Venezuela’s two constitutions

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Quico says: Anonymous sources inside the Presidential Committee for Constitutional Reform say their proposals are almost ready, and await only Chávez’s final go-ahead before being presented to the nation. The centerpiece? The government’s long anticipated plan to abolish term limits on the presidency, paving the way for Chávez’s indefinite re-election. The rest? It doesn’t make a difference.

Why? Because of something everyone in Venezuela knows, even though no one ever quite says it out loud: in fact, we have two constitutions.

First, we have the Hard Constitution, which sets out the legitimate ways of becoming President of the Republic. This is what’s called the hilo constitucional in Spanish – you’ll find it in articles 227, 228, 230, 233 and 234 of the 1999 text. Then there’s the Soft Constitution, the litany of pious intentions and solemn hypocrisies that pads out the other 345 articles.

In practice, the Hard Constitution is mandatory; the Soft Constitution isn’t.

To be fair, this situation isn’t really new: the 1961 constitution was treated pretty much the same way. And the one before that too, and the one before that, and, well, pretty much all of the 26 constitutions we’ve had since 1811. There’s very little reason to think the 27th will be any different. The gaping chasm separating constitutional norms and the practice of power is part of our political DNA.

The exception is the handful of constitutional articles setting out the hilo constitucional. That’s Hard Constitution stuff, and that stuff is serious.

So February 4th, and November 27th, 1992 as well as April 12th, 2002 are considered coup attempts not because they violated the constitution, but because they violated the constitutions Presidential succession clauses. But nobody calls any of the hundreds upon hundreds of violations of the Soft Constitution dating back to 1811 “coup attempts” because, implicitly, everybody understands that some articles are more equal than others.

Our current Soft Constitution outlines a kind of Alpine utopia that has almost nothing in common with the country as it actually is; a chimeric wunderland where everybody gets due process, all state services can be accessed equally in indigenous languages or Spanish, the government never spends a bolivar without the authorization of the National Assembly, everyone has the right to a nice house, a decent job, vacation pay and maternity leave, civil servants can’t be fired for their political opinions, military officers have nothing to do with politics other than the right to vote, the Prosecutor General is entirely above the political fray and on and on and on.

Sounds like a great place to live, don’t you think? Entirely unlike Venezuela, granted, but splendid nonetheless…

The point is that in practice, if not in juridical theory, the constitutional articles guaranteeing vacation pay are just not like the ones on presidential succession. The Soft Constitution’s role has always been to chronicle our collective aspirations more than to serve as a binding legal framework.

Nobody really believes Chávez needs to alter the Soft Constitution to achieve this or that social, economic or political goal – and for good reason. Many of the things the reform will “constitutionalize” are things Chávez is doing already – bossing the Central Bank around, ignoring the FIEM law – with or without constitutional change. And why shouldn’t he? That’s Soft Constitution stuff, so it’s fair game.

In the end, there’s just one thing Chávez wants to do but can’t do without reform: stay in power forever. Everyone in Venezuela intuits that. Which is why indefinite re-election is the only part of the proposed reforms anyone cares about. We’ve been around the block a few times, you know? Long enough to understand that reforms to the Hard Constitution are serious business, and changes to the Soft Constitution are fluff.

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