Sunday, December 2, 2007

Venezuela Referendum: The Untold Story in the US

If one were to pay any attention to major American media outlets about the referendum in Venezuela over changes to its constitution that is to take place today, you would think Venezuelans were voting to declare themselves the North Korea of Latin America. Much of this is became President Chavez's animosity with the US government, which was reinforced by his recent veiled threat to cut off all oil exports to the US, if the US tried to contest the vote.

What is missing in all of this, not surprisingly, is context. What has been ignored is that the US government has been involved in trying to organize opposition to the referendum vote (in no small part because the changes would lift term limits on Venezuela's Presidency [meaning the US government will have to be dealing with Hugo Chavez for a longer time]). Imagine a country that the US does not get along with (say, Iran), sending its diplomats into the US to organize opposition to the election of a certain slate of candidates during election time. I can guarantee that the gnashing of the teeth from the headquarters of Fox News would be enough to declare that such actions are not just violations of US sovereignty, but acts of war in themselves. However, Latin America is not the US, and we have assumed the prerogative to tell our brown brothers how to live, what to do, and how to govern themselves since the Monroe Doctrine (we have invaded Latin American countries no less than two dozen times since the middle part of the 19th century). Out of all the regions in which the US has illustrated some of its worst traits of paternalism and outright supremacy in foreign policy, it is Latin America. That is not a mere opinion, mind you. It is simply a statement of fact, or as Secretary of State Dulles once called (when referring to Latin America as) "our backyard."

Getting back to Venezuela and threats over oil exports, what is also forgotten, and was one of the reasons why Chavez has developed such a conflictual relationship with the Bush Administration, is that the US was the primary actor involved in trying to overthrow President Chavez's government in a military coup back in 2002 (it is even a greater irony that his opponents accuse Chavez of being anti-democratic, in light of their support for a military coup, but then this same excuse was used by supports of General Pinochet in Chile). In fact, the US was the only country in the world who recognized the military generals who temporarily seized power (and allows many of these cretins to live in exile in the US [at our expense, of course]). This act, more than anything, poisoned the well for Venezuelan-US relations, and it escalated with US attempts to influence the recall vote against Chavez, engineered by his opponents back in 2004 (failing miserably, with nearly 60% of Venezuelans voting for Chavez in elections recognized by all international observers, except the opposition, naturally). Today's referendum interference was the last call, and Venezuela threatened us with the one thing it has (and is the only reason why the oil company-subsidized stooges at the Heritage Foundation pay them any attention); Venezuela's oil. Approximately 15% of US oil is imported from Venezuela. Cutting it off would damage the US economy immensely.

The saddest part is that none of this should have happened, but after 180-plus years of treating folks south of the border as barely-civilized children (which is why the US has historically reacted so violently to socialist movements in this region, as opposed to Europe [the land of the American elite's ancestors]) this showdown was probably inevitable.

If one takes a look at the proposed changes in Venezuela's constitution, another detail mostly ignored in major American media outlets, nowhere are there any amendments or clauses calling for a dictatorship. In fact, there are rights in this proposal many should be familiar with and typically supportive.


Reform Question: "Are you in agreement with the approval of the constitutional reform project, passed by the National Assembly, with the participation of the people, and based in the initiative of President Hugo Chavez, with its respective titles, chapters, and transitional, derogative, and final dispositions, distributed in the following blocks?"

[Articles in italics are those proposed by the National Assembly, non-italic articles were proposed by the President.]

Block A

Section II. Politico-Territorial Division of the Country: President may declare special military and development zones, citizens have a new "right to the city."

Art. 11 - Allows the President to decree special military regions for the defense of the nation. Also, it would allow him to name military authorities for these regions in a case of emergency.

Art. 16 - Allows the president to decree, with permission from the National Assembly, communal cities, maritime regions, federal territories, federal municipalities, island districts, federal provinces, federal cities, and functional districts. Also the president may name and remove national government authorities for these territorial divisions (these do not, however, supplant the existing elected authorities in these regions).

Art. 18 - Provides a new right, the right to the city, which says that all citizens have the right to equal access to the city's services or benefits. Also names Caracas, the capital as the "Cradle of Simon Bolivar, the Liberator, and Queen of the Warairarepano" [an indigenous name for the mountain range surrounding Caracas].

Section III. Citizen Rights and Duties: Voting age lowered to 16 years, gender parity in candidacies, creation of councils of popular power, social security fund for self-employed, reduction of workweek to 36 hours, recognition of Venezuelans of African descent, free university education, introduction of communal and social property.

Art. 64 - Lowers the minimum voting age from 18 to 16 years.

