Maduro Riffs on La Constituyente, Nation Confused

When Maduro starts talking about a Constitutional Convention, people notice. But was this an actual proposal? A mind game? A stray bit of a forgotten 21-year-old conversation we’re all over-interpreting? We dive into the facts.

Sunday afternoon, instead of driving around Montalbán with Cilia or playing catch with Diosdado and Wiston, Maduro sat down to talk on his TV show. As he filled the dead hours of VTV with hot air, saying again and again that the opposition is scared to face the PSUV in an election, this happened:

“We have to promote a constituent process of the people as the peaceful and electoral way to reestablish the Republic through a people’s constituent assembly of the working class, of the farmers, of the Amerindians… of the housewives… of the fishermen, of the fisherwomen, of the students. A people’s national assembly, of the workers, and the farmers,  and the youth.”

But there was something off about the video. The reactions of Mario Silva and the rest of the audience, barely paying attention to what Maduro is saying, doesn’t fit at all with what should be a game changer!

It turns out those who didn’t see Maduro’s Sunday show (i.e., pretty much everyone) didn’t know the actual context of Maduro’s rambling. He was quoting a conversation Chávez had with them back in 1996, planning what would become the current Venezuelan constitution.

Here’s the full clip, posted by La Patilla, an independent source. Now, Mario Silva’s reactions of boredom and indifference make sense. They were indeed watching Maduro filling out VTV’s dead hours with hot air.

It’s easy to simply see it as a small comment that snowballed amidst the anxiety of the last few days. But the thing is, watching the clip straight from the social media accounts of VTV, the government’s main information outlet, you had no way to know any better. This lead many to ask the same: Was it deliberate? A trial balloon? Something real?

The Twittersphere certainly took it as a real departure. Article 348 of The Venezuelan Constitution establishes framework for the constituent process, in which a convention is formed in order to draft a new constitution. Specifically, it says:

The initiative for calling a National Constituent Assembly may emanate from the President of the Republic sitting with the Cabinet of Ministers; from the National Assembly, by a two thirds vote of its members; from the Municipal Councils in open session, by a two-thirds vote of their members; and from 15% of the voters registered with the Civil and Electoral Registry.

This process (popularly referred to as a constituyente) is how this whole mess started, back in 1999, with a convention where chavismo gained control of 95% of the seats despite having only 52% of the votes. Art. 348 seems to have been whipped up as a way of giving the 1999 Constitution some sort of retroactive legitimacy, but the point is that it’s there, written into the Constitution. In theory, it’s more real than the current TSJ.

By then, it was no surprise that, after days of tension between the government and the opposition, Sunday saw social media erupting with people speculating about its meaning. Can this be done without the National Assembly? How does it affect the TSJ? Will the government call a referendum? Is this a graceful way out for chavismo or their attempt to reframe the State to their own current needs? Or just El Diálogo 2.0?

It didn’t take long for media outlets, international experts, organizations, and opposition leaders to chip in with their hot-takes:

“Completely shameless: after systematically violating the chavista Constitution, Maduro proposes a constituent! Evident diverting trick.”

Kudos to Capriles for saying something that hints at the controversy but works either way:

“The narco-corrupt Madurista clique should forget about us Venezuelans accepting any process designed to fit their needs! Free and Democratic elections!”

“Now @NicolasMaduro proposes to launch a constituent (warning: the electoral guidelines must be approved and applied by the CNE).”

“Venezuela’s problems won’t be solved with cosmetic proposals thought out by those responsible for said problems.”

“Maduro proposes a constituyente. The truth is that the problem is not the constitution, the problem is Maduro.”

“In 1 week, Maduro threatens with 500 thousand militiamen, paramilitary colectivos, regional elections, and now a Constituent…”

But amid confusion about whether this is a real proposal or a historical quote from 1996, a second slew of speculation quickly popped up, seeing the whole thing as a trial balloon to measure the reaction within the opposition, or perhaps as a trap, the constitutional equivalent of Smolansky and the red teargas. The fact that Maduro has implied before he’s open to elections in exchange for having the protests called off only adds fuel to the fire.

So, what was it? Chavista mind games? An anxious opposition reading too hard between the lines? No clue at the moment. As far as we know, it could’ve been our old friend the pasante bobo, recently fired from the TSJ, who got a gig as VTV’s new Community Manager. Where will we see next this unsung hero of our times? Now, that’s a good question!

José González Vargas

Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.