The Opposite of Constitutional

The Supreme Tribunal outdoes itself once more with a decision on the National Assembly's oversight powers that would have made George Orwell proud.


I remember reading Nineteen Eighty-Four as a teenager and thinking that while the novel was powerful, Orwell’s description of the cognitive gymnastics the party elite was expected to master was way over the top.

Orwell stressed that high party officials needed to commit wholeheartedly to Doublethink – the ability to hold directly contradictory ideas in their mind simultaneously and to accept both of them. This sounded to me dangerously close to the definition of schizophrenia. And it seemed far-fetched to me that a state run by crazy people could remain stable for long.

Fast forward 25 years to the Supreme Tribunal’s Constitutional Chamber yesterday, and 15-year-old Quico es un güebón. In yet another decision that adds more to their prontuario than to their jurisprudence, the Justices showed the terrifying prescience of Orwell’s vision.

The decision deals with the National Assembly’s oversight and subpoena powers, and by “deals with” I mean “sticks a knife in, then twists it.” This is not just about creatively qualifying and arbitrarily limiting the powers the Constitution reserves to the Assembly, this is about directly contradicting the plain meaning of the constitutional text.

The point that jumps out at me has to do with the Assembly’s subpoena powers. The constitution is anything but opaque on this point. Article 223 is, actually, entirely explicit.

Todos los funcionarios públicos o funcionarias publicas están obligados u obligadas, bajo las sanciones que establezca las leyes, a comparecer ante dichas Comisiones y a suministrar las informaciones y documentos que requieran para el cumplimiento de sus funciones. Esta obligación comprende también a los particulares; quedando a salvo los derechos y garantías que esta Constitución consagra.

All public employees are obligated, subject to the penalties established by law, to appear before the Assembly’s committees and to provide the information and the documents needed to accomplish its functions. This obligation includes also private individuals; without undermining the rights and guarantees this Constitution enshrines.

The language is sweeping, explicit and categorical. Ahí no hay pa donde coger. Right?

You’d think so. But you shouldn’t doublethink so.

In its decision yesterday, the court takes the simple, legible, straightforward, entirely plain meaning of Article 223 and shoots it full of holes. From the power to demand an appearance in person, as well as answers and documentary evidence from, in effect, anyone – including any public servant, yes, but also any private individual as well – we get to a circumscribed power to subpoena only public servants “subject to political control” working for the executive branch, but not including the military, and then giving them the preferential option to submit their answers in writing, and a long series of potential excuses not to, if they – not the Assembly, but they – feel that doing so might negatively affect the conduct of public administration.

Inside the chavista imagination, you safeguard the constitution by negating it. You sustain its legitimacy by ignoring its content. The defense of the constitution and the shredding of the constitution are one and the same thing.

War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is strength.