Venezuela’s new constitution gives Chavez a reforms mandate

By Deseret News Dec 16, 1999, 12:00am MST

Houston Chronicle

CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans on Wednesday gave President Hugo Chavez a mandate and a blueprint to carry out sweeping political reforms by approving a new constitution by a huge margin.

In a nationwide referendum, 71 percent voted in favor of the charter, which was drafted by a special assembly dominated by Chavez supporters.The centerpiece of the president’s political vision, the constitution could concentrate more power in Chavez’s hands and potentially allow him to remain in office for 12 more years.

“This is the birth certificate of the new Venezuela,” Chavez said in a televised address as he held up a copy of the document.

The constitution, the 26th in Venezuela’s 189-year history, contains 350 articles outlining a litany of changes both profound and symbolic.

The opposition-controlled Congress and governors will be replaced, and new presidential elections may be held early next year. The work week will be shortened, and the name of the nation will be modified.

“This will give Chavez and his team the tools to move the country forward,” said Marycarmen Moya, 18, after voting in downtown Caracas.

Wednesday’s vote was viewed as a kind of plebiscite on Chavez’s performance.

The former army paratrooper, who staged a failed 1992 coup against the government and served two years in prison, was elected president one year ago on a platform to carry out a “peaceful revolution” and cast out what he called the corrupt political oligarchy.

Just 45 percent of Venezuela’s 10.9 million eligible voters cast ballots Wednesday. Citing the low turnout, some critics questioned the legitimacy of the vote.

However, bad weather was partly to blame. Torrential rains and mudslides killed at least 37 people and left thousands of Venezuelans homeless.

Though lamenting the loss of life, Chavez portrayed Wednesday’s electoral result as a huge victory.

“This is a historic day in which we will define the next 200 years of Venezuela,” he said.

Despite vast oil wealth, Venezuela is mired in poverty and is often ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt nations. Chavez, 45, has pledged to usher in a new era of responsive government.

Clad in camouflage fatigues, Chavez barnstormed across the country in the weeks leading up to the vote and compared the campaign to a war. In keeping with his penchant for outrageous rhetoric, Chavez called his opponents “degenerates” and at one point compared them to “squealing pigs.”

The new charter, which was written by a 131-member Constitutional Assembly in 100 days, will affect nearly all aspects of government.

It extends the president’s term to six years from five years and allows immediate re-election once. Chavez, who has already served 10 months in office, has indicated that he will run for election early next year in an effort to win a new, six-year term.

The charter abolishes the Senate and requires an election for a new, unicameral National Assembly within 90 days. Elections for governorships and local offices must also be held.

All of this, analysts say, could strengthen Chavez’s hand. Polls put the president’s popularity at about 70 percent. That could help pro-Chavez candidates win control of the newly configured legislature as well as a handful of governorships.

One of the most controversial articles changes the name of the country from the Republic of Venezuela to the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The change honors native son Simon Bolivar, the 19th-century general who liberated much of South America from Spanish domination and is one of Chavez’s heroes.

Marlene Urbano voted “yes” on the referendum but objects to the name change.

“We’re not the republic of just one man,” she said.

Other provisions guarantee free health care and education and shorten the work week from 48 hours to 44 hours. The constitution extends the right to vote to members of the military; broadens rights for indigenous groups; and reorganizes the judicial system. It requires the news media to give “truthful” reports.

“This is the most democratic and advanced constitution in the world,” said Foreign Minister Jose Vicente Rangel.

But critics call it a flawed document and say it represents an attempt by Chavez to assume authoritarian rule. Some news organizations fear the constitution could usher in press censorship.

Others complain that Chavez ignored pressing problems while campaigning for the constitution. The country is in its worst economic slump in decades, and many fear that provisions in the new charter could hurt business. Several articles, for example, open the door for increased state intervention in the economy.

“The economy is in absolute paralysis,” said Alberto Franceschi, one of only six opposition members of the Constitutional Assembly. “No one will invest even one dollar here, because you would have to be crazy to invest in this country.”

After voting “no” Wednesday, Laura Rojas, 63, said the government has ignored social problems while spending millions of dollars on elections. Including Wednesday’s referendum, Venezuela has held five nationwide votes over the last 18 months.

For the political opposition, which campaigned against the constitution and will have to prepare for yet another round of national elections, Wednesday’s results indicate that it has failed to gain much momentum.

The “no” vote totaled just 29 percent of the ballots.

Claudio Fermin, an opposition member of the Constitutional Assembly, said, “This is a wake-up call to get organized.”