Defying Dangers, Venezuelans Call for Constituent Assembly

The wife of opposition leader Leopoldo López signs a petition calling for a constituent assembly on Saturday
The wife of opposition leader Leopoldo López signs a petition calling for a constituent assembly on Saturday. (Prensa Voluntad Popular)

EspañolThe party of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López has secured 640,000 signatures in support of their proposal to the electoral authority to reform the Venezuelan state. Popular Will plans to convene a National Constituent Assembly (ANC) composed of 165 representatives and reshape the nation’s constitution.

In order to achieve their objective, the opposition party will need 15 percent of the Venezuelan electorate (2,835,000 voters) to sign the petition. According to official timetables, Venezuela would have to form the Constituent Assembly within four months of the signatures being handed to the National Electoral Council (CNE).

The procedure outlined by Popular Will will give the CNE 30 days to verify the signatures, and 30 subsequent days in which to hold a referendum to approve the party’s suggested format for a vote. If the referendum is passed by a majority, elections for the 165 constituent deputies will be held within 70 days. The ANC would then operate for 180 days.

Popular Will has turned to this mechanism as a reset button for a country in crisis. Luis Florido, leader of the initiative, told the PanAm Post that this was an urgent and necessary step for Venezuela, and the only way of moving towards the democratization of public institutions, currently held hostage by Chavismo and the Plan de la Patria, the governing model left by Hugo Chávez.

Popular Will's Luis Florido and former Supreme Tribunal of Justice magistrate Blanca Rosa Mármol de León sign in favor of a constituent assembly on November 19
Popular Will’s Luis Florido and former Supreme Tribunal of Justice magistrate Blanca Rosa Mármol de León sign in favor of a constituent assembly on November 19. (Prensa Voluntad Popular)

For the opposition, the problems facing the country cannot wait. Florido lists the accelerating devaluation of the Venezuelan currency: from 0.47 Bs. per US dollar at the end of the 1990s to 110 Bs. per dollar at the present; the doubling of external debt since 1998; inflation topping 100 prercent this year; and a murder rate spiraling out of control — increased by 400 percent between 1998 and 2013.

The party’s move would result in the forging of a new constitution for Venezuela, but those in the orange-clad camp aren’t hiding the main objective of this bold new move: to kick Chavismo out of power.

A Guillotine for Chavismo

Nevertheless, for professor of constitutional law at Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) José Vicente Haro, Venezuelans must first discuss the governing model that they want to live under. He agreed with Florido that the current government is systematically violating the constitution, and has used the founding document to elevate party politics.

However, he strongly questioned the Popular Will’s proposals, and believes that, along with the constitution, the Constituent Assembly “has a more fundamental objective” than simply removing governing cadres from power.

“In reality, the serious problem is that all these public institutions are working to implement the Plan de la Patria. The problem isn’t the people occupying them. The problem is the model that they want to impose. What should be done is to debate the model. Through a new constitution, and with the vote of all the constituent members, all these public institutions can be replaced,” Haro said in conversation with the PanAm Post.

He agreed that the Venezuelan constitution needs several reforms — such as reducing presidential terms and eliminating indefinite reelection — but believes that the process of reform needs to be more inclusive than that proposed by Popular Will, which he characterized as a “political guillotine” for Chavismo.

He explained that the method of election of the 165 constituent deputies that the opposition party has proposed would guarantee them an electoral majority much greater than in proportion to their votes. This is the same mechanism which, according to the specialist, boosted the sector of the population backing Chávez in 1999, when he asked for a constituent assembly. As a result, according to Haro, some 50 or 60 percent of the voters can end up selecting more than 90 percent of the deputies. Chavismo would be crushed.

“Far from promoting a reconciliation and helping to resolve our problems in an acceptable way, through dialogue and communication, it would deepen the political crisis, because the Chavistas, fearing a lack of representation, would go on the attack. Popular Will must reconfigure the electoral procedures,” said Haro.

He indicated that through other methods, such as the single non-list vote, combined with proportional representation for minorities (i.e., quotas for indigenous populations), Chavismo would secure around 30 percent of the deputies in the constituent assembly, while not seriously threatening the opposition.

Popular Will Set to Take All

Popular Will know all this, and want to take advantage of the situation. On November 29, activists will again take to the principal public spaces of the country to continue collecting signatures. The party has found support in the results of a National Survey carried out in October by the Venezuelan Institute of Data Analysis (IVAD), which suggests that 70.2 percent of the population approve of the Constituent Assembly, 60.3 percent would be inclined to sign the petition, and only 23.6 percent would vote for the ruling party in the resulting elections.

The electoral procedures that the party established in September seeks to utilize this majority opposition through a series of conditions that the National Electoral Council will be obliged to follow.

In the face of frequent violation of electoral rules, and growing distrust among Venezuelans in the electoral process, Popular Will’s electoral proposals include the suspension of presidential radio and television channels during the campaign period, equal broadcasting time on state media for all deputy candidates, elimination of fingerprint technology during elections, full scrutiny of ballots, and complete transparency in polling centers.

“There is no possibility of Chavismo becoming formalized through the Plan de la Patria. We’re not in 1999. They’re going to be a minority,” Florido told reporters with confidence.

But his avowed aim to prevent governments from clinging onto power faces other challenges. Despite the high levels of approval for a constituent assembly, according to the IVAD survey, Venezuelans don’t agree among themselves on the concrete changes they want in their constitution. Of those polled, 37.3 percent backed a presidential term of six years (with 61.7 percent against), and 33.7 percent supported indefinite reelection (against 65 percent).

The youth is willing to sign for the future.

Venezuelans Undeterred by Blacklist

Petitions in Venezuela have a dark history following the events of 2003-2004, when more than 3.4 million Venezuelans signed in favor of a referendum to decide on removing Hugo Chávez from the presidency. Before the opposition could secure the minimum number of votes necessary, Chávez issued a threat. “Those who sign against Chávez are signing against la patria.… They’ll remain recorded for posterity, because they’ll have to put their name, surname, signature, identity number and fingerprint,” thundered the former president.

After the threshold for the referendum was reached anyway, the president claimed there had been a fraud in the collection of signatures and asked the electoral authority to examine the list of signatories. Then-minister Luis Tascón led the scrutiny and publication of the list, which was used to begin a purge of public sector employees, and gave the government a tool that enabled it to exclude any detractors from any positions of influence for years.

The so-called Tascón List was in such demand that street vendors even sold a CD-ROM for those wanting to examine the list of more than 3 million signatures. To this day, several public institutions continue to check surnames and identity numbers on the blacklist, and a reliable source informs the PanAm Post that those who signed the petition are prevented from entering important state locations, such as oil refineries.

However, the little trust that Venezuelans place in their electoral system hasn’t limited their desire to take part. Even following the above events, participation in 2006 presidential elections was at 74.7 percent. In 2012, it reached 80.49 percent, and remained static in 2013 at 79.68 percent.

“I’m much more afraid for Venezuela, stuck in this system of persecution, shortages, and queues. I’d rather face the risk of any Tascón list, and aim to reconquer our liberty, than remain in a system of political apartheid. Venezuela is worth everything,” said Luis Florido.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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