The Cable

Venezuelan Protesters Take to the Streets, Again, as Maduro Calls for New Constitution

A new constitution won’t lower inflation or conjure up more food, but it might keep the president in power a bit longer.

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Venezuelan protesters took to the streets of Caracas on Tuesday in opposition to President Nicolás Maduro — and his calls to create a new constitution.

On Monday, Maduro called not for new elections, as many in the opposition and abroad had urged him to do, but rather for a new constitution, to be established by a newly formed constituent assembly. The opposition fears Maduro is using this as a ploy to further delay elections in which his party is sure to perform poorly, and that he would pack the constituent assembly with individuals loyal to him.

“What President Maduro is trying to do yet again is change the rules of the game,” Deputy Assistant Secretary Michael Fitzpatrick said during an on-the-record call set up by the State Department on Tuesday. “Recognizing his grip on power has slipped, he seeks to stack the deck, to rewrite the rules, so as to assure himself and his cronies continued access to power, privileges, and protections.”

Maduro has the right to call for a new constitution. But that step, said Moises Rendon of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, must be followed by a referendum, which Maduro seems to have bypassed. More broadly, it’s unclear what the rules of the game would be for drafting a new charter — and why that would be a priority now, when the country faces an economic and social cataclysm.

A new constitution raises far more questions than it answers. Who would get to be on the constituent assembly? What, exactly, would this new constitution look like? Are regional elections still going to be held this year? Would opposition member Leopoldo López be released from jail? Would Henrique Capriles be allowed to hold office at some point in the next 15 years?

There’s also the question of whether the opposition would even try to participate. Julio Borges, president of the National Assembly, seen as the last stronghold of the opposition, has already dismissed the move as a fraudulent distraction and called for defense of the current constitution. But other parts of the fractured opposition might decide that being in the game is better than being on the sidelines, said Shannon K. O’Neil of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Rendon thinks the gamesmanship will just fuel more anger at Maduro. “This will only trigger more protests. More people on the streets,” he said.

Those people would be joining the thousands who have been protesting in Venezuela for the past month, ever since the Supreme Court, seen as controlled by Maduro, tried to take over the functions of the National Assembly. That decision has mostly been reversed, but protests have continued — and 29 have been killed in the process.

More importantly, said O’Neil, a new constitution “will do nothing to fix the economic and humanitarian situation,” and won’t start to deal with hyperinflation, solve the lack of food or medicine, or fix hospitals. Venezuela, once the richest country in Latin America, has been plunged into dysfunction by years of economic mismanagement under Maduro and former strongman Hugo Chávez — who pulled the “create a new constitution” trick back in 2000.

But a new constitution might just keep Maduro and those close to him in power for a little while longer, which, to Maduro, seems to be far and away the most important thing.

Update, May 2, 2017, 4:48 pm ET: This post was updated to include Fitzpatrick’s comments. 

Photo credit: CARLOS BECERRA/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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