The Opposite of a Crime

Under Venezuela's constitution, we all have a duty to collaborate to re-establish the rule of law. The implications of that, today, are staggering.

A couple of weeks ago, Juan wrote a tough, sobering post asking if we’ve really thought through how we would react if, having killed the Recall Referendum option, the government faced a coup.


It’s a debate we’ve been avoiding for a long time. But Venezuela feels like it’s nearing a point-of-no-return where discussing the undiscussable becomes a sombre inevitability.

As I tried to puzzle through Juan’s question, I kept circling back to the standard bureaucratic/journalistic euphemism for a “coup” in Spanish: “rupture of the constitutional order.”

Well, whatever a coup might mean in Venezuela in 2016, it wouldn’t mean that: in Venezuela, there is no constitutional order left to rupture.

In particular, since the opposition’s sweeping win in parliamentary elections on December 6th last year, Venezuela has witnessed the most sustained, comprehensive onslaught on the legal basis of government probably since the Gómez era.

The re-packing of the Supreme Tribunal was, of course, the seminal event here. A court that, ten years earlier, had already been packed with chavista Tom Hagens was purged of the consiglieri and then re-packed with Luca Brasis: killers, and I don’t mean that only metaphorically.

The court has gone on to set down its own delirious jurisprudence: a riotous torrent of sheer nonsense, Nazi in inspiration, leading to the outright nullification of whole swathes of the constitution.

The onslaught has been spearheaded by the TSJ’s Constitutional Hall. Designed to be the constitution’s ultimate bulwark, it has become its executioner. It’s as though the republic had developed an autoimmune disorder that directed its defences to attack healthy tissue and ignore actual threats.

What are we supposed to do about the extreme sort of constitutional subversion-from-within we’ve been witnessing these last few months?

As it turns out, the constitution itself gives us explicit instructions for such an eventuality. They’re in article 333, a startlingly radical corner of the text that reads:

This constitution shall not lose its validity if it were to no longer be observed due to an act of force or because it was derogated through any means other than those it establishes.

In such an eventuality, every citizen, whether or not in a position of authority, shall have a duty to collaborate to the re-establishment of its effective validity.

On a literal reading, anyone who witnesses the willful subversion of the constitutional system perpetrated over the last six months and fails to act to reverse it is in violation of Article 333. In any event, that’s the argument that would likely be put forward. Given the extreme sorts of circumstances we’ve been experiencing, I don’t think that argument can be dismissed out of hand.

Am I advocating a coup, then?

Not at all.

A coup today is ludicrously risky. It could very well take a bad situation and make it much, much worse. It’s hard to imagine how you re-establish governability after you’ve confirmed the worst fears of 30% of the country, and a heavily armed 30% at that. Venezuela already has war-like levels of urban violence – what would happen if you added an actual war on top of that doesn’t bear thinking about.

So let’s be clear: a coup is probably still a very bad idea, yes. But that’s an argument about expediency. The question I want to ask is, is it a crime?

Article 333 is clear. Doing what you can to re-establish the effective validity of the constitution when it’s under attack is a duty. 

And that…that’s the opposite of a crime, isn’t it?