Washington, DC—In the month of July, the Venezuelan government intends to begin rewriting the country’s constitution through a process that is plainly unconstitutional and destined to disempower Venezuelan citizens for years to come. As an organization devoted to advancing human rights and social justice in the Americas, WOLA (the Washington Office on Latin America) calls on the nations of the hemisphere to recognize the importance of this moment by urging the Venezuelan government to put aside its plans to create a new constitution and instead adhere to the country’s 1999 Constitution.
If carried out as proposed by the government of President Maduro, the National Constituent Assembly would represent an assault on a fundamental principle of democratic governance: the sovereignty of the people. Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution clearly provides that only the Venezuelan people themselves have the authority to call a new Constituent Assembly. But the Maduro government has claimed this authority for itself, refusing to seek the prior consent of the people themselves, as was the case in April 1999, when the question of whether or not to rewrite the constitution was submitted to a referendum of the electorate as a whole.
Maduro’s bid to rewrite the constitution is a transparent attempt by an unpopular government to remain in power in a context in which they know that they cannot win fair elections. In 2016, the Maduro government thwarted a presidential recall referendum and indefinitely postponed scheduled regional elections. Now, in the case of the Constituent Assembly, the government has created rules for selecting Assembly delegates to favor its supporters: under the procedures proposed by the government, its candidates could take the majority of the seats by winning less than 30 percent of the vote, which is scheduled for July 30. Opposition parties justifiably consider the process to be illegitimate and unconstitutional and will therefore not run candidates. This means that if the process does go forward, the basic rules of the country will be rewritten by just one political force. Furthermore, the Constituent Assembly will have “powers of origin” that supersede all other constituted powers. Venezuelan government officials have already suggested the Constituent Assembly will use that power to dissolve the current National Assembly, and to depose Attorney General Luisa Ortega, who has been outspokenly critical of the government and has sought to block the government’s plan to rewrite the constitution.
WOLA therefore urges countries of the hemisphere to collectively reject Venezuela’s anti-democratic convocation of a National Constituent Assembly, and to continue to insist on the establishment of a clear calendar for regional, municipal, and national elections that observes the constitutionally-mandated timeframe. In calling on Venezuela to abide by its 1999 Constitution, the countries of the Americas should insist that the government respect the constitutional authority of the National Assembly and free political prisoners, conditions which were supported by the Holy See during its mediation of the crisis in late 2016.
It is also vital that countries of the region declare their unified support for a peaceful resolution to Venezuela’s crisis. While the current levels of polarization and distrust in Venezuela represent serious hurdles to constructive negotiations, only dialogue and negotiations between the parties will resolve the situation. Regional allies can play an important role in helping to overcome obstacles, and facilitate dialogue. An emerging consensus is forming across the region regarding the importance of a renewed commitment to such negotiations in Venezuela, which could be facilitated by a dedicated group of concerned countries from the hemisphere.
This is a time for urgent action. By speaking out in favor of peaceful resolution and against the July 30 convocation of a National Constituent Assembly, the countries of the Americas have an opportunity to meaningfully address the crisis and express solidarity with the people of Venezuela.
To read more of WOLA’s analysis on the situation in Venezuela, visit the Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog.