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VENEZUELA: Chavez Announces All-Powerful Constituent Assembly

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Mar 11 1999 (IPS) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced that the Constituent Assembly which is to draft a new constitution will have sweeping powers.

However, he accepted many of the demands put forth by the opposition.

The Constituent Assembly was the most controversial point in the already polemical campaign platform of Chavez, a retired lieutenant-colonel who led an aborted coup attempt in 1992 and was elected president last December.

Rather than yielding to those who demanded a larger majority, the president decided that the Assembly would be convoked by a simple majority of voters in the Apr 25 referendum. The new constitution will also have to be approved by a simple majority of voters in a second referendum.

In a message to the nation Wednesday, Chavez pointed out that this is the first time in the history of Venezuela that one of its 25 constitutions would be drafted by an Assembly approved and elected by the people, as well as the text itself. “More democracy than that is impossible, it doesn’t exist,” he said.

The only limits on the Assembly, which is have the “Constitution of 2000” ready after six months of work, are to be the values and principles of the country’s history as an independent republic, and compliance with international treaties and commitments undertaken by the state.

The Assembly’s 103 members, three of whom are to be representatives of indigenous communities, must take into account the gradual character of fundamental human rights and democratic guarantees against a backdrop of “the most absolute respect for commitments assumed” by the state, Chavez added.

But once installed, the Assembly will act “as a power that represents popular sovereignty,” and for that reason it will not simply draft a new Magna Carta to replace the constitution of 1961.

No other constitution has lasted longer than the one presently in effect, which has governed the now exhausted political model basically since the restoration of democracy, in 1958.

Chavez’s announcement of the rules for the convocation of the Assembly eliminated the main gripes with the decree he issued the very day of his inauguration on Feb 2, in which he called a referendum for a Constituent Assembly – the key point in his campaign platform, which enjoys the support of 70 percent of the population.

In that decree, voters were asked whether they authorised the president to establish the electoral rules for the Assembly, once the views of all sectors of the country had been heard – a move seen by political opponents, legal experts and civil organisations as an authoritarian abuse of power.

Chavez said “the action of the Assembly cannot be previously imposed,” and added that “neither I nor the people fear its power.”

He said that those who feared the power of the Assembly were found mainly in Congress, because of the possibility that it could decide to dissolve parliament. “The worst thing that could happen is that they could be dissolved, what is there to fear in that?”

But he stressed that in no case would parliament be eliminated. On the contrary, he added, it should have much greater weight and power in the new constitution.

Chavez said the rules to govern the election of the members of the Assembly were the result of more than 200 hours of direct dialogue with all sectors, and in first place with Congress.

Law professor Allan Brewer, a specialist in constitutional affairs who has challenged the manner in which Chavez called the referendum, admitted that the 11 rules proposed “are good.”

He also praised the fact that participation in the Assembly by military personnel was ruled out, and that candidates can be nominated by political parties, besides organised civil society. They can also run on their own initiative.

And he applauded the decision to set up the Assembly within a framework of democracy and respect for local and international agreements and commitments.

But he took issue with the breadth of the Assembly’s powers, and the fact that no minimum quorum for the referendum would be set.

Brewer introduced one of the 13 lawsuits against the decree, which the Supreme Court dismissed en bloc last week, as well as one of the two pleas against the convocation of the referendum by electoral authorities, which the Supreme Court is currently studying.

Tulio Alvarez, one of the president’s advisers on the Constituent Assembly, said there were no plans to dissolve the legislature that convened on January 23, although its functions could be limited to the passage of ordinary legislation.

But he added that Congress would probably be dissolved and new members immediately elected once the new constitution went into effect, as has occurred in Colombia and other countries in the region.

Of the 100 non-indigenous members of the Assembly, 76 will be elected by the regions and 24 on a national circuit. The national candidates will require 20,000 signatures to run, and the regional nominees between 1,000 and 10,000, depending on the number of inhabitants in their provinces.

The Assembly is to be elected in late June and to begin functioning on July 5, Independence Day in Venezuela. The candidates must be at least 21 years of age, and will dedicate themselves full-time to the Assembly. Their salary will be decided by the Assembly itself, said Chavez.

The president, who proudly flaunts the indigenous part of his ancestry, said the three indigenous members would be elected by their communities, according to their own customs. He stressed that their participation reflected the multi-ethnic character of the country and their special situation recognised by international treaties.

However, unlike in Venezuela’s legislative elections, no quota was set to ensure the presence of women.

On the contrary, in a surprising setback in terms of bringing local laws into line with international standards, and running counter to the new doctrine of gender balance, “the fundamental rights of man” rather than of human beings or persons are mentioned with respect to the Assembly.

“Machismo has been present in the preliminary phase of this convocation, but we hope that does not occur with the results of the Assembly,” said Nora Castaneda, head of the Coordinator of Women’s Organisations.

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