What follows are excerpts from a longer analysis published on June 14. The full analysis can be found here. I begin with the concluding paragraph, which addresses the question raised here.
In my view, Maduro’s call for a constituent assembly is at best a diversion, and at worst a distraction from the underlying causes of Venezuela’s agony. The need in Venezuela continues to be for mediation, not intervention by the U.S. or another international body. Sanctions, especially against individuals, will only make things worse by (1) inducing corrupt elements in the Maduro government to dig their heels in, and (2) inducing the Democratic United Roundtable (MUD) to resist negotiations. Even if Maduro’s call for a constituent assembly finds positive reception among a dedicated, grassroots cadre, it has a faint chance of achieving the peace that the vast majority of the population wants.
As street protests and violence have intensified, on May 1, President Nicolás Maduro doubled down on the loyalty of the security forces and the risk of alienating even his Chavista supporters by calling for a constituent assembly to rewrite the 1999 constitution. Acting under Article 348 of the charter, Maduro asked the National Electoral Council (CNE) to set a date for elections to a constituent assembly without conducting in advance a consultative referendum. The CNE has announced plans to hold the balloting on July 30. The new constitution would be submitted to the general electorate in a referendum.
Maduro says his call for a constituent assembly seeks to resolve Venezuela’s political crisis. It might not surprise anyone that the opposition sees this merely as a maneuver to avoid facing the electorate in 2018, when the next presidential election is supposed to take place. However, significant criticism is also coming from dissident Chavistas, such as the Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide) group. Marea’s Nicmer Evans accused Maduro of trying to cover up the government’s economic failings by calling the assembly.
Article 348 gives the president the authority to initiate the call for a national constituent assembly and does not explicitly require a consultative referendum. However, other articles in the constitution strongly imply that a consultative referendum should be held. In the constitutional section devoted to referendums, Article 71 states: “Matters of special national transcendence may be referred to a consultative referendum, on the initiative of the President of the Republic.” Article 347 specifies that the Venezuelan people (as opposed to the president) “can convoke a National Constituent Assembly with the goal of transforming the state, creating a new judicial system, or drafting a new constitution.”
Maduro also ignored the precedent set by then-President Hugo Chávez in 1999 when he called for a national referendum to ratify popular support for a new constitution. Only then were members of a constituent assembly elected by popular vote. The upshot is that the 1999 constitution is ambiguous enough to allow Maduro’s call for a constituent assembly without a consultative referendum to fit within the letter of the law, but whether it conforms to the spirit is another question.
Were the rules used to choose delegates in 1999 to be employed again, it is quite likely that the opposition MUD would repeat its decisive victory from the 2015 National Assembly election. However, Maduro’s plan is to split delegates between 181 “sectoral” and 364 “territorial” representatives. The sectoral assembly delegates will be chosen by members of communal councils, labor and peasant organizations, and other groups. The crucial matter of which sectors and which organizations will be credentialed for the election will be decided by the CNE, which is dominated by Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).
The CNE faces the challenge of organizing the July 30 election even though the Council has pleaded over the past eight months that the political crisis has made it impossible to hold other elections in a timely manner. The CNE dragged its feet and ultimately failed to validate the opposition’s petition for a recall election, claiming many irregularities in the signatures. Then it failed to set a date for state and municipal elections that should have taken place in 2016. It changed rules for party registration, making it more difficult for smaller parties to participate in elections. All of this sowed increased doubt about whether presidential elections would take place in 2018 as constitutionally required.
President Maduro’s call for a constituent assembly was the latest in a series of clashes with the opposition over the fundamental rules of the political game in Venezuela. In late March, the Supreme Court stripped the National Assembly, the only opposition-led government body, of its authority to legislate, temporarily taking that power for itself. The Court subsequently backed off assuming legislative power, but repeated decisions rejecting Assembly-passed measures as unconstitutional have left the Assembly virtually powerless to carry out its normal legislative functions.
This provoked the country’s attorney general, Louisa Ortega Díaz, to speak out, claiming that the move “constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order.” This phrasing is especially significant because it echoes provisions in the Charter of the Americas that can trigger steps by the Organization of American States (OAS) to investigate the situation and ultimately to expel Venezuela and implement sanctions. On May 3, the gap between Ortega Díaz and the government widened further when she harshly criticized government security forces after riot-control vehicles injured opposition protestors in Caracas. On June 8, Ortega Díaz denounced Maduro’s constituent assembly plans and asked the Supreme Court’s electoral chamber to annul the CNE’s plans to hold elections to choose delegates.
An indication that the ground is shifting under Maduro’s feet is the emergence of serious division and debate among Bolivarian activists and intellectuals. This has been visible on Aporrea.org, a news site and forum whose participants have usually strongly supported the Chavista government in moments of crisis. While some posts show staunch support for the president, many have been harshly critical, with some even calling for Maduro’s resignation. One essay-post complained that Maduro ruling out a consultative referendum to approve calling for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, means, “The government has exhausted its last opportunity to do the right thing.” A podcast on Aporrea Radio was headlined, “If Chávez were to return, he’d lead a coup against Maduro and convene a new Constituent Assembly.”
Marea Socialista, whose application for status as a political party was rejected by the CNE, asserted in a public statement, “Each day it becomes clearer what the PSUV’s top leadership intends to build–namely, a totalitarian political system that, even though it is not yet a classic dictatorship, is certainly taking on some of these characteristics as limitations on civil rights become tighter over time.”
The government has long accused the opposition of being “golpista,” and not entirely without reason considering that many MUD leaders supported or participated in the 2002 coup that briefly deposed President Chávez. However, by closing off constitutional avenues for opposition, the government has played into the hands of the more radical sectors of the MUD and reduced the influence of those who had hoped to use the recall and the electoral process to end the Bolivarian era.
With hundreds of thousands of protestors in streets, it would be a calumny to regard most of them as violent. However, the highly sympathetic tenor of coverage in the U.S. media has not given sufficient attention to violence by the opposition. Repressive actions by security forces receive wide coverage, while the U.S. media rarely covers opposition attacks on police and other security forces, or police attempts to defend protesters. For example, a recent opposition march in Candelaria, until now a Chavista stronghold, was escorted by the Bolivarian National Police who protected them from attacks by violent colectivo members. The security forces often find themselves under attack or simply caught between the opposing sides while using rubber bullets and tear gas to prevent opposition protesters from shutting down highways or sacking government buildings.
Certainly the fluctuation of oil prices from $130 per barrel to $40 back up to $50 has contributed to the crisis, but that leads to another issue, closely connected to the battle between Maduro and the Assembly over participation by foreign capital in oil: the government’s failure, dating back to the Chávez era and continuing through Maduro’s tenure, to adequately invest in the productive capacity of PDVSA when it had the means to do so. Consequently, the country is more dependent than ever on foreign investment. Recently a Russian shipping company transporting $20 million of Venezuelan oil held the cargo hostage to demand that Venezuela partially pay an overdue $30 million debt for past services. In late May, Goldman-Sachs announced that it had bought $2.8 billion of PDVSA bonds at deeply discounted prices. In early June, the Venezuelan government offered bonds worth $5 billion for just $1 billion through a Chinese brokerage.
The Goldman action created a new political headache for a party whose founder, Chávez, was a leader in the region’s offensive against neoliberal economic policies. Now it was the opposition’s turn to question predatory lending. The securities purchased became known as “hunger bonds.”
By Daniel Hellinger, Webster University