Maduro Calls for an All-Venezuelan Congress of Soviets

In a desperate gambit to hang on to power, Nicolás Maduro calls a "Constituent Assembly" able to rewrite the constitution. All signs point to it being elected along soviet lines. Can the government survive a gambit this crazy?

Nicolás Maduro is often slammed for timidity, but his move today is certainly not that. Facing an escalating protest situation and mass disorder on the streets set against an economic meltdown that’s morphed into a hunger crisis, he’s decided to shake up the board, calling a National Constituent Assembly (ANC, by its Spanish acronym.)

What Maduro is proposing, in other words, is to just come out and end even the illusion of electoral democracy. It’s that brazen. 

Under the bizarre jurisprudence of the early Chávez years, it became established that an ANC is “supraconstitutional.” Imagined as a direct emanation of popular sovereignty, its decisions cannot be reviewed and outrank those of all existing (or “constituted”) powers.

A Constituyente can do anything it damn well wants, in other words. It can up and fire the president one day, or dissolve the National Assembly, or decide that the Official Language is now Swedish and underwear are to be worn on the outside, if it’s so minded.

Now, the perspicacious among you will be wondering: and how will the members of this terrifyingly-all-powerful body be chosen? And this is where things get interesting. Maduro was vague during his speech, but the thrust of his vision is unmistakable. He told us he’s envisioning:

A constituyente that belongs to the citizens, not to the political parties. A constituyente of the workers, of the communes, of the misión-beneficiaries, of the peasants! I call on the commune members, on the shantytown, on the pueblo, on the misión-beneficiaries, on the countryside, to civilian-military union!

There’s an awful lot of newspeak to unpack there, but coupled with other bits of the speech where he pledged that half the ANC members will be chosen “at the municipal level” and the other half will represent specific groups of people (workers, students, indigenous, etc.) it’s easy to see the play here: there won’t be anything like a normal election leading up to this Assembly.

Instead, the election will hugely over-represent areas where the government retains some support: rural areas, and then government-controlled institutions like communes, misiones, etc.

Of course, that’s the kind of election (well, “election”) you’d go for if you were trying to bend a 20% approval rating into an election day majority.

My guess is that what we’re looking at is something much more like Lenin’s All-Russian Congress of Soviets: an assembly made up of members selected largely by members of lower level assemblies all of which were slavishly subservient to the government. What Maduro is proposing, in other words, is to just come out and end even the illusion of electoral democracy. It’s that brazen.

A new constitution written by an ANC chosen in this way can only be a Soviet/Cuban-style Marxist document enshrining “Proletarian Democracy” — a.k.a., Communist dictatorship.

Can this work? Can a government that can’t keep people fed, a government loathed by a wide majority of the people, get away with a powergrab this naked?

I seriously doubt it. Instead, Maduro’s just breathed new life into the protest movement, which must now really grasp that this is our last chance. Amid a climate of ongoing, tough street mobilization, Maduro’s just given us many, many more reasons to mobilize.

This proposal is terrible politics and, if you ask me in the heat of the moment, I think it’s a blunder. 

Just picture the scene when the Consejos Comunales get called to vote to elect their ANC members: imagine the scale of protest when that happens. Or imagine the storm Maduro will reap when he actually publishes the bases comiciales, the elections rules for this craziness. Imagine the international reaction, the military reaction, even the reaction from mid-career PSUV politicians who were hoping to stand for election themselves one day in their states or municipalities.

Maduro’s move creates a series of set-piece events each of which will be a crisis point liable to snowball into still more protests, at the same time it galvanizes opposition against him both inside and outside Venezuela.

This proposal is terrible politics and, if you ask me in the heat of the moment, I think it’s a blunder. And I mean blunder in the sense a chess players understand that term: a mistake that turns a tough-but-winnable game into one you’re sure to lose.