Why Does Venezuela Have a National Constituent Assembly?
Chavismo has been able to articulate the politics and the use of constitutional mechanisms to, again, endure and overcome a new onslaught and coup d'etat.
The political crisis in Venezuela has been spurred on since the Venezuelan opposition won the majority in the National Assembly. What should have been an expression of the health of the Venezuelan democracy, led to new dangerous political confrontations — this time between the Parliament and the executive power.
From this point on, the Parliament has pursued actions within and outside the Venezuelan Constitution to oust President Maduro and Chavismo from the government, taking advantage of the electoral support they achieved in Dec. 2015.
One of the first actions of the Parliament in March 2016, was to question the nationality of President Maduro, claiming — without proof — that he was a Colombian citizen in order to declare his presidency null and void. This question at the time was clarified by the Colombian government. The action led to a turbulent stage in Venezuelan politics. It was just one sign that the Venezuelan Parliament would occupy itself with the primary objective of rupturing the national institutions to create a crisis of powers.
The Parliament through its consistent actions decided not to recognize other public powers, including the Supreme Court, which they declared in contempt. During the 2015 parliamentary elections, the National Electoral Council, CNE, invalidated the results of the state of Amazonas after finding proof of electoral crime. The CNE annulled the election of three opposition lawmakers and one Chavista lawmaker until new elections took place.
The opposition rejected the CNE’s decision and swore in the three opposition candidates which they self-proclaimed as elected lawmakers. Later, the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court, a tribune specifically for electoral issues, ratified the decision taken by the CNE but the National Assembly refused to respect the ruling.
Once this happened, Venezuela’s Supreme Court annulled the decisions of the National Assembly, precisely for failing to comply with a constitutional order. Consolidating a cycle of political instability that began in 2016.
In Nov. 2016, Chavistas and the opposition met at dialogue and negotiation sessions in order to resolve the political crisis. But, while still taking part in the session, the Dec. 2016, opposition National Assembly members crossed the line. They tried to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Maduro — which violates the Venezuelan constitution given that this figure does not exist in the Constitution and that it is impossible for the Parliament by itself to remove a president from office.
For this to happen, the Parliament must have the support of the Republican Moral Council and the Supreme Court, who did not back the Parliament’s accusations that Maduro had “left the office” of president. The opposition afterward left the dialogue sessions and the trial against the president was annulled by other public powers.
One of opposition demands in the round-table discussion was for general elections to take place and presidential elections brought forward. The Chavistas refused in respect of the constitution, given that in Venezuela there is no alternative to cut the presidential term (which is six years) as a mechanism to resolve a political crisis.
In mid-April in 2016, the opposition demanded a recall referendum against the president but because the process was started too late to be effective. The United Democratic Roundtable, known by its Spanish acronym MUD, should have begun the process four months before the appropriate date. The process was also flawed by the collection of fraudulent signatures, which are required to activate the referendum. In other words, the opposition acted under the pressure of the CNE and attempted to circumvent the controls of the law governing revocatory referendums. The opposition tried to achieve with the recall referendum what was not achieved at the dialogue table.
As a result, anti-Chavista forces began a cycle of violent protests in 2017 aimed at destabilizing Venezuelan society. This has led to one of the bloodiest chapters in recent Venezuelan history, after the Caracazo in 1989. Anti-Chavista violence has left 125 people dead, led to incalculable damage, fires and lootings, and cut off important spaces in some cities behind barricades. The violence used has been made up of doses of paramilitary actions, identical to what was seen in Libya and Syria before U.S. intervention.
It is at this point that President Maduro calls for a National Constituent Assembly as an alternative mechanism to carry out a general election process — a process that also legitimizes all national powers. Under the slogan "Votes yes, bullets no" Maduro calls on the opposition to participate in the electoral process, but they refuse. The National Constituent Assembly (ANC) is the only super body authorized by the Venezuelan Constitution. It is plenipotentiary and all public powers must comply with its decisions.
The opposition recognizes the power of the ANC. Indeed in 2014, anti-Chavez spokesmen such as Freddy Guevara, Maria Corina Machado and Henrique Capriles, suggested convening an ANC to remove all Chavismo from the government. Paradoxically, once it is called by Maduro, they decide not to participate and keep the agenda violent.
On July 30 the ANC is elected with 42 percent turnout of registered voters — a huge political success for Chavismo, given they were able to achieve a very high turnout without the opposition participating.
Most of the political clashes in Venezuela stem from discussions over the model of country and model of society foreseen in the Constitution. For this reason, Maduro decides that it is the people who must create a new constitution, even though the opposition regrettably decides not to participate.
The ANC is now set to work over the next two years to draft a new Constitution, which will be submitted to a popular referendum to be approved. The ANC will also begin a process to restructure public powers in order to address irregular political situations, such as the Venezuelan Parliament and the attorney general's office, which in recent months has joined attacks against the Maduro government. In the midst of the violent protests, the attorney general’s office tried to disable the state and society, by endorsing and praising street violence. It is worth clarifying, that until now the ANC has never suggested dissolve the current opposition-led Parliament.
The ANC ventures into Venezuelan political life determined to stabilize the cycle of political crisis promoted by the opposition and designed with the deliberate purpose of generating the conditions for an intervention in Venezuela. The U.S. government has played an active role toward this end. Using the crisis of violence and the installation of a supposed "dictatorship" in Venezuela, the United States has justified sanctioning Venezuelan officials as well as the use of economic sanctions against the country. Donald Trump has recently stated that they would consider a "military option" against Venezuela.
Today however, anti-government parties have decided to participate in regional elections in October. They have put forward candidates and have followed regular politics procedures and electoral paths. This contradicts the ongoing propaganda that tries to discredit Venezuela’s electoral institutions. It also legitimizes the election for the ANC, rendering claims that there is a "dictatorship" in Venezuela as incongruous.
Paradoxically, now that their plans to violently oust Chavismo from the government have failed, the Venezuelan opposition have returned to the electoral path — that is after embracing violence and ignoring the state and Venezuelan institutions. This is possible thanks to the opportunity that is only offered by democratic systems like Venezuela’s. Chavismo has been able to articulate the politics and the use of constitutional mechanisms to, again, endure and overcome a new onslaught and coup d'etat.