Venezuela: Mass support for constitutional reform campaign

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.

By Tamara Pearson

Mérida, January 19, 2009 ( -- Over the January 17-18 weekend, committees from various sectors of society swore to campaign hard to win the approval by public vote of the amendment to the constitution to get rid of the two-term limit on all elected offices in Venezuela.

More than 20,000 people attended the swearing in of the heads of logistical and operational patrols of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) in Caracas on January 17.

Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez stated at the event that there are now about 100,000 “Yes committees” organised, or in formation, to campaign in favour of changing the five articles of constitution so that all popularly elected positions are not limited to two terms.

The committees are organised along various fronts and community lines, including women, youth, workers, communal councils and the PSUV.

On January 18, 10,000 transport workers, members of an estimated 9800 committees nationwide, vowed at a rally in Caracasto to work hard for the adoption of the constitutional amendment. The vice-president of the PSUV, Aristobulo Isturiz, led the vow taking.

“The strength of the people is in unity… it’s the leaders who unite us. Chavez unites the people, makes the people a force. Chavez asked us for unity and here we have the Transport Workers Front”, Isturiz said, adding that unity in the sector was also important in the struggle against the old vices that exist there and against the corrupt trade union bureaucrats and opportunists in order to construct an alternative transport force distinct from the pre-Chavez style. He said each transport committee should integrate itself with the voting centre based patrols, according to region.

The rally followed a large campaign caravan that left from various parts of Caracas and covered many of the main roads of the city. Isturiz said 1000 vehicles had participated, 500 representing transport workers from the east, and 500 from the west. The caravan ended in the Waraira Repano National Park lookout, where the youth from the Francisco de Miranda Front had planted 500 trees, following the burning of a part of the park by opposition youth on January 14.

The Cultural Front for the Constitutional Amendment also held an event in Caracas. The group is made up of 1160 “yes” committees across the country, according to the minister for culture, Hector Soto. Soto said the campaign could be explained through dance and music and said, “It’s not good enough to put ‘yes’ on all the walls, its necessary to talk with people.''

Finally, President Chavez attended an event of the National Women’s “Yes” Front in Carabobo state, where around 500 women from across the country marched, representing 20,000 women who make up the front. Each woman in the front is aiming to get 30 people to vote “yes”.

At the PSUV event on Saturday Chavez emphasised the importance of political organisation to achieve the consolidation of the revolutionary process and the victory of the “yes” vote. “If there is any social process that requires discipline, it’s the revolution. Here you can’t go about doing any old thing, there are norms, a doctrine, and a tactic”, he said.

A simulation of the voting day by the logistical and operational patrols is planned for January 31, starting at 3 am with the playing of a wake-up trumpet call, as happens with every voting day. Chavez said the day will serve to evaluate the organizational functioning of the patrols to get out the vote.

Opposition campaign

The opposition Democratic Action party (AD) formalised its participation in the “No” block in the National Electoral Council (CNE) on January17. The general secretary of AD, Henry Ramos, criticised the amendment question as “deceptive” and “editorial nonsense”. The until recently pro-Chávez social-democratic “We Can” Party (Podemos) also formalised its participation the “No” block.

A New Era, Justice First, Brave People Alliance, The Platform and other parties also form the “No” block, while the PSUV, Tupamaros, Revolutionary Bastion Movement, Organised Socialists in Venezuela, Independents for the National Community and the New Revolutionary Path organisations have registered for the “Yes” block.

Jonathan Patti, member of the Mirandan Volunteers for “No” criticised the announcement by the CNE that it would be extending the voting time until 6pm, saying it was “against the democratic principles of Venezuelans” because according to the constitution electoral rules can’t be changed less than six months before the voting process.

Six million signatures for constitutional reform

By Federico Fuentes

January 17, 2009 -- Green Left Weekly -- Around 6 million signatures, in support of a referendum to amend Venezuela’s constitution and allow all elected public officials to stand for re-election after two terms, were handed over to the National Assembly on January 16. Such an amendment would allow current president, Hugo Chavez, to stand for re-election in 2012. Under the constitution adopted in 1999, officials may only be re-elected once — as Chavez was in 2006.

The massive push to collect signatures was just the first phase of the campaign launched by the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) that will culminate in a referendum, to be held on February 15.

The number of signatures far surpassed that required by the constitution to convoke such a referendum by popular mandate. For expediency purposes however, the signatures will be used to support the National Assembly’s bill to convoke the referendum, and submitted together to the National Electoral Court.

