Venezuela: Constitutional Reforms Approved in Legislature, Headed for National Referendum amid Large Opposition and Support Protests
Venezuela's Asamblea Nacional (AN) completed amendments to the national Constitution in October and sent them to the country's top electoral authority to hold a Dec. 2 referendum. President Hugo Chavez has been heavily promoting the amendments to 69 of the Constitution's 350 articles, amendments that make a number of economic and political changes. International press outlets focused most closely on the elimination of term limits for the president, although the reforms also included significant changes to economic and labor laws. A national opposition movement, bringing together a student movement, members of a party once allied to Chavez, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, and others emerged to call for a "no" vote on the referendum. Large-scale demonstrations for and against the reforms resulted in multiple injuries.
Reforms: social security, labor, presidential terms
Voters will decide whether to nationalize natural-gas fields, guarantee gay rights, and cut the workday to six hours, among other proposals. The reforms would create a massive fund for social security for informal-sector workers and reduce the length of the workweek from 40 hours to 36 hours. Reports differed on whether this would entail shorter workdays or half-days on Fridays. The voting age would be reduced from 18 to 16.
The original package of reforms proposed by Chavez amended 33 articles, while the AN added another 36, totaling 69 modified amendments. The reforms are the latest in a series of constitutional reforms Chavez has sought, and to date he has been successful (see NotiSur, 1999-11-19, 1999-12-24, 2000-11-10, 2001-02-09 and 2007-08-31).
The proposed revisions would do away with presidential term limits, extend terms from six to seven years, let Chavez appoint regional vice presidents, and eliminate central bank (Banco Central de Venezuela, BCV) authority and autonomy.
Critics say Chavez would also have the power to shut down Venezuelan newspapers, television, and radio stations by declaring a state of emergency, and the government could detain citizens without charges during such a period.
The reform package includes the creation of "socialist" factories under the control of "communes" as a way of developing a new form of socialist economy. "These are the means for the people to participate and have a central role in the direct practice of their sovereignty and for the construction of socialism," said Chavez upon presenting his reform proposal. "And for the democratic management by the workers of any enterprise of social property. This is a term that starts here, social property. This is new, totally new, in our Constitution."
Chavez supporters responded to critics' assertions that the project would overly centralize economic and political power, saying that it would place localized power in the hands of organized communities, currently in a process of forming and operating as communal councils around the country.
The president said he plans to increase funding for the councils to 5% of his government's 2008 budget, or US$3.2 billion, that would go toward neighborhood projects from public housing to road paving. He said a reduced workweek would force companies to hire "thousands" more workers to keep up production. He also said the government has already set aside 1 trillion bolivares (US$465 million) to start a social security fund for workers in the informal economy.
The text of the reform says, "The primary political unit of the national territorial organization will be the city, understood as the population base inside a municipality and made up of areas or geographic extensions denominated as communes. The communes will be the social cells of the territory and will be made up of communities, each one constituting the basic indivisible nuclei of the Venezuelan Socialist State where the citizens will have the power to construct their own geography and history. …