Article 350 of the Constitution: An Urban Tale

Venezuela’s constitution contains a bizarre oddity: its final article explicitly mandates you to disown the government if democracy and human rights are under threat.

The people of Venezuela, faithful to their republican tradition, its struggle for independence, peace and freedom, shall disown any regime, legislation or authority that runs counters to democratic values, principles and guarantees, or that undermines human rights.

That is the full text of the newly topical Article 350 of the Venezuelan constitution. Nobody knows exactly what it means,  but the number itself — 350 — has become a kind of talisman, invoked by politicians, intellectuals, leaders of the “civil society” in many high points of political crisis in Venezuela.

The article sets out a kind of bowdlerized version of the right of revolution: a traditional theme in any political science, history of political thought or philosophy of law course. The right to resist an illegitimate authority has been a subject for thinkers dating back to Saint Thomas. The theory was expressed most influentially by John Locke, all the way back in 1689:

Whenever the Legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience, and are left to the common Refuge, which God hath provided for all Men, against Force and Violence. Whensoever therefore the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society; and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly or Corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People; By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty.

Locke’s formulation was at the core of Thomas Jefferson’s defense of the American revolutionary war. A generation later, Enlightenment ideas about the right of resistance were the basis of our own independence process as well.

And yet, the current Constitution is the first of the 26 constitutions we’ve had since 1811 to recognize the right of resistance explicitly. The only precedent is article 191 of the Constitution of 1811, which had a nice riff about how governments are designed to enable “the common happiness and the protection and security of the people and not for the personal benefits or private interests of any person, family or class of people.” To the extent that a government is incapable of fulfilling these goals or comes to oppose them, the people retain “the inalienable right to abolish a government, to reform it or to change it in whichever way is judged most proper to obtain the public good.” But that is perhaps understandable as it was the product of a rebellion against a colonial power.

In fact, provisions enshrining the right of revolt explicitly are rare in the Western world. It should be noted that article 350 is the last article of our Constitution: it’s an “in the case of emergency, break the glass” kind of article.

The 2002-2003 crisis saw intense discussion about article 350. Many thought it was time for the opposition to invoke the enigma. For years, “crying 350” became a sort of shorthand for opposition extremism: all kinds of people played that game including even Hermann Escarrá.

The days when #350ing was a fringe sport are behind us, though. Earlier this week the head of the National Assembly, speaking on behalf of all of MUD called for article 350 (along with its little brother, Article 333) to be invoked through a manifesto.

In our political imaginary, article 350 sounds like a final step in a civic fight.

Some people have been waiting for this for years, — ascribing quasi-magical powers to the very act of intoning the words tres-cincuenta.

You’d think that in invoking article 350, MUD would have set out a big, bold strategy. Or, at least, explain the concrete consequences of that decision. But the early signs were not encouraging in this regard. We heard a lot of high-sounding but vague rhetoric about protesting in all spaces, but attempts to make that concrete bordered on the ridiculous.

This is disheartening, because the right of rebellion is one of the deepest themes in the Western philosophical tradition. As philosophers have always understood it, the right to rebellion is the original “supraconstitutional right” — stemming not from any written text but from the primacy of natural law and human dignity and people’s irreducible right to reject injustice.

If opposition leaders don’t explain the route, the invocation of article 350 could be a total foul.

And maybe, when the political situation requires the actual invocation of article 350, nobody will pay attention.

Como en el cuento del lobo.