Chavez, Democracy and the People

The latest proposed constitutional reforms in Venezuela have been met, unsurprisingly, with crazed hysteria by the US media. Though one can find an interesting defense of Chavez’s proposed reforms from Stephen Lendmen (Coup D'Etat Rumblings in Venezuela Nov. 19, Znet).

Last July, Chavez announced he'd be sending Venezuela's National Assembly (AN) a proposed list of constitutional reforms to debate, consider and vote on. Under Venezuelan law, the President, National Assembly or 15% of registered voters (by petition) may propose constitutional changes. Under articles 342, 343, 344 and 345, they must then be debated three times in the legislature, amended if needed, and then submitted to a vote that requires a two-thirds majority to pass. Finally within 30 days, the public gets the last word, up or down, in a national referendum. It represents the true spirit of democracy that's unimaginable in the US where elitists control everything, elections are a sham, and the people have no say.

That was true for Venezuela earlier, but no longer. In its history, there have been 26 Constitutions since its first in 1821, but none like the 1999 Bolivarian one under Chavez that's worlds apart from the others. It created a model participatory social democracy that gave all citizens the right to vote it up or down by national referendum and then empowered them (or the government) later on to petition for change.

On August 15, Chavez did that by submitting 33 suggested amendment reforms to the Constitution's 350 articles.

Lendmen is right to point out that the way in which voters in Venezuela are empowered to vote on these reforms is unimaginable here in the US, where representatives of the people are swayed far more heavily by corporate donors than by their average constituents. And, worth noting, is that many of these reforms (some of which are listed here per Lendmen's essay) are quite noble, such as: extending existing constitutional law that guarantees human rights and recognizes the country's social and cultural diversity; building a "social economy" to replace the failed neoliberal Washington Consensus model; officially prohibiting monopolies and unjust consolidation of economic resources; extending presidential terms from six to seven years; strengthening grassroots communal councils, increasing their funding, and promoting more of them; lowering the eligible voting age from 18 to 16; guaranteeing free university education to the highest level; prohibiting foreign funding of elections and political activity and reducing the work week to 36 hours to promote more employment.

However, he fails to mention that the up-or-down vote seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition, at least initially, and that in order to secure the aforementioned noble reforms, the people of the country may well feel inclined to give more power to the office of the president than should be allowed to have in any country. As my friend Steve Maher has told me, some of the proposed reforms, such as giving the office of the president power to abolish due process in the case of an emergency, are not only unsettling, but a violation of international law. (FYI: if someone could direct me to the wording of the controversial provisions please shoot me an e-mail)

It is important to note that people, not leaders, primarily drive social movements. And the people of Venezuela have shown a remarkable ability to fight for human rights and democracy. They would be wise to continue to pressure Chavez to refrain from using draconian measures to maximize his power – a classic “power corrupts” problem that is rather common among world leaders. While Chavez is working to find an alternative to the Washington Consensus, and to provide a push back to American imperialism and hegemony, he, like all humans in power, needs to be met with great skepticism; his legitimacy as a vehicle for the people's will, must be shown to be legitimate, over and over again.

Chavez has been using his windfall oil profits to help fund important social programs. According to Lee Sustar, the Chavez government has made some “spectacular achievements.”

These include a reduction of poverty from 55 percent of the population to 34 percent as the share of gross domestic product (GDP) on social spending has increased from 7.83 percent to 14.69 percent; the achievement of literacy for 1.5 million adults; the virtual elimination of hunger through subsidized grocery stores that service 13 million people; medical care provided by Cuban doctors via free clinics in slums, reaching 18 million people, nearly 70 percent of the population; access to higher education for the poor and working class; and special affirmative action programs for indigenous people. The minimum wage is now the highest in Latin America at $286 per month, and the workweek is to be shortened from forty to thirty-six hours by 2010. Land reform has shifted 8.8 million acres to impoverished families, more than half of that from private owners. Government seed money has increased the number of cooperative enterprises from fewer than 800 to 181,000 to try and provide more stable employment for the approximately half of Venezuelan workers who toil in the informal sector of the economy.

But, regardless, giving anyone – be it Chavez, George W. Bush or anyone else — the power to suspend due process of law is a violation of basic human rights and cannot be tolerated if the revolution is to be considered legitimate.

Chavez is risking the credibility of what he calls “21st century socialism” by including such measures in his reforms and those amendments should be opposed with vigor, especially from those who have put Chavez in power: a large majority of the Venezuelan people.

Fortunately, in Venezuela, the people have the power to amend the Constitution by referendum. The people can propose changes by petition to the Constitution, and in theory could repeal or outlaw abuses of power while preserving the positive and hard-fought economic and electoral changes that are truly just. Let us hope they use there unusually vibrant democratic system to protect their freedoms, and to keep those in power from abusing it.