Art. 67 - Requires candidates for elected office to be set up in accordance with gender parity, reverses the prohibition against state financing of campaigns and parties, and prohibits foreign funding of political activity.

Art. 70 - Establishes that councils of popular power (of communities, workers, students, farmers, fishers, youth, women, etc.) are one of the main means for citizen participation in the government.

Art. 87 - Creates a social security fund for the self-employed, in order to guarantee them a pension, vacation pay, sick pay, etc.

Art. 90 - Reduction of the workweek from 44 hours to 36.

Art. 98 - Guarantees freedom for cultural creations, but without guaranteeing intellectual property.

Art. 100 - Recognition of Venezuelans of African descent, as part of Venezuelan culture to protect and promote (in addition to indigenous and European culture).

Art. 103 - Right to a free education expanded from high school to university.

Art. 112 - The state will promote a diversified and independent economic model, in which the interests of the community prevail over individual interests and that guarantee the social and material needs of the people. The state is no longer obliged to promote private enterprise.

Art. 113 - Monopolies are prohibited instead of merely being "not allowed." The state has the right to "reserve" the exploitation of natural resources or provision of services that are considered by the constitution or by a separate law to be strategic to the nation. Concessions granted to private parties must provide adequate benefits to the public.

Art. 115 - Introduces new forms of property, in addition to private property. The new forms are (1) public property, belonging to state bodies, (2) direct and indirect social property, belonging to the society in general, where indirect social property is administered by the state and direct is administered by particular communities, (3) collective property, which belongs to particular groups, (4) mixed property, which can be a combination of ownership of any of the previous five forms.

Section IV. Functions of the State: Creation of popular power based in direct democracy, recognition of missions for alleviating urgent needs, foreign policy to pursue a pluri-polar world, devolution of central, state, and municipal functions to the popular power, guaranteed revenues for the popular power.

Art. 136 - Creates the popular power, in addition to the municipal, state, and national powers. "The people are the depositories of sovereignty and exercise it directly via the popular power. This is not born of suffrage nor any election, but out of the condition of the human groups that are organized as the base of the population." The popular power is organized via communal councils, workers' councils, student councils, farmer councils, crafts councils, fisher councils, sports councils, youth councils, elderly councils, women's councils, disables persons' councils, and others indicated by law.

Art. 141 - The public administration is organized into traditional bureaucracies and missions, which have an ad-hoc character and are designed to address urgent needs of the population.

Art. 152 - Venezuela's foreign policy is directed towards creating a pluri-polar world, free of hegemonies of any imperialist, colonial, or neo-colonial power.

Art. 153 - Strengthening of the mandate to unify Latin America, so as to achieve what Simon Bolivar called, "A Nation of Republics."

Art. 156 - Specifies the powers of the national government, adding powers that are spelled out in earlier and in later articles in greater detail. New powers of the national government include the ordering of the territorial regime of states and municipalities, the creation and suspension of federal territories, the administration of branches of the national economy and their eventual transfer to social, collective, or mixed forms of property, and the promotion, organization, and registering of councils of the popular power.

Art. 157 - The national assembly may attribute to the bodies of the popular power, in addition to those of the federal district, the states, and the municipalities, issues that are of national government competency, so as to promote a participatory and active democracy (instead of promoting decentralization, as was originally stated here).

Art. 158 - The state will promote the active participation of the people, restoring power to the population (instead of decentralizing the state).

Art. 167 - States' incomes are increased from 20% to 25% of the national budget, where 5% is to be dedicated to the financing of each state's communal councils.

Art. 168 - Municipalities are obligated to include in their activities the participation of councils of popular power.

Art. 184 - Decentralization of power, by its transfer from state and municipal level to the communal level, will include the participation of communities in the management of public enterprises. Also, communal councils are defined as the executive arm of direct democratic citizen assemblies, which elect and at any time may revoke the mandates of the communal council members.

Art. 185 - The national government council is no longer presided over by the Vice-President, but by the President. Its members are the President, Vice-President(s), Ministers, and Governors. Participation of mayors and of civil society groups is optional now. Previously the federal governmental council (as it was called) was responsible for coordinating policies on all governmental levels. Now it is an advisory body for the formulation of the national development plan.

Section V. Organization of the State: President may name secondary vice-presidents as needed, presidential term extended and limit on reelection removed, may re-organize internal politico-territorial boundaries, and promotes all military officers.

Art. 225 - The president may designate the number of secondary vice-presidents he or she deems necessary. Previously there was only one Vice-President.

Art. 230 - Presidential term is extended from six to seven years. The two consecutive term limit on presidential reelection is removed.

