PJM correspondent in Caracas
On August 15, Hugo Chavez announced the constitutional changes he seeks, involving a stunning 10% of the articles of the still-fresh 1999 Constitution.
The vaunted “participatory democracy” of the 1999 document has yielded in a very few years to the increasingly absolute control of the country by one single man and his close camarilla. Even the New York Times quickly came out with a strong editorial showing they were not buying it. To quote the last sentence: “It’s participatory democracy in which only Mr. Chavez and his friends get to participate.”
Here in Venezuela, we have known about Chavez’s ambitions for quite a while. What is worrisome is that too many people do not object to a leader obtaining increasingly more and more power. The proposed changes will alter considerably the functioning of the republic and the relationships between its citizens. The future for Venezualans seems to be headed toward a violent denouement. Although high oil prices are helping Mr. Chavez to literally buy goodwill from many who should know better, historically, all regimes like the one Mr. Chavez is trying to impose end up in some form of violence; .
Which are these changes that seem so threatening? Here are some simple examples that illustrate well what the whole exercise is about.
Private property will be under constant threat. One of the most worrisome novelties of the regime is to make the private property concept a relative one. This is achieved in different ways, all to be applied when needed, as circumstances warrant. The government is creating different forms of property, putting at the end of that list private property, achieving the effect of making it less valuable by placing it after state or communal property. Constitutions have a way of ranking things to signify their value.
New language in Article 115 weakens property rights: Private property is that which belongs to private or legal entities and which is recognized as goods for use or consumption, and as means of production legitimately acquired.
It is important to note what was erased from the old Article 115: Everyone has the right to use, enjoy and dispose of their belongings. The implication is clear. First, citizens lose the right to dispose of our possessions as we wish: We can enjoy and use them but we cannot dispose of them as we wish.
In practice this is an opening for the government to decide on how you could sell your house, your businesses, your land, and even any stock you might own. And in the future — why not — even your personal possessions such as a valuable antique or a painting. What this will do to inherited estates is anyone’s guess. But if disposing of your property at will might not be an option anymore, the mere holding of property can be questioned at any time since it will have to be “legitimately acquired”. The question of who decides what is legitimate or not becomes crucial in a country where separation of powers has become a fiction, where the highest court of the country has demonstrated that it all but receives direct orders from the executive branch.
But this is not all. Legal expropriation for public interests, as eminent domain, is something that happens everywhere.
Unfortunately for property owners, under the proposed changes compensation for expropriated property in Venezuela will come AFTER the said expropriation. That is, it will be enough for the state to notify the need to expropriate and start the judicial process to seize the desired property. The previous owner will have to wait for the outcome of the trial, which could take years, to receive any indemnity. Needless to say, under such restrictions one would have to be a fool to invest a penny of one’s own money in Venezuela.
This is not all, as private activity promises to become overly regulated and limited. Article 113 states that a private business that could threaten by its efficiency (termed vaguely as “practices”) a state owned company or a collective (cooperative for example) can be banned. Not only is the private ownership of the means of production frowned upon, but it is forbidden for private enterprise to be more productive than state property. Milton Friedman must be spinning in his grave.
In Article 112 (note the progression, as the most offensive – Article 115 – comes after these two articles which are equally offensive and even more threatening to basic human rights) the new text goes further albeit in a more disguised form. Lines are eliminated from the old article referring to individual freedom of occupation – to pursue the business or office of their choosing. Instead, there is a required, vaguely defined general cooperation between all sectors to create a social state since the common interest is above the private interest. Obviously the state can eventually decide what economical activities are acceptable or not, what careers citizens are permitted to pursue. Putting together Articles 112 to 115, and you have no more venture business in Venezuela, no more risk-taking.
Regional autonomy will be limited and erased if necessary under Chavez’s changes.
If there was any remaining belief that local authorities would help Venezuelans defend their property against the central state, the proposal of Articles 11 and 16 (this latter from two paragraphs in 1999 to 13 today!) destroy any real local power that might have existed in Venezuela and effectively revert two decades of decentralization, returning to an even stronger central state than in 1958.
Under the new system governors and mayors will still exist as legal figures but in a diminished capacity, without even retaining their administrative territories. Now the executive power will be able to create almost at will separate regions that it will rule directly and whose local authorities will be appointed from Caracas. Residents of a region might elect a governor in a landslide but if that governor happens to incur the wrath of the central government, it could simply take over the control of a large part of its popular or economical base. Local will is going to be subjected to national will. In his speeches, Chavez has been very explicit in declaring that he leads a national project and that there is no room for local flavor (something subtley but clearly implied in Article 158).
In case there is any doubt as to who exactly will be in charge of your private business, Chavez’s personal power is increasing as well. He has decided, with no good reason, to extend the presidential term from an already long 6 years to 7 years. The head of the Venezuelan high court is already on record saying that if the referendum passes, Chavez’s current term will be automatically extended by an extra year.
That article – number 230 – is far worse in that it abolishes presidential term limits altogether.
It should be easy to understand that a president that has been in office for well over a decade, a president that controls all the resources of the state, a president that has diminished the financial muscle needed to organize a political challenge, will have no problem in getting reelected for ever since per definition any election will be highly biased and highly unfair (as was the 2006 election) and thus de facto extends Chavez’s rule indefinitely.
Without going into other equally offensive aspects of the reform (a militia under the direct orders of Chavez as a parallel army, public servants who are not public servants anymore but instead are servants of the state, and more) we can conclude by stating that the objective is quite simple: Chavez aims to preserve the democratic fig leaf where democracy still exists through some form of plebiscitary elections. But he will avoid any surprises by making sure that it will be very difficult for any opposition party or gifted leader to emerge. This he will attain by refusing to allow any regional power base where such an opposition leader could grow by showing his or her administrative skills. In the unlikely event that a political movement or some leader were able to gain some notoriety, the economic system that Chavez will impose will block effective financing of any opposition campaign which would rely mostly on small discrete contributions, while Chavez will shamelessly use the state resources for his campaigning, as he has always done.
How long such a system may last until it is overthrown or becomes an outright repressive regime is anyone’s guess.
References: Available on line for free there is only El Universal who carries a significant amount of information in English. Its Spanish language section carries of course more, and more complete articles, including a PDF document on the proposals. For additional interpretation there are two blogs in English written from Venezuela (1 and 2) that address regularly some of the issues linked to the constitutional changes.
Due to the current climate in Venezuela, PJM’s correspondent in Caracas prefers not to identify himself publicly so that he can share his impressions freely.