Your Guide to the Uproar Over Venezuela’s Constitution

Why Venezuela's Many Crises Keep Getting Worse

Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, drew widespread criticism at home and abroad when he announced in May that he’d convoke a constituent assembly to consider changing the country’s constitution -- which has already happened 26 times in the nation’s 206-year history. The opposition slammed the move as an illegal power grab, predicting that the government would stack the assembly with its supporters. An estimated 7.5 million people participated in an unofficial referendum organized by Maduro’s opponents on July 17, and U.S. President Donald Trump warned of “strong and swift economic actions” if Maduro proceeds with his plans.

1. What is a constituent assembly?

It’s a constitutional convention called by the president and made up of elected 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, though Chavez called one before the 1999 convention. Maduro said that around half the 545 delegates would be shortlisted by the government to represent “communes” and “workers,” with the other half to be elected in local contests scheduled for July 30. 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” and an opportunity for Venezuelans to “live in peace and end the violence," and that it will represent the small neighborhood groups created by Chavez that have been one of the revolution’s last bastions of support. A copy of the convocation decree says its goals include expanding the justice system to fight corruption, terrorism and treason and to give more power to government-created social groups such as those of workers, students and women. Finance minister Ramon Lobo said the assembly would deepen penalties for economic crimes. Hermann Escarra, a constitutional lawyer who helped craft the country’s current charter and is advising Maduro on rewriting it, raised eyebrows when he said the state could seek more control over oil joint ventures.

4. What does the opposition say?

The opposition alliance, which includes more than a dozen parties from a wide political spectrum, is not participating in what its leaders have called a fraudulent process. But it was emboldened by exceeding expectations in its unofficial referendum, and it’s repeated calls on Maduro to withdraw his proposal. It’s called a 24-hour strike for July 20 and has pledged to stay in the streets.

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. Maduro, though, is not one to back down. His foreign minister, Samuel Moncada, condemned Trump’s remarks, stating that “nothing and no one can stop the constituent assembly.”

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?

Assuming the July 30 vote goes forward, Maduro has said the constituent assembly would convene just days later, on Aug. 3. As to how fast the body moves is anyone’s guess. Critics of the government have speculated that the body could take its time and move slowly to delay the pending regional elections and presidential election due to take place in 2018.

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. Expanded U.S. sanctions against the country -- and possibly its oil sector -- could make things even worse.

The Reference Shelf

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    A QuickTake explainer on Venezuela’s ongoing political crisis.
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  • 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.
  • A look at how the country’s economic crisis is affecting foreign companies.
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