Chavez vs. The Constitution

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Quico says: These days it’s easy to forget, but in 1998 chavismo was all about the constitution. Hugo Chavez built his pitch to the nation around calls to convene a Constituent Assembly to “refound the republic” by writing a new constitution. Not a revolution, not socialism: a new constitution.

The Assembly that ensued was dominated by his supporters. They held over 90% of the seats and wrote a constitution made to measure for the president. For several years afterwards, Chavez carried it in his shirt pocket, displaying it like a kind of talisman, citing it incessantly, calling it “the best constitution in the world” again and again, saying it was “his only project,” and repeatedly demanding that his opponents recognize it and play by its rules.

What has come of that project? Well, speaking to his supporters yesterday, Chavez attacked his opponents saying:

They elaborate their system of ideas, their ideology and their ideas are those of bourgeois democracy: the separation of powers, alternation in power – they use that stuff to manipulate – representation as the basis of democracy: big lies! That’s the ideology of that hegemonic philosophy that exercised hegemony here in Venezuela for 100 years, and has exercised it in much of the western world as well for 100 years.

With this little riff, Hugo Chavez comes out explicitly against the constitutional order he used to call his “only project.” Because hearing him, you’d think the opposition got this stuff about alternancia out of some CIA briefing book. But we didn’t, we got it out of article six of the 1999 constitution. It’s right there, tucked away in a chapter labeled – preciously enough – “Fundamental Principles.”

By the same token, time was when chavismo was so keen on separate and independent branches of government that the Constituent Assembly did Montesquieu two better, inventing an “electoral” and a “citizen” branch to supplement the traditional three.

Provisions affirming the autonomy and institutional independence of the five branches of government are strewn throughout the 1999 text. In Article 254 we read, “the judicial branch is independent and the Supreme Tribunal shall enjoy functional, financial and administrative autonomy.” In Article 201, “National Assembly members represent the people and the states as a whole, they are not subject to impositions or instructions, only to their conscience.” Article 273: “the Citizen Branch is independent and its institutions shall enjoy functional, financial and administrative autonomy.” Article 294: “the institutions of the Electoral Branch shall follow the principles of organic independence, functional and budgetary autonomy, non-intervention by political parties, impartiality and citizen participation.”

Hearing him straightforwardly saying he doesn’t actually believe in any of that stuff, you almost feel relieved: at last the cards are on the table. Chavez supporters who’ve spent the last few years telling us Venezuela really does have a functioning separation of powers (it’s just that, somehow, the opposition hasn’t noticed) can finally stand down. In fact, they better, lest they be accused of carrying water for the hegemonic ideology of bourgeois democracy.

It’s good to clear that mass of bullshit out of the way, it lets us focus on what we’re really up against here. What we’re facing is not some guy who sporadically waltzes that little bit too close to the edge of legality. What we’re dealing with here is a man who explicitly attacks the fundamental principles of Venezuela’s constitution.

In fact, as Teodoro Petkoff mordantly notes, the 1999 constitution reads more and more like a subversive pamphlet, so wide is the gulf between the principles it enshrines and the government’s practice.

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