Assessing the First Month of Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly

September 4 marks one month since Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly (ANC) was sworn in, following a July 30 vote that has been widely condemned as fraudulent.  In the subsequent weeks the body has rapidly consolidated power, laying bare an authoritarian power grab.  Since being sworn in the ANC has approved (in most cases unanimously) the following actions with wide-ranging impact:

  • Extended its mandate from six months to “up to” two years, a move analysts have pointed to as evidence that the ANC’s purpose is more about gaining control over state and society than changing the Constitution (August 5). By contrast, when Hugo Chavez’s government initiated a Constituent Assembly in 1999, the body lasted just four months (August to December).
  • Fired dissident Attorney General Luisa Ortega—who has since fled the country—and orderedthat she stand trial on charges of alleged administrative abuses, replacing her with Ombudsman Tarek Saab, a longtime figure of Chavismo. The same measure authorizes Saab to oversee a “restructuring” of the Attorney General’s Office, declaring it “in emergency” (August 5).
  • Declared itself superior to all branches of government, with every public office “obliged to comply with and enforce the legal acts emanating from [the ANC],” which include issues related to their “competencies, operation and organization” (August 8).
  • Established a Truth, Justice and Victims’ Reparation Commission with broad authority to investigate “acts of violence for political and related reasons” committed from 1999 to 2017, as well as to subpoena anyone related to its mandate (Created on August 8, sworn in on August 16). Upon its creation, ANC President Delcy Rodriguez announced that the commission would request a list of candidates for regional elections from the National Electoral Council (CNE), so that they could be investigated.
  • Convened an International Affairs Commission (August 9) tasked with combating the country’s increasing international isolation. The commission has begun an “international tour” to try to consolidate support for the ANC among leftist parties and social movements in Central America, and is overseeing a September 16-19 summit in support of the ANC in Caracas.
  • Ratified Nicolas Maduro’s positionas president, commander in chief, and head of state until his term ends in January 2019 (August 10).
  • Moved-up overdue elections for state governors to sometime “in the month of October,” appropriating the authority of the CNE—which had previously set the date for the vote on December 10. The move was made just as various opposition factions publicly expressed strong internal disagreements over whether or not to participate in the election (August 12). Since the decree, electoral authorities have not yet officially announced a new date for the vote.
  • Gave itself the authority to legislate on “matters directly aimed at ensuring the preservation of peace, security, and the socioeconomic and financial system.” While the move was widely criticized as tantamount to dissolving the National Assembly, ANC President Delcy Rodriguez asserted that the legislature had not been dissolved and that lawmakers “still have to work.” What their job formally entails, now that the ANC and Supreme Court have stripped them of any meaningful authority, is unclear (August 18).
  • Began debate over a “Constitutional Law for Peaceful Coexistence and Against Intolerance,” which would prohibit radio, TV, and electronic media outlets from broadcasting “any propaganda in favor of war and advocacy of national, racial, religious, political and other form of hatred” (August 22). In public remarks, Rodriguez claimed that the measure would “regulate the companies that provide this social network messaging.”
  • Issued a decree ordering judicial authorities to investigate and try Venezuelan “traitors” who supported the recently-announced U.S. economic sanctions, labeled the “Decree against the Financial Blockade and in Defense of the Venezuelan People” (August 29). In its text, the measure specifically “takes up President Nicolas Maduro’s call to initiate a historic trial of treason against those who are involved in crimes of betrayal to the Fatherland.” It also declares that those who have supported “intervention” in the country are traitors, and urges relevant authorities to initiate criminal investigations against them. While the decree does not name any opposition figures, remarks from ANC officials prior to its passage indicate that the National Assembly’s President Julio Borges, its Vice President Freddy Guevara, and the lawmakers Luis Florido and Juan Requesens are likely targets.

For all that the ANC has done, however, it is worth noting that some of the pre-August 4 speculation over what the body would do upon its creation has not come to pass, at least not in the way that was expected. For instance, the weeks leading up to the July 30 election saw widespread conjecture that PSUV Vice President Diosdado Cabello (considered an internal rival of Maduro’s within Chavismo) and his circle would assume greater control of the government once the ANC was established, with suggestions of a supposed “Diosdadato.” The fact that Rodriguez, a Maduro ally, was chosen as ANC President complicated those speculations. Nevertheless, despite not holding a formal leadership position in the ANC, Cabello has played a central role, and has sponsored a number of the body’s major decrees, including the extension of its mandate and the removal of Ortega.

Prior to the installation of the ANC, there was also speculation that the body would rapidly change Venezuela’s form of government into a “communal state.” As we wrote in July, the fear was that the government would create “a pyramid-like structure that begins with communal councils, which are aggregated into communes, then communal cities and every larger structures with the executive branch at the top.” The fact that the ANC has apparently supported holding regional elections—which will likely take place under highly unfair terms—suggests that while such a transition could still be a feature of a new constitution, it is not part of short term plans. There has still been little actual discussion of Chavismo’s plans for a new Constitution.