Friday, August 17, 2007

How a constitution becomes a mere guideline: Chavez turns the 1999 constitution into scrap paper

The most offensive thing about the ill called constitutional reform of Chavez is not its actual text, it is the way it is done, the style, the timing. As such it should be considered as a mere provocation with the objective of stunning any opponent to the reform. If the support of such people cannot be gained, at least they will be annulled in an induced denial

First, the changes were discussed in secret by a small group of Chavez unconditional appointees. Second, it was sent to Chavez who probably leaked the content out to gauge the public reaction. Then it was put on hold while they were deciding how far they could go, but more importantly what baubles they could add to the draft to convince enough people to approve it. It is interesting to note that the 6 hours maximum working day was not in the leaked documents and was probably added later as they sensed that they needed stronger stuff to sugarcoat the life presidency, the sole real goal of any reform. Finally, as the financial system is starting to suffer, as the government finds itself unable to supply milk to the people and as someone lost a strange piece of luggage in a Buenos Aires airport, it was time to push ahead. At no point was there a serious discussion to address the obvious flaws of the 1999 hastily written document, or to even decide what was best for the country. The only thing that mattered, and crassly exposed at that, was what is good for Chavez.

But let’s take the view from above. The reform is of course an obscene, intelligence insulting farce. It is a disservice to the reader to discuss it in detail. Instead let’s wonder whether what results from this reform can still be called a constitution. Let’s not forget that a constitution is the frame with which laws are enacted. It cannot be the other way around. For example a constitution cannot have economic rights as it is not in the power of any government to have at all times the capacity to fulfill such rights. Even property rights in serious constitutions are not guaranteed, though the same serious constitutions put all sorts of obstacles for state expropriations. But expropriation they do, even in the capitalist Hell of the Novel Evil Empire.

El Universal, for those who have time on their hands, has in PDF the Chavez proposal of last night ( a 4+ hour cadena that I doubt was very clear to the people that were brave enough to wade through). I will like to visit just a few items to show that the proposed changes are completing the transformation of the 1999 constitution into a mere constitutional law that can be changed at will like any new law. And I use “constitutional” in the least restrictive sense possible.

Let’s start with article 87, as a simple example. The “old” text was about guarantying the right to work in safe conditions to all workers. Nothing unusual here. But the “new” article is twice as long. It now includes the duty to the state to intervene in enforcing job measures, instead of supervising them. Also, the state will have to guarantee the same benefits to “independent” workers. Considering that in 8 years it has failed on all of its duties toward the contractual workers, one is dubious that it will be successful once it reinforces its duties and adds to its obligations the service to buhoneros, the street workers that form up to 40% of the working population in Venezuela. How will the state include and control the buhoneros revenues and other free agents to provide them with social benefits to which they have already access anyway if they wanted and could pay for them? Translation: a present to the informal worker population. They might end up voting yes and the constitution will be changed but what happens when the state cannot fulfill its obligations?

Article 90 is an even more direct appeal. That article fixed the working week. In normal constitutions, if such a measure is contemplated, it would read something like: “the sate will fix working conditions and weekly hours to work”. But in the “old” article it stipulated that the week work was 44 hours and the daily work could not be more than 8 hours. Yet, it also added that there state should try to decrease this with time. It was already strange to find such precisions in a constitution, but the “new” article goes much further: now the work week will drop to 36 hours, no more than 6 a day. In concrete, for example my business which does not open on Saturdays and works 40 hours a week, will drop suddenly to 30 hours a week. Or does anyone think that workers will gladly go back to work on Saturdays? That similar examples in much more developed countries such as France have failed and are put into sever questioning does not seem to have been considered. Here Chavez is getting ready to impose the 30 hours week (because it will be 30 for most people) without even considering a transition, a financial help form the state or anything of the sorts. But that is not all: the article explicitly forces the employer to have a role in the free time of the employee!!!!

These things have no place in any constitution: the state by law can already fix any of these parameters as needed and as the economical situation allow. But Chavez mandates it because he needs candy to make people vote for his for life presidency. Even if we all know that the state owned companies will be the main violators of such “constitutional obligations”.

There are many articles where the chimera of the communal power is elaborated. What strikes me more is that most of these modified articles could have easily been created through laws. There is no need to include them in the constitution. Again, here the idea is to create the illusion of more direct popular participation by supposedly shifting power to the neighborhoods instead of the city halls. Maybe, but communal councils are not going to design dams, highways or hospitals. The end result will be more power to the central state who of course will be the only one with the means to undertake such projects. Engraving this in the constitution is just for effect.

The Misiones are also given constitutional rank. Yet, amusingly in the modified corresponding article 141 the fluctuating nature of the Misiones are acknowledged. That is, the executive power will decide how long would a given Mision last. The question that begs to be asked is: why put that in the constitution when the current regulations allow already the state to do any Mision it wants for whatever objective for as long as it pleases? Again, the illusion of permanence of Misiones to bribe the naïve electorate to support the life presidency. Except that at least in this case the state is wise enough to keep an exit door in case the financial going gets rough. Unless it is an admission that Chavez already knows the Misiones have no future in the socialist state he will lord over?

Even in the new organization of power Chavez throw bones to his supporters, raising hopes. For example now there will be several vice-presidents. Their number and rank to be decided at will, though there will be one main vice president. But is there a need to change this article 225? No. Chavez has been creating as many ministers as he has wanted to. Why create many vice-presidents to put in between him and his ministers? Again, we see a constitutional change that could have well been a simple law creating special ministers. The objective here is to soothe the ambitious within chavismo that do not like the idea of having to wait for Chavez death to run for office. Now, thinks Chavez, they will be happy to be one of the many vice-presidents he will create.

Article 236 modification betrays this attitude. In that article Chavez adds a new duty to the president, to direct the “constitutional and constitutive” [sic] initiative. I am not too sure what this legalese gibberish truly means but I can detect the implication: Chavez will be freer to change the constitution as he had been until now. That is, an easily modifiable constitution will just be a simple law that is modified as needed.

No, what we are getting is not a modified constitution. It is just the gutting of the already feeble 1999 document, its conversion into some basic guideline that Chavez will disrespect as much as he disrespected the 1999 blue book, except that now he will have on occasion the time to change the constitution so it does not look that he is violating it. That is when basic civil rights will start to be “constitutionally” diminished.

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PS: I am not going to discuss further this except for one post on the key points that show how Chavez wants to grab even more over than what he has. My predictions of have not only been confirmed but made worse. For the non Venezuelan reader, fear not, we are not that stupid. 90% of us know exactly what is going on. The problem is that too many of us pretend it is OK.

-The end-

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