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Proposed constitutional changes to extend democracy in Venezuela

A statement from the Australia-Venezuela Solidarity Network

August 25, 2007

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez presented a series of proposed constitutional changes to the Venezuelan National Assembly on August 22, thousands of enthusiastic supporters rallied outside. The changes, supported by an estimated 70% of the population according to an August 16 BBC report, will not come into effect unless they are ratified by the Venezuelan people in a referendum.

The referendum itself will be preceded by an exhaustive process of national discussion, consultation and debate, including regular discussions on TV, thousands of specially organised community gatherings, and the active soliciting of input from social and community organisations, and political parties.

However, this democratic process has not prevented the unpopular Venezuelan opposition and the international media from labelling the changes "undemocratic" and even "a constitutional coup". Most of the international media have deceptively portrayed the proposed reforms as an authoritarian measure designed to keep Chavez in power for life.

The proposed changes to the existing constitution, which was adopted by popular referendum in 1999 – a referendum also initiated by Chavez - are designed to deepen Venezuela's socialist revolution and extend the rights of its people to democratically decide the fate of their nation.

The 1999 constitution itself was temporarily annulled by the leaders of the military coup against Chavez in April 2002. Their brief 48-hour rule was marked by civilian killings but was welcomed by the George Bush administration and received favourable press coverage internationally. But a spontaneous civilian uprising, with support from the majority of the armed forces, rapidly led to the defeat of the coup and returned Venezuela to constitutional rule.

Now, in response to Chavez's proposals, opposition figures who participated in the coup, such as failed 2006 Presidential candidate Manuel Rosales, are presenting themselves as defenders of the 1999 constitution - the very same constitution they tried to violently overthrow. That "respectable" media organisations like The New York Times and Reuters have invariably quoted opposition figures such as Rosales without drawing attention to this obvious, glaring hypocrisy speaks volumes about the standard of media reporting on Venezuela.

A survey of the proposed constitutional changes, however, gives a good indication of why they will remain popular among the majority of Venezuelans.

If adopted, the new constitution will mandate a reduction in the working day from 8 hours to 6 hours. This is designed to sharply reduce unemployment by sharing the work around. But it will also have the effect of providing working people more time to actively participate in the educational, cultural and political revolution underway in Venezuela.

A further proposal is that Venezuela's community councils – the newly formed organs of popular, grassroots democracy - be enshrined in the Venezuelan constitution for the first time. Greater decision-making power over local affairs will be transferred to the councils from the existing local administrations inherited from pre-revolutionary Venezuela and which are notorious for their inefficiency and corruption.

Other proposals include the extension of full social security rights to workers in the "informal sector" (including street vendors, market stall owners, etc.), who make up close to 50% of the total workforce, and the removal of legal obstacles to the nationalisation of industries demanded by the employees themselves.

Venezuelans will also vote on proposals to entrench public ownership of the country's oil and gas reserves, strengthen the recognition of the rights of Venezuela's indigenous peoples, extend a non-capitalist `social economy' based on cooperatives and place the Central Bank under government control to ensure continued funding for the Chavez government's popular social programs.

The opposition has sought to discredit the announcements by concentrating fire on Chavez's proposal to end the two-term Presidential limit and to extend Presidential terms from 6 to 7 years. They claim that Chavez is attempting to establish his personal rule for life, a claim repeated as fact by much of the international media. The August 17 New York Times even obliged with a headline warning that "Chavez seeks Constitutional Change to Perpetuate Power".

Not only do many other counties allow for the indefinite re-election of the head of state, but Venezuela's constitution also includes the democratic right to recall elected officials halfway through their term – a measure the opposition themselves tried to use in 2004 to get rid Chavez.

Venezuela's political system is far more democratic than Australia's, where no democratic recall right exists. Furthermore, Australian Prime Minister John Howard is seeking his fifth term in office. Yet no journalist has raised the alarm of an Australian descent into dictatorship because of that.

Behind these double standards lies the real worry for the Venezuelan opposition: the revolution they oppose has the support of the overwhelmingly majority of Venezuela's people. The socialist course of the revolution has been endorsed in huge mobilisations and at the ballot box repeatedly. Any changes made to the constitution will also express that will.

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