Why Venezuela May Change Its Constitution for the 27th Time

Why Venezuela's Many Crises Keep Getting Worse

Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, drew widespread criticism at home and abroad when he announced he will convoke a constituent assembly to consider changing the country’s constitution -- which has already happened 26 times in the nation’s 205-year history. Though Maduro hasn’t provided too many specific details about what he wants to see in a new constitution, the opposition quickly slammed the move as an illegal power grab and predicted that the government would stack the assembly with its supporters. All this is taking place as the country is embroiled in a political and economic crisis. At least 35 people have died in anti-government protests over the past month.

1. What is a constituent assembly?

It’s a constitutional convention called by the president and made up of elected and/or appointed delegates. It has the power not only to revise the constitution but to write a new one, or to disband or replace branches of the government. The last such assembly was called in 1999, when former President Hugo Chavez oversaw the crafting of the current constitution, replacing one written in 1961.

2. Can Maduro call one on his own?

As with everything in Venezuela, it depends whom you ask. Ironically enough, some say the call for a constitutional convention is unconstitutional. While the current constitution does give the president the power initiate the convention, Article 347 says “the people” must convoke it. It’s not clear whether that means a referendum is necessary. Maduro said that around half the 500 delegates would be shortlisted by the government to represent “communes” and “workers,” with the other half to be elected in local contests. It remains to be seen how the national electoral council responds to his request. In the past, it’s been loyal to both Maduro and the ruling socialist party. It’s also worth noting that the Supreme Court -- at the center of the country’s current political crisis for stripping power from congress, the only opposition-run institution -- has rarely ruled against the government.

3. What has Maduro said?

He’s been vague about what he wants to achieve. He’s said that the convention will be a “grand dialogue,” an “encounter,” and an opportunity for Venezuelans to “live in peace and end the violence.” He said that the convention should represent not the elite political parties but workers and the small neighborhood groups created by Chavez that have been one of the revolution’s last bastions of support. He’s also said that it’s time to defeat the opposition once and for all. A copy of the convocation decree says its goals include expanding the justice system to fight corruption, terrorism and treason, and give more power to government-created social groups such as those of workers, students and women.

4. What does the opposition say?

The opposition alliance, which includes more than a dozen parties from a wide political spectrum, has said it won’t participate in what its leaders have called a fraudulent process. Venezuela can be fluid, though, and it remains to be seen if they will follow through with their promise once more rules are published. The opposition’s decision to boycott congressional elections in 2005 is now widely viewed as a miscalculation that set its agenda back years and allowed the government to further cement its hold on power. 

5. What might Maduro really want?

Analysts have proposed two theories. The first is that he’s looking to buy time, divide the opposition and further delay regional elections that were supposed to take place last year. Maduro’s socialists would not likely be able to win any kind of election at the moment, with approval ratings under 30 percent. A second, more cynical interpretation is that Maduro wants to move even further toward a more authoritarian, Cuba-style regime, removing democratic aspects of the current constitution that allowed the opposition to take Congress in 2015. Maduro hasn’t exactly been rigorous in following the constitution, and a new one could allow him to do what he wants without his legitimacy being questioned -- at least among his own party.

6. Will Maduro get his way?

The process is not without risk for the government. Once convened, the delegates will have the power to disband any branch of government. While the opposition has said it won’t participate, it could still end up winning some of the elected-delegate seats and influence the process. The U.S., meanwhile, said it’s considering new sanctions, which could further isolate the government from the international community.

7. Who supports the current constitution?

Most Venezuelans. A poll conducted last year showed that less than 10 percent of respondents supported holding another constitutional convention. While Chavez’s 1999 constitution received some criticism at first, even opposition parties started to embrace it as time passed. Chavez himself failed when he tried to reform it in 2007 to introduce more socialist elements via a referendum.

8. How soon could an assembly be convened?

The official rules have yet to be published. Maduro said May 3 that elections for delegates would come in the coming weeks. Critics of the government have said the process could take between six months to a year, further delaying the pending regional elections.

9. How could this affect business and the economy?

Venezuela’s economy is practically paralyzed, with the country unable to access international markets and triple-digit inflation continuing to accelerate. Maduro’s call for a national price freeze -- part of his push for a convention -- means an added burden for businesses. The government will also likely postpone needed economic adjustments to its exchange-rate policies as it focuses on the political battle surrounding the new constitution. With $3.5 billion in principal payments coming due in October and November amid continued fear of default, bondholders will be in for a wild ride.

The Reference Shelf

  • A QuickTake explainer on Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis.
  • Francisco Toro of the Caracas Chronicles writes about the convention process in a blog post.
  • Amnesty International writes about an increase in persecution amid political crisis.
  • Maduro’s plan for a new constitution would deepen Venezuela’s crisis, writes Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman.
  • Maduro is taking the bad and making it worse, writes Bloomberg View’s Mac Margolis.
  • Bloomberg’s monthly Venezuela Credit Dashboard about bonds and the economy.
  • A look at how the country’s economic crisis is affecting foreign companies.

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