Friday, November 23, 2007

The Constitutional Reforms and Local People

There has been animated discussion of the Constitutional Reforms in our area for months. In the past month there have been numerous seminars and discussion panels at schools, cooperatives, and the Casa de Cultura (Cultural Center) in Sanare. Luz Marina and Sandino, two young activists from Monte Carmelo, were out with their friends a couple of weeks ago, encouraging motorists in Sanare to put “Si!” stickers on their cars, trucks, and motorcycles.

Last week, twelve of my neighbors and I were riding up the mountain in the back of a pick-up truck/taxi, and they were all discussing the constitutional reforms that will be voted on next week on December 2. At least half of them seemed to have questions about some of the proposed changes to the Constitution, and one woman seemed to believe the opposition contention that the government could confiscate her house if the reforms are passed.

There are several versions of the “house is not your home” rumor that are being spread by the political opposition; another one is: “the government is going to move at least one Cuban into every household.” Then, so the story goes: “the government is going to take your children away.” These rumors are not only false, but so unbelievable that the opposition is probably hurting its own cause by spreading them.

The owner of a bar and restaurant in Sanare, who I suspect never voted for Chavez and has never read any of the proposed changes to the constitution, recently told me the government would have the right to march in and take over his place. “Then they’ll give everything to the Cubans,” he said.

The most intelligent anti-reform comments came from the pessimistic fruit seller who sold me tomatoes and pineapples on Wednesday in Sanare, then gave me a twenty minute history lesson. “The reforms may sound nice, but Venezuelan governments are incapable of making them work. This has been a corrupt and ungovernable society for a long time, even when Bolivar was alive. He appreciated liberty and he was a political genius, but it took him a long time to recognize our limitations, when he was sick and ready to die in . ‘Colombia,” he said, “is a nunnery. And Venezuela is a cuartel’ (military barracks.)”

Most people here in Monte Carmelo are more optimistic about the future and seem ready to vote “Si!” Some, however, acknowledge that it would have been smarter if the government had limited the number of rewritten Articles to thirty-three (about 10% of the 1999 constitution), the ones originally proposed by Chavez months ago. It’s been a bit overwhelming, they say, to read through the thirty-six additional Articles that were added by the National Assembly, some of which probably could have been passed as regular laws rather than constitutional amendments.

On the other hand, most people have read the amendments and many have an impressive command of constitutional knowledge and can list the numbers and content of various articles. One farmer coming out of the bodega here in Monte Carmelo emphasized, “Article 87, because it’s really necessary for the independent farmer, taxi driver, housewife, or shopkeeper to be guaranteed the Social Security that other workers get.”

A week earlier, a middle-aged taxi driver in Caracas had told me the same thing, and then offered an impressive review of all of the Reforms, all of them necessary as far as he was concerned. He also wanted me to know that the most reliable political pollster in Venezuela, the one whose predictions are always within a point or two of the actual results, predicted that the reforms would pass by nearly a two to one margin (unfortunately I forgot to write down the name of his favorite pollster.) “We need these reforms if we’re going to keep moving toward socialism,” he said, “because the oligarchy still has way too much power.”

Javier, who runs the bodega, or grocery shop, in Monte Carmelo, is a small businessman who knows how to get a good bargain on onions at the giant regional market in Barquisimeto. Because of his facility with numbers, his neighbors chose him to count votes in last presidential election in December of 2006 when Chavez gathered 63% of the vote nationwide. He reports that in nearby Sanare about 70% voted for the President, in Monte Carmelo 80%, and in the nearest neighboring village, Bojo – about 300 voted for the President and exactly 4 people voted against him.

Javier follows politics closely and has always been a Chavez supporter, but a few weeks ago he wasn’t sure he was going to vote. “There are an awful lot of articles, too many, and I haven’t had a chance to study them all,” he said, “there’s a couple I’m suspicious of, so I think I’m going to have to abstain.”

Two days ago we talked again, and he’s changed his mind. “President Chavez has been addressing the issues I had trouble with, and I’ve taken time to read various pamphlets and newspaper articles describing all the articles in detail. Now I’m ready to vote Si.”

One of the major issues for him was private property and the ability of small business people to maintain their autonomy. Now he’s convinced that small and medium business owners are respected and protected by the constitution, and he thinks it’s just fine to clamp down on monopoly ownership.

Carla and Isidrio were waiting with me for a truck ride to town. Carla had no opinion on the Constitutional reforms. Isidro knew he would vote for the “Si!”

On Monday, I asked Isidrio, a campesino who’s retired and living with his son, his opinion concerning the reforms. He, like Javier, mentioned the need to eliminate monopolies. Article 113 was originally meant to discourage monopoly ownership in the 1999 Constitution. The new, improved version uses stronger language and says that monopolies will be “prohibited.”

For Isidrio, the issue of “latifundios” and land ownership is even more important than monopolies. “There are too many people all over the country who don’t have any land and that’s not right. A farmer ought to be able to own his own land, or share land in a cooperative. There are sneaky people on the other side of Sanare who have accumulated 300 hectares (660 acres) after starting with five acres. They had money and credit at the banks and started buying up everybody around them.” (300 hectares generally would not qualify as a latifundio, which in other parts of the country might spread over thousands of hectares; but here, in this mountainous region, 300 hectares is a very big piece of land, and 5 or 10 hectares can support a family.)

“You know how I’m going to vote?” asked Isidrio rhetorically. “I’ll vote for all 69 articles so the government can keep going forward and accomplish what we want it to accomplish.”

The pro-reform student marches

We joined some of our Monte Carmelo and Sanare friends on a march by Mission Sucre students a week ago Saturday. This event in Barquisimeto, the big city in the state of Lara (population, one million) was merely a warm-up march for a gigantic student march that took place on Wednesday, November 22 in Caracas, where hundreds of thousands of students packed the streets to demonstrate on behalf of the Constitutional Reforms.

Luis, on the left, went back to school after he retired to finish a college degree with Mission Sucre. He thinks the constitutional reforms are essential to keep the Bolivarian Revolution going.

Pablo Mendoza, on the right, administrator of schools in the municipality of Sanare, joined the university students of Mission Sucre on their march.

Leonardo, otherwise known as “Cheo” here in Monte Carmelo, gave a rousing speech in favor of “Si” vote at the Barquisimeto march. Cheo is a studying finance at Mission Sucre on weekends so that he can help local “consejo comunales” (the new community councils that are practicing direct democracy) with their budgeting and development projects. On Tuesday night, Cheo joined Sandino, Luz Marina, and others on the overnight bus to Caracas so they could join other students for the mega-march.

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