Art. 236 - New presidential powers as specified in other sections of the reform are listed here, which include the ordering and management of the country's internal political boundaries, the creation and suspension of federal territories, setting the number and naming of secondary vice-presidents (in addition to the first vice-president), promote all officers of the armed forces, and administrate international reserves in coordination with the Central Bank.

Art. 251 - Adds detail to the functioning of the State Council, which advises the president on all matters.

Art. 252 - Composition of the State Council changed to include the heads of each branch of government: executive, judiciary, legislature, citizen power, and electoral power. The president may include representatives of the popular power and others as needed. Previously the council included five representatives designated by the president, one by the National Assembly, one by the judiciary, and one by the state governors.

Art. 272 - Removal of the requirement for the state to create an autonomous penitentiary system and places the entire system under the administration of a ministry instead of states and municipalities. Also, removes the option of privatizing the country's penitentiary system.

Section VI. Socio-Economic System: Weakening of the role of private enterprise in the economic system, possible better treatment of national businesses over foreign ones, no privatization any part of the national oil industry, taxation of idle agricultural land, removal of central bank autonomy.

Art. 299 - The socio-economic regimen of the country is based on socialist (among other) principles. Instead of stipulating that the state promotes development with the help of private initiative, it is to do so with community, social, and personal initiative.

Art. 300 - Rewording of how publicly owned enterprises should be created, to be regionalized and in favor of a "socialist economy", instead of "decentralized."

Art. 301 - Removal of the requirement that foreign businesses receive the same treatment as national businesses, stating that national businesses may receive better treatment.

Art. 302 - Strengthening of the state's right to exploit the country's mineral resources, especially all those related to oil and gas.

Art. 303 - Removal of the permission to privatize subsidiaries of the country's state oil industry that operate within the country.

Art. 305 - If necessary, the state may take over agricultural production in order to guarantee alimentary security and sovereignty.

Art. 307 - Strengthening of the prohibition against latifundios (large and idle landed estates) and creation of a tax on productive agricultural land that is idle. Landowners who engage in the ecological destruction of their land may be expropriated.

Art. 318 - Removal of the Central Bank's autonomy and foreign reserves to be administrated by the Central Bank together with the President.

Art. 320 - The state must defend the economic and monetary stability of the country. Removal of statements on the bank's autonomy.

Art. 321 - Removal of the requirement to set up a macro-economic stabilization fund. Instead, every year the President and the Central Bank establish the level of reserves necessary for the national economy and all "excess reserves" are assigned to a special development and investment fund.

Section VII. National Security: Armed forces to be anti-imperialist, reserves to become a militia.

Art. 328 - Armed forces of Venezuela renamed to "Bolivarian Armed Force." Specification that the military is "patriotic, popular, and anti-imperialist" at the service of the Venezuelan people and never at the service of an oligarchy or of a foreign imperial power, whose professionals are not activists in any political party (modified from the prohibition against all political activity by members of the military).

Art. 329 - Addition of the term "Bolivarian" to each of the branches of the military and renaming of the reserves to "National Bolivarian Militia."

Section VIII. Constitutional changes: Signature requirements increased for citizen-initiated referenda to modify the constitution.

Art. 341 - Increase in the signature requirement for citizen-initiated constitutional amendments from 15% to 20% of registered voters.

Art. 342 - Increase in the signature requirement for citizen-initiated constitutional reforms from 15% to 25% of registered voters.

Art. 348 - Increase in the signature requirement for citizen-initiated constitutional assembly from 15% to 30% of registered voters.

Block "B"

Section III. Citizen Rights and Duties: Non-discrimination based on sexual orientation and health, increase in signature requirements for citizen-initiated referenda, primary home protected from expropriation.

Art. 21 - Inclusion of prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation and on health.

Art. 71 - Increase in the signature requirement for citizen-initiated consultative referenda from 10% to 20% of registered voters.

Art. 72 - Increase in the signature requirement for citizen-initiated recall referenda from 20% to 30% of registered voters. Also, voter participation set at minimum 40% (previously no minimum was set, other than that at least as many had to vote for the recall as originally voted for the elected official).

Art. 73 - Increase in the signature requirement for citizen-initiated approbatory referenda from 15% to 30% of registered voters.

Art. 74 - Increase in the signature requirement for citizen-initiated rescinding referenda from 10% to 30% of registered voters. In the case of law decrees, increased from 5% to 30% of registered voters.

Art. 82 - Protection of primary home from confiscation due to bankruptcy or other legal proceedings.

Art. 109 - Equal voting rights for professors, students, and employees in the election of university authorities.

Section IV. Functions of the State: State and local comptrollers appointed by national Comptroller General, political divisions determined on a national instead of state level.

Art. 163 - State comptrollers are to be appointed by the national Comptroller General, not the states, following a process in which organizations of popular power nominate candidates.

