allow the president "to assume
all powers," "give privileges to the military" and put them beyond civilian
control. A result, he added, will be a "restricted democracy," and "that
would be very disturbing."

Since declaring its independence from Spain in 1811, Venezuela, which has
the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, has had 25 constitutions,
more than any other country in South America. Chavez, striking the kind of
sweeping note that has prompted many people here to invest in him their
hopes of change, says the new charter will define "the future of
Venezuelans for the next 200 years."

Supporters point proudly to the broadened guarantees of individual rights
that it offers, including greater recognition of the status of women and
indigenous peoples. The charter also reorganizes the country's notoriously
corrupt judicial system and includes a recall mechanism that in theory
would allow voters to replace elected officials who fail to perform their
duties properly.

"This is the most modern and advanced constitution in the entire continent
and perhaps in the world," Chavez said recently on his weekly radio
program. He described its passage as essential to "putting 40 years of
unfettered corruption and incompetence behind us."

But he has also warned of the prospect of an "internal war" if voters do
not approve it.

If the constitution is rejected, "I will do everything possible so that the
democratic and peaceful road continues," he said in November. But he added,
"I do not know if that will be possible."

A recent poll here found that less than 2 percent of voters in this nation
of 23 million people had actually read the draft of the new constitution, a
floridly written document that has 350 articles. As a result, the vote
seems to have become more of a plebiscite on Chavez, a cashiered army
colonel who led an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992 but was elected to
office with a resounding majority.

"I'm going to vote yes because I want to give the people's president the
tools he needs to govern," said Gumersindo Alvarez Montilla, a Chavez
supporter who was handing out copies of the document at a subway stop here.
"I haven't read all of the constitution, but I don't need to. For me, it is
enough that this is Chavez's project, that this is what he wants."

But Chavez's popularity and the apparent support for his charter have not
stopped an informal coalition of political, business, religious and human
rights groups from focusing on what they see as dangerous flaws in a
document they say was hastily and carelessly drafted.

Human rights groups here and abroad, for instance, have expressed concern
about a provision that requires news organizations to publish only
"truthful, opportune and impartial" reports. They say the provision would
open the door to official censorship and intimidation, since it is unclear
who would determine what meets those standards.

Most of Venezuela's main business organizations have come out against the
charter. They worry about articles that promise workers a "living" wage
without specifying how that would be calculated, prohibit "unjustified"
dismissals, reduce the work week and guarantee health care and social
security benefits to all Venezuelans, even those who have not contributed
to the system, without making clear who will pay that cost.

The central bank has taken out full-page newspaper ads to warn that its
independence and ability to fight inflation would be sapped by a
requirement that it subordinate its policies to those of the government.
The president of the state oil company, a Chavez ally, has also complained
about provisions that forbid privatization of the company and reserve all
"strategic" sectors of the economy for the state.

Louis Proyect

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