Venezuela knows what it’s doing

In recent weeks, U.S. policymakers and pundits have warned that a set of constitutional reforms being considered in Venezuela are but a step toward dictatorship.

A little calm, and context, is in order. Since President Hugo Chavez’s first election in 1998 and his most recent reelection in 2006, Venezuela has undergone a dramatic revolution in peace and democracy. The Venezuelan government aggressively works to expand political participation, create an equitable and sustainable economy and address long-standing social deficits.

The numbers indicate that the changes are working. The economy has entered its fourth year of consecutive growth, poverty has fallen from 55.1% of the country in 2003 to 30.4% in 2006, and Venezuelans are the second-most-likely population in the region to call their government “very democratic.” Venezuela is slowly establishing the basis for a new model of democracy and development -- “socialism of the 21st century,” as it has been termed -- one founded on grass-roots democratic participation, a social economy and equality in access to vital services such as healthcare and education.

To deepen those changes, Chavez in August proposed 33 reforms to the 1999 constitution aimed at helping to speed the redistribution of national resources to Venezuela’s neediest; to decentralize political power and grant communities more say in federal affairs; and to outline the legal foundations of the country’s new system. After the reforms were proposed, the National Assembly debated the reforms in three rounds, approving a final slate of 69 reforms in late October.

But unlike traditional political debates, the discussions of the reforms occurred throughout Venezuela and were open to massive public participation. In a 47-day period -- from Aug. 16 to Oct. 7 -- about 9,020 public events were held and 80,000 phone calls made to a special hotline, mechanisms through which the Venezuelan people were free to offer opinions and critiques. More than 10 million copies of the reforms were distributed to the public, and one poll found that more than 77% of the Venezuelan people read them. The reforms are set to be voted on in a national referendum Sunday -- leaving their fate in the hands of the Venezuelan people.

One reform would extend the presidential term to seven years and do away with term limits. Of course, the president would still have to face regular elections and the recall referendum, an innovative democratic mechanism that allows the Venezuelan people to cut short the term of any elected official. Another set of reforms would codify new forms of public property while restating rights to private ownership. Another reform would limit certain political liberties during national emergencies while maintaining key due-process rights, in keeping with international standards.

Critics tend to ignore many of the most progressive reforms. One would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or health. Another would lower the voting age to 16 -- following a similar move in Austria this year. Still other reforms would formalize the right to adequate housing and the right to free public education, create a social security fund for the self-employed, protect Afro-Venezuelan heritage and guarantee the full rights of prisoners.

Proposing that a constitution be reformed is consistent with democratic norms. And as societies change, so too should their laws and constitutions. As Thomas Jefferson once remarked, “No society can make a perpetual constitution. ... The earth belongs always to the living generation.”

As with any proposal for change, debate and dissent are to be expected. But what critics have missed is that these reforms are democratic and have been widely discussed by the people. More important, it is the people who will decide whether the reforms succeed.

Venezuela is changing, and this change continues in peace and democracy. The national referendum is nothing to fear, and nothing to warn against.

Angelo Rivero Santos is the deputy chief of mission of the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.