Art. 164 - State powers are specified in accordance with other articles of the reform. States can no longer organize the politico-territorial division of municipalities, but only coordinate these.

Art. 173 - Political divisions within municipalities are to be determined by a national law, instead of being in the power of the municipalities. The creation of such divisions is to attend to community initiative, with the objective being the de-concentration of municipal administration.

Art. 176 - The municipal comptroller is to be appointed by the national Comptroller General, not the municipalities, following the nomination of candidates by the organizations of popular power.

Section V. State organization: Councils of popular power participate in the nomination of members of the judiciary, citizen, and electoral powers, procedures for removing members of these branches specified more explicitly.

Art. 191 - National Assembly deputies who the president has called to serve in the executive may return to the National Assembly to finish their term in office once they stop working in the executive. Previously they lost their seat in the assembly.

Art. 264 - Specifies that Supreme Court judges are to be named by a majority of the National Assembly, instead of being left to a law. Also, in addition to civil society groups related to the law profession, representatives of the popular power are to participate in the nomination process.

Art. 265 - Supreme Court judges may be removed from office by a simple majority vote of the National Assembly, instead of a two-thirds majority and an accusation by the citizen power.

Art. 266 - Adds the ability of the Supreme Court to rule on the merits of court proceedings against members of the National Electoral Council, in addition to its ability to do so in the case of all other high-level government officials.

Art. 279 - Includes representatives of popular power councils for the nomination of Attorney General, Comptroller General, and Human Rights Defender. Also, specifies that each of these may be removed by a majority of the National Assembly, instead of leaving the issue to a separate law and a ruling from the Supreme Court.

Art. 289 - Adds to the Comptroller General's powers the ability to name state and municipal comptrollers.

Art. 293 - Removes the National Electoral Council's responsibility to preside over union elections.

Art. 295 - Inclusion of representatives from the Popular Power in the nomination process of members to the National Electoral Council. Specifies that members may be chosen by a majority of National Assembly members, instead of a two-thirds majority. Election of electoral council members is supposed to be staggered now, where three are elected and then halfway through their 7-year term, the other two are to be elected.

Art. 296 - Members of the National Electoral Council may be removed by a majority of National Assembly members, without the need of a prior ruling from the Supreme Court.

Section VIII. Constitutional exceptions: Right to information no longer guaranteed during state of emergency, emergencies to last as long as the conditions that caused it.

Art. 337 - Change in states of emergency, so that the right to information is no longer protected in such instances. Also, the right to due process is removed in favor of the right to defense, to no forced disappearance, to personal integrity, to be judged by one's natural judges, and not to be condemned to over 30 years imprisonment.

Art. 338 - States of alert, emergency, and of interior or exterior commotion are no longer limited to a maximum of 180 days, but are to last as long as conditions persist that motivated the state of exception.

Art. 339 - The Supreme Court's approval for states of exception is no longer necessary, only the approval of the National Assembly.

A right to a free education, even in college (I know quite a few students who would love that); right for indigenous peoples to be recognized alongside peoples of European ancestry (always a sticking point in Latin America, with those considered "more European" in lineage historically viewed as being of a higher caste and not infrequently holding racial supremacist views towards darker-skinned indigenous peoples); guaranteed social security. Those are just some of the amendments no one pays attention to, or the fact that poverty alleviation in Venezuela is helping to educate an entire generation of poor people who previously were considered at best borderline slaves. Those aspects are as much a part of this "Bolivarian revolution" as anything.

To be sure, economic power is being centralized. Chavez will have the power to take over foreign capital (and he is already targeting Spain after a spat with its monarch this last month) and transfer it to the coffers of the Venezuelan state. His foreign policy also includes friendlies like Iran, whose President thinks that homosexuality is an American invention. More worrisome is Chavez's emotional outbursts, which has damaged Venezuela's diplomatic relations with some of his own neighbors, especially Colombia. These are still concerns.

Nevertheless, Chavez has much less control over his country (even if the referendum passes) than Mubarak does in Egypt (which has been under martial law since Sadat's assassination over twenty five years ago) or King Abdullah's Saudi Arabia (which does not allow for elections, imposes a Sharia law that sentences rape victims to beatings, and is the main sponsor of Islamic terrorism against the US, through al-Qaeda and the plurality of the foreign fighters crossing into Iraq). Why is there no mention of this? Could it possibly be because Egypt and Saudi Arabia remain on good terms, at least formally, with American foreign policy, or have numerous trade deals with American firms? Or could it be Latin America is just too close for us to respect it? These are open questions to me, but I am certain of one thing: our complaints about Venezuela have nothing to do with a belief in democracy.

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