Changing Chávez’s Constitution: The View from Antímano

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s recent call for the creation of a National Constituent Assembly has raised even more questions in Venezuela’a already agitated political landscape. While the main government figures portray it as the deepening of the revolutionary process established by Hugo Chávez, the main opposition figures call it the “continuation of a coup d’état”.

The measure surprised the popular classes, the government’s electoral base, and among an already diminished chavismo, appeared not to sit well. The  vagueness of Maduro’s announcement seemed to leave a negative feeling among those who supported the 1999 Constituent Assembly.

Eri Villabona, a 31 year old mother from the west of Caracas, recalled: “the first election I participated in was to support the constitutional reform that Chávez wanted to do. I went to support it convinced that it was a good thing for our country, that it was the change that we had waited for. But now Maduro wants to change it and personally, I think that if Chávez fought so hard for it they shouldn’t change it.”

Obtaining the support of people for this new and decisive step will be a challenge for a government that does not seem up to the task. As Eri said “people need this to be explained to them.” (“La gente necesita que le expliquen con que se come eso.”)

Eri’s husband, José Ávila is a 29 year old auto mechanic. For months he hasn’t been able to cover his family’s basic necessities with his job. Because of this, he started to buy coffee beans, grind them, and sell them for a small profit that would let him feed his two school-age children.

Like Eri, José is reluctant to support Maduro in his new constitutional endeavor. “The problem we have in Venezuela is very simple, there’s no food, and our money doesn’t get us what we need. Before thinking about changing the constitution or anything else, what Maduro has to do is fix that. Until then, here in Venezuela there will be no peace. What we want is food.”

But the idea of a constituent assembly is not, in itself, immediately dismissed by  people for whom the current economic situation has created a level of desperation that calls out for an immediate solution wherever it may come from.

José says that if a constitutional assembly is the only solution, the conditions must be so clear that they motivate the majority of the electorate to participate. “If they’re going to do something, they must look at how Chávez did it. He motivated the whole country and talked about his project every chance he got. Most importantly, the people were able to vote on everything that was done.”

The opposition has seen a weakness in Maduro’s move. In the days following the announcement, they began to refer to the Constitution as “Chávez’s legacy,” using Chavismo’s own argot.

Among those that lived in the era before Chávez, distrust of the opposition is deep, as they blame the opposition for the poverty they were pushed into. Mrs. Erlinda Pertro is 70 years old, she supported and still supports Chávez’s revolution. In her words “the others only worked for themselves.”

But even though she still defends herself as Chavista, Erlinda doesn’t seem very convinced by Maduro’s new plan.

“This has become the same as what we had before. Chávez did give a lot to the poor and you could see he was interested [in them]. But these people we have now are the same as before. It seems that nothing matters more than keeping the throne for themselves, and not what happens to us. Maduro says he wants to change Chavéz’s constitution, but for me it’s only in order to stay in his position. Of course I don’t support it.”

For Erlinda, ever since “her commander” came to power things in the country changed for the better, and a picture on her wall of “her comandante” in his green military uniform and red beret reveal her devotion. But her support for Chavismo is flagging.

“Chávez died. If he were alive things would be very different. Sometimes you ask yourself why he left Maduro in charge, and why Maduro doesn’t follow Chávez’s path. Personally I would like to support like I did before–when Chávez came out and spoke with you and you would go and vote for him because you knew he wanted to fix things. But now you support just in order to not let go. But you don’t really know what that guy [Maduro] is planning to do.”