No More Constituyentes – Please!

Sorry about the radio silence, folks, I’ve been travelling. Still, I felt strongly like I need to comment on Juan C.’s possibly inevitable Constitutional Assembly post, because it rattled me. I really feel Venezuela’s long run tendency to change the constitution every time a new clique gets hold of power is one of the defining features of our political backwardness.

A look at the list of no less than 25 constitutions in the last 199 years tells the tale: when the chavistas took over in 1999 and wrote a new charter to suit their needs and to “clean house” in the institutions, they were doing pretty much the same things the puntofijistas had done 38 years earlier, in getting rid of the constitution that Pérez Jiménez had handed down in 1953 which just overturned the Adeco’s old 1947 constitution which they’d used to throw out López Contreras’s 1936 charter, which he had used to give himself a clean break from the constitutions of the Gómez era. And all the way through the 19th century we saw the same thing. Every Caudillo came in with his own proclama and wrote his own constitution – none of which outlived him.

In such circumstances, the little book we call a constitution is no such thing. A constitution is a framework for regulating competition for political power between various groups – it is the thing that endures, underlying the day-to-day struggle for power of various groups within society.

But if every new group that comes to power comes with its own “constitution”, those documents can’t play that role.

In fact, in Venezuela the real constitution is weirdly British – unwritten, but universally understood and accepted, built into the political DNA of our culture.

It’s a set of expectations about what is proper in the exercise of political power that includes all kinds of unseemly crap that no one would have the stomach to actually write down on paper, but that nonetheless structures what we believe is the proper exercise of state power.

That real constitution includes, as one of its fundamental tenets, the belief that each new group that reaches political power has the right to write up a few noble-sounding platitutes into a little booklet, slap the words “Constitution of the Republic” on the cover, and use it as a legitimate excuse to purge their old regime opponents out of positions of power within the state.

If, for reasons of political expediency, the post-Chávez regime is forced to go down that path, we’ll have won the political battle, but we’ll have lost the war.

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