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History Repeats Itself? Venezuela’s New Constituent Assembly

On Monday President Nicolás Maduro announced that there would be a new Constituent Assembly in Venezuela. He had mentioned the idea about a week earlier, but it was unconfirmed until now. The future assembly will be composed of some 500 delegates, half of which will come from communal organizations and the other half will be directly elected from voting districts. Later in the same day a well-known jurist from the assembly’s organizing commission said, somewhat cryptically, that the goal was not so much to replace the existing constitution as to change the form of the state.

Maduro’s latest proposal sounds revolutionary, and it has an excellent precedent in Chávez’s decision in 1999 to convoke an assembly to replace what he called the “moribund constitution” of the Fourth Republic. It is in the nature of such a proposal to evoke a host of radical ideas including popular, grassroots democracydestroying the bourgeois state, and also constituent power challenging constituted power. Moreover, the most varied array of revolutions, ranging from the 1789 French Revolution to recent Latin American examples, have all relied to some degree or other on constituent assemblies.

There is, however, no formula for revolutions, and it is well known that a given form or institution in one historical moment can change its character in another, even going from “tragedy” to “farce” as Marx writes in a surprisingly relevant work charting how Louis Bonaparte’s politics merely parodied that of his famous uncle. Presumably it was such an awareness of the shifting historical terrain that caused Lenin in 1918 to dissolve the very constitutional assembly that his party had supported a few months earlier. What all this means is that the relevance of a Constituent Assembly today must be evaluated in terms of the historical moment and its balance of forces.

Now, the most salient difference between the current historical moment and that of the 1999 Assembly is the ebbing of revolutionary spirit and the flagging of popular effervescence in our time. This is an almost inevitable occurrence in any revolution. It happens in part because people’s desires are satisfied and in part because they simply grow tired and so want to tend to their gardens, families, education, or other activities that are not directly political. It is the role of a party organization — or in its absence the government — to maintain the revolution’s course in such moments of retreat. In Venezuela the ebbing of the revolutionary tide is characterized by a specific situation: a grave economic crisis that makes people devote much of their time to simply surviving.

This is a human condition that we could well call “pre-political” or “extra-political.” The danger of convoking a constituent assembly in such a moment is that it will likely be dominated by the institutional elite, or their hand-picked “popular” spokespeople, while most of the population will not be able or not be interested in participating. One might think that this is simply the “way of the world,” but in fact, in the 1999 constituent process, people from all walks of life in Venezuela became involved. The widespread popular effervescence, by all accounts, was extraordinary.

What then should Maduro and his government do? Are their hands completely tied? They are not. The key would be to focus on making the everyday situation more bearable for the majority. Not paying or renegotiating the national debt would free up resources to solve people’s daily problems, and its repercussion in terms of country risk and credit availability would (all experts agree) be no worse than those that Venezuela is already experiencing. Limiting the country’s levels of corruption (so endemic as to be impossible to eradicate completely) and reestablishing some basic price controls would also be steps in the same direction. The point would be to restore people to the condition of political agents: that is, full-blown citizens.

In the current moment, a constituent assembly might, of course, buy time for the government, by functioning as a distraction. Yet without the possibility of lasting mass mobilization, the assembly will almost surely produce an overall political effect that is negative, amounting to a pact among Chavist elites and possibly between those elites and the traditional ones. Perhaps this will be done in the name of the  “peace and stability” that Maduro has turned into his perpetual leitmotif. The other limitation — the elephant in the room — is that the Venezuelan military appears to now directly manage an important part of state power. Though some military representatives will participate in the future constituent assembly, their power has another basis, making the whole thing appear to be even more of a spectacle.

A final comment: the government continues to promote the idea that social representation happens immediately and without friction. Hence eighteen hours after Maduro’s announcement, there appeared magically on television “representatives” of university students, evangelical churches, and indigenous peoples (with their faces painted to avoid any possible confusion), among others. This idea, apart from being ridiculous in itself, has the effect of denying the possibility of an organic and real representation emerging from these very sectors. Effectively it gives the lie to the idea that the constituent assembly is a process. And democracy without process, just like frictionless politics, rings hollow.

Chris Gilbert is professor of political science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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