Constituyente: The Nuclear Option

We have a tendency to see the Constituent Assembly as a kind of magic, fast-track solution to political problems chavismo has created. Here's why that's a mistake.

Following yesterday’s extraordinary raft of new “decree-laws” published after the expiration of President Maduro’s Enabling Law powers, many in MUD are reaching for the launch codes to activate the nuclear option: the constituyente. In the opposition’s imagination, it’s our their ace in the hole. Want to fast-track the clean-up of state structures from PSUV encroachment? You know what you need to do.

Is this really a reasonable way to think of it, though?

Personally, when I think about the great constitutional reinventions in history, what comes to mind are processes that radically transformed how power is exercised in a particular society. New social contracts like the ones taken up by Post-Soviet Czech Republic or Poland;  postcolonial US or; post-monarchical France. But ever since Chavez (or Miquilena) proposed his National Constitutional Assembly as a silver bullet to solve the country’s problems, the constituyente has occupied a different kind of space in our political imagination.

Using a constituyente to solve short term political problems is like trying to unscrew a screw with a jackhammer. It’s just not the job the tool was designed for. It could, instead, turn into a colossal waste of political capital.

Let’s remember: MUD ran on a platform that emphasized solving Venezuelans’ problems, not one of political change. Why? Most likely because nothing else has really worked and, when you think about it, the MUD has bigger fish to fry at the moment.

Later today, they face an almighty mess the doors of the Asamblea Nacional with armed colectivos out to prevent new Diputados from swearing in. If by some miracle, or a deus ex tanqueta intervention of a surprisingly institutional Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, they manage to get sworn in, the new AN, and the MUD with it, will be blamed for the effects of economic adjustment.

In those circumstances, would calling a constituyente help? Maybe the place to look for answers is with a careful look at the latest of our 26 Constituent Assemblies, the only one within living memory. The 1999 Assembly merely allowed for a massive quitate-tú-pá-ponerme-yo, a wholesale changing of the guard that further strengthened the presidency and elevated some institutions we already had to constitutional level.

What it didn’t do was to undertake what a constituyente ought to do, that is, to fundamentally rethink the way power is exercised in our country. It also didn’t allow for much actual governing during the first couple of years. One of the reasons why Chavez’s popularity took such a big dip from his first electoral victories to the moment just prior to his implementation of Las Misiones.

The 6D election results only emphasize the point that, given the choice, Venezuelans will go for the pursuit of happiness over life and liberty any day of the week. It wasn’t until the economy had gone to hell that the MUD could consolidate an overwhelming majority capable of trumping any possible “home field advantage” that PSUV could muster. Empirically, Venezuelans are most definitely not value-based voters.

In fact, in the latest July/August 2015 Omnibus, Datanalisis asked respondents to name the country’s problems, corruption came in 6th with 3.2%, abuse of authority and political prisoners came in 9th with 2.2% and political violence and confrontation came in detrás de la ambulancia on 16th with only 0.7% of respondents.

The constituyente is a red herring, because no deliberative body will be in a position to solve those day-to-day problems that Venezuelans really care about. So what should the MUD’s strategic objective be at that point? Seizing power of the presidency. Together with the power of an overwhelming majority in parliament, it’s the executive branch that can really make the needed changes.

Hugo Chavez himself demonstrated the point by being able to paint a larger portion of Venezuela’s current political landscape during the parliamentary hegemonic period of 2005-2010 than in any other period of his reign as Comandante Supremo Intergalactico. So it’s clear that even though the battlefield appears to be moving to the Supreme Tribunal, the major prize remains the presidency. Whether it’s best to wait for the regime’s collapse, call a recall referendum (with all the emotional connotations it entails) or hope for all out civil strife is a whole other question.

Once you have the presidency and control of the National Assembly, you can begin to address the catastrophe chavismo has left behind. I’m pretty sure most opponents of this idea (who probably think it’s naïve to think that you could ever gain Chavista bureaucratic cooperation for anything) would be surprised to see how ideology follows power more than the other way around. Once you have enough power in your hands, ideological resistance fades and gives way to cooperation. Institutions after all, can and should be strengthened through their use; and at the end of the day institutional strengthening is measured by testing the importance of the actual person wielding the post, against the importance of the post itself. The latter should always win.

So, we’re back to our original contention, that the only real reason to call for a constituent mechanism is for long term transformation. What I mean by this is, a National Constituent Assembly should only be called to fundamentally change the way we see and use power; that’s how you stop the cycle of successive constitutions with no shelf life.

Constituent Assemblies are the nukes in our institutional arsenal: use them, they tend to fuck everything up, so normally they’re much more useful as a threat than as a tool.  I will take structure over chaos every time: chaos is the realm where darkness thrives, and I really do think we are beginning to see the light.