Venezuela’s government to write new constitution? ‘That way lies autocracy,’ says analyst


Facing escalating civil unrest, the government of Venezuela has finally come up with a response: a call for a constituent assembly, notes Javier Corrales, Dwight W. Morrow 1895 professor of political science at Amherst College. For President Nicolás Maduro, this is the way to restore peace. Most likely, it will produce the opposite: more unrest.

Why does this matter? Corrales asks in the Washington Post:

Constitutions hold the promise of lessening conflict, which Venezuela badly needs, but only if they expand power-sharing. As John Carey showed, more “inclusive” constitution-making can even yield more democracy. Maduro’s plan for a constituent assembly will do the opposite. The opposition knows it and for that reason, it has responded by rejecting the proposal and calling for more street protests, now in their second month.

“Maduro may still go ahead with his plans,” notes Corrales, whose book “Fixing Democracy: Constituent Assemblies and Presidential Powers in Latin America” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. “If he does, the resulting constitution is unlikely to restore democracy or abate the worst civil strife Latin America has seen in decades.”

Established democracies like Venezuela’s are not supposed to implode like this, the New York Times adds.

Steven Levitsky, a Harvard University political scientist, said Venezuela was one of “four or five, ever.” Among those, none was as wealthy or fell so far. “In most cases,” he said, “the regime quits before it gets this bad.”

“Even before the economic crisis, you have two things that political scientists all agree are the least sustainable bases for power, personalism and petroleum,” said Levitsky [a contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy], referring to the style of government that consolidates power under a single leader.

[Former President Hugo Chávez] passed a new Constitution and purged government jobs. Some moves were broadly popular, like judicial reforms that reduced corruption. Others, like abolishing the legislature’s upper house, seemed to have a broader aim.

“He was reducing potential checks on his authority,” said John Carey, a Dartmouth College political scientist. Beneath the revolutionary language, Mr. Carey said, was “pretty savvy institutional engineering.”

The 2002 coup taught Mr. Chávez that an alliance of convenience with armed groups known as colectivos (right) could help him control the streets where protesters had almost brought him down, the Times adds:

The colectivos, funneled money and arms from the state, became political enforcers. Protesters learned to fear these men, who arrived on Chinese-made motorcycles to disperse them, often lethally. The colectivos grew in power, challenging the police for control. In 2005, they expelled the police from a region of Caracas, the capital, that had tens of thousands of residents. Though the government never officially approved such violence, it publicly praised colectivos, granting them tacit impunity. Many exploited this freedom to participate in organized crime.

The groups were later joined by criminal “opportunists” who learned that “adding a little ideology to their operations” could win them impunity, said Alejandro Velasco, a New York University professor who studies colectivos.


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