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VENEZUELA
Constitutional reform takes off
José Orozco
9/7/2007
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Critics call Chávez’s reforms “cyanide candies” to divert attention from power grab.

President Hugo Chávez’s proposal to reform the Constitution, which was presented to the Chávez-allied Congress Aug. 15, would go beyond the billions of dollars he has injected into social programs to give Venezuela’s poor the power to shape their daily lives. “Communal power is the essence of our reform,” he said.

Chávez’s reform proposal enshrines a new concept of Venezuela’s territory by using “communities” as the new socialist state’s “basic and indivisible” administrative unit.

Already active, communal councils would take on more responsibilities, executing decisions made by citizen assemblies about public services and works projects, while representing the community in local governments.

But critics argue that Chávez’s reform will only further concentrate power in his hands, leading the country down the slippery slope to authoritarianism.
Along with eliminating presidential term limits, the proposed reforms would grant Chávez powers to create parallel regional and local governments, all under his control. Though the reform would preserve municipalities and states, critics argue that by keeping communal councils dependent on the president, Chávez would use these councils and the parallel governments to override municipalities and states when he saw fit. Even some Chávez supporters have balked at parts of the reform.

Concentrating power
Rafael Uzcátegui, national secretary for the Chávez-allied Patria Para Todos party, criticized the dependence of popular power on Chávez. “It’s dangerous to subordinate popular power to the executive,” said Uzcategui.
While Uzcátegui “salutes” Chávez’s proposal, he calls it “limited” for restricting indefinite re-election to the executive — he supports eliminating term limits for mayors and governors as well.

Chávez rejects his ally’s counter-proposal, arguing that mayors and governors would like to act as “little caudillos.”

On his radio show, Chávez defended the double-standard by reiterating his argument against the “little caudillos,” adding: “If I hand over the brush to another person, even someone dear to me, he may use some other colors because he has another vision, beginning to change the painting’s outlines.”
Long-time Chávez ally Ismael García, a lawmaker for the Podemos party, has further distanced himself from the chavista consensus by protesting the reform’s timeline.

The assembly will have three months to approve the proposal, which will then go to a referendum late this year or early 2008.

“The president had six months to study the project to present it to the country, so the country can’t analyze this in only three months,” García told reporters after withholding his party’s vote on the timeline, a first for Podemos under Chávez.

The opposition often dismisses popular power as just another one of Chávez’s power grabs. Its dependence on Chávez, they argue, is quite deliberate.

As part of the constitutional reform, Chávez also proposes labor reforms such as instituting a six-hour workday and creating a “social stability fund” for informal workers. Opposition party Un Nuevo Tiempo responded by drafting law decrees for both initiatives, arguing that the current Constitution already supports these measures, making the reforms redundant.

Even as the government argues that the shorter workday will spur job growth and reduce unemployment to less than 5 percent, business groups have protested the proposal.

Tough to predict
Fedeagro, a national agricultural business group, argues that unpredictable weather patterns make overtime hours impossible to get around. Even Empreven, a pro-Chávez business group, says it will recommend making an exception for small businesses with 10 or fewer employees. The group estimates over 2 million small businesses operate in Venezuela.

Some opposition members call these labor proposals “cyanide candies,” included to sweeten the deal for voters while sneaking through less popular reforms such as indefinite re-election in the bulk reform. Chávez supporters call the reform “integral,” arguing that it needs to be voted on as a whole.

More than a reform, critics argue, Chávez’s proposal represents far-reaching changes that require a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new Constitution.
Other Chávez reforms include formally incorporating the civilian reserves into the Bolivarian Armed Forces as the “Bolivarian Popular Militia,” and, critics fear this proposal aims to militarize the population and politicize the military.

Promoting the civilian militias responds to Venezuela’s military doctrine of assymetrical warfare, which asserts that the country must prepare for a US invasion. Chávez has charged the US it with coup-plotting and even planning his assassination, since the Bush administration tacitly supported a 2002 coup that briefly ousted the Venezuelan leader.

The opposition claims the reform restricts private property. The current Constitution claims: “Everyone has the right to the use, enjoyment, and disposal of his/her property.”

While Chávez’s reform guarantees various forms of property — including that owned by the state, communities, communes, private individuals or enterprises or a combination — it recognizes “property of use and consumption and means of production acquired legitimately.”

Critics have decried the apparent limitation, while the government has reassured Venezuelans that expanding the conception of property does not endanger private property.

Chávez’s reform also authorizes the state to expropriate property without court approval.

Opinion polls consistently show private property is dear to Venezuelans’ hearts. A June poll by Hinterlaces, a polling firm, reported that 63 percent of those surveyed rejected constitutional reform and 87 percent supported private property.

In financial matters, the constitutional reform would eliminate the autonomy of the Central Bank of Venezuela, giving Chávez control of the nation’s foreign reserves. Critics argue that such a move would boost Venezuela’s inflation rate — 8.3 percent from January to July 2007, one of the highest in the world — and further mismanagement and corruption. Chávez calls bank autonomy a vestige of the country’s “neoliberal” past and a limitation on national sovereignty.

Proven almost invincible in elections, Chávez holds the upper hand. As Chávez is fond of noting, he remains head of state because of the Venezuelan people’s support.


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