According to Venezuela’s constitution — one of the most democratic in the world — referendums to reform or amend the constitution can be convoked either directly by the executive power (as was the case in the December 2007 referendum), by the National Assembly or by collecting the signatures of 15% of those registered on the national electoral roll.

While initial proposed amendment only granted the possibility to indefinite re-election to the presidency, it will now cover all elected public positions. As result, if the amendment passes, only the popular vote will decide who fills elected positions at all levels.

Chavez was first elected president in 1998 on an anti-neoliberal platform. Shortly afterwards, a constituent assembly was organised to draft a new constitution, which was subsequently approved by a large majority in a referendum.

Fresh national elections were held in 2000 under the new constitution, with Chavez again winning the presidency. While combatting a right-wing offensive aimed at overthrowing him, Chavez set about make a reality his conviction that “the only way to get rid of poverty is by giving power to the people”.

This was done by drawing the people into the organising and running of the government-funded social missions that seek to tackle poverty by providing free education and healthcare. These missions now number more than 30, and include programs relating to the environment, electricity and housing, among others.

Ironically using the democratic measures enshrined in the new constitution, the right-wing opposition initiated a referendum seeking to have Chavez recalled in 2004. Under the constitution, a referendum to recall any elected official can be held from half-way through their mandate if 20% of their electors sign a petition calling for it.

Chavez’s mandate was reaffirmed with nearly 5 million votes (almost 60%) against recalling him.

He was re-elected in December 2006 with a record 7.3 million votes (nearly 63%) on a clear platform of pushing the Bolivarian revolution towards socialism.

When Chavez pushed proposals for wide-ranging reforms to the constitution in December 2007, the proposals were narrowly defeated in the referendum. As one of the defeated reforms was to allow for no term limits for re-election to the presidency, the possibility of Chavez standing again when his current term finishes in 2012 was blocked.

The opposition has made much of the fact that the proposed removal of term limits has already been defeated, however the often confusing 69 proposed changes in 2007 were presented to voters in two blocs, meaning voters could not accept or reject individual reform proposals but only the package as a whole.

All polls indicate that Chavez, the indisputable leader of the Bolivarian revolution that has resulted in poverty rates halving, would easily win elections held today.

Supporters of the revolution argue that it would be a denial of democratic rights for the Venezuelan people to be unable to elect their desired candidate.

The push to amend the constitution comes on the back of the November 23 regional elections, where the PSUV won 17 out of 22 governorship races. Nationally, the PSUV and allied parties won by a large majority of votes (5.5 million to 4 million for the opposition).

However, the right wing succeeded in securing some important victories in the most populated states. Along with some of the key governorships surrounding the capital (Miranda, Carabobo) and the Greater Caracas municipality, the opposition also won in states bordering Colombia (Zulia, Tachira) — the site of increasing right-wing paramilitary activity.

Speaking of the result and the campaign for the constitutional amendment on his weekly program Alo Presidente, Chavez recalled on December 22 how he had warned prior to the election that the opposition was going to try and do everything possible to win these positions in order to “come after Chavez”.

After winning these positions, the opposition evicted activists from spaces used for community organising and social missions — such as the free healthcare provided by Cuban doctors.

That is why it was necessary to “launch a rapid counterattack: the amendment”, Chavez declared.

By Tamara Pearson

Mérida, January 22 -- -- Thousands of university and high school students in Caracas, the states of Barinas, Lara, Anzoategui and Sucre, as well as in other cities, marched on January 21 in support of the constitutional amendment to be put to public vote on February 15, and in rejection of the recent provocative violent acts by some members of the opposition.

Students in Caracas marched from the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, accompanied by the minister for higher education Luis Acuña. Acuña made reference to the achievements in education under President Hugo Chavez, specifically the increased number of places in higher education, and spoke against the students of the Metropolitan University, Santa Maria, and the Central University of Venezuela, who had participated in acts of violence and blocked roads. Acuña said that debate was preferable to such behaviour.

Representing students of the Central University of Venezuela, Andrea Pacheco said that the students weren’t just marching in support of the amendment, but also to re-assert the student movement.

“In the past students were assassinated and repression only allowed for violent protests, but today this isn’t justified, this government swapped repression for scholarships, inclusion, and new universities,” Pacheco said.

The march finished in the Plaza O’Leary, where bands played songs in support of peace, socialism and the constitutional amendments to eliminate the limit on electoral terms.

[Tamara Pearson is an Australia-Venezeula Solidarity Network activist resident in Venezuela. She maintains  the blog, A Gringa Diary.]