Changing the Constitution on an Empty Stomach

“We are going to get a stronger Constitution,” a man in his 50s explains while he drinks black coffee on a rainy morning in the Plaza Bolívar. “The government has given more power to the people. We need to create a new mechanism in a moment when ‘el imperio’ is trying to take advantage of the crisis in the country, a crisis created by the opposition. They refuse to talk because they need casualties and disaster to serve as cover for an invasion. We are getting stronger for the new chapter of the revolution,” he said.

His speech was crisp and well-rehearsed. Later, he explained to me that he’d prepared it ahead of a talk he’s giving his neighbors in Catia. He had a video beam, some chairs and a good sound system to go over the subject at a community meeting, but he was not happy with the result.

“It was a weeknight, and a lot of people showed up and listened to me, but after the speech they started to squabble over CLAP bags and the free soup kitchen that we have for the kids,” he said, looking disappointed. “They started to accuse each other of stealing the food and they missed the point of the meeting.”

While some chavistas are true believers in the Constituent Assembly, others keep their eye on what’s essential. Memories of Chávez’s only election night defeat, after the constitutional reform referendum of 2007, are fresh. Some revolucionarios think that in the middle of an economic crisis, the challenges here are grave.

“I know that the President called for a Constituyente, I think it would be like a new election, like the one that Chávez lost, but I don’t have too much information about that,” a lady with a red shirt that was working in a shop in one of the Misión Vivienda buildings in the center of the capital told me. She was around 70 years old, you could tell by her face full of wrinkles and her white hair, but she still showed her coquetry with her red lipstick and nail polish.

“They started to accuse each other of stealing the food and they missed the point of the meeting.”

The place was small and she didn’t have a lot of vegetables on offer.

“With the guarimbas, trucks are refusing to come, so we don’t have a lot to sell,” she explains. Some bruised tomatoes and carrots were laid in two boxes next to the chair where she was sitting.

“I know that the Constituyente is important, for political power, do you understand? But I also need to work. I’m part of the Consejo Comunal and I have seen kids from this building having to miss classes because they don’t have anything to eat. Food is getting more expensive, and living is now more difficult than ever. We need to help each other and take care of the children of the Patria (…) I remember that Chávez used to care about the kids, because they are the future. The Constituyente can wait, hunger can’t,” she said.

“If the opposition is the majority why are they so afraid of the Constituyente?”, an old guy asked me as he swept under a bench at Plaza Bolívar, “they just want chaos”, he reflected while he was cleaning the plaza. The man was wearing his red shirt of the town hall as he pushed the garbage bucket. His white mustache covered almost his whole mouth. He swept the ground with a huge palm that fell from a tree instead of a broom. “It’s cheaper, right?,” I asked. “Works better,” he answered.

For him, the Constituyente isn’t a betrayal of Chávez’s constitution, it’s just meant to make it better.

“The misiones can be put into the Constitution just to guarantee that in case, God forbid, the opposition grabs power, we still have our misiones. I think Maduro is trying to protect ‘el legado de Chávez.’

The Constitution leaves Maduro a lot of leeway in designing the specifics of any Constituyente, and whatever leeway the Constitution doesn’t give him, the Supreme Tribunal will. Maduro talks about an election without political parties to elect a staggering 500 constituyentistas. Meanwhile regional and presidential elections go on hold indefinitely and the Assembly, the opposition’s biggest achievement, is practically eliminated.

“The Constituyente can wait, hunger can’t.”

“We didn’t win the elections for the Constituyente with Chávez,” says a lady selling coffee from a thermos and loose cigarettes in front of the Catedral, apparently also thinking of 2007. “Now, with Maduro it’s going to be almost impossible. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to vote for Borges or Ramos Allup, but how can you support a government when you know that your son is hungry?”

For 20 years she’s scratched out a living selling coffee downtown: “I used to come just on weekdays and, with that, I made good living. On weekends, I used to go the beach and my family lived well. Now, I come six days a week and I don’t have food at home. My refrigerator broke five months ago and I can’t fix it.”
In the words of this chavista, the problem is simple: “who’s going to worry about rewriting the Constitution on an empty stomach?”

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