Today Venezuela celebrates 10 years since the 1999 Constitution, one of the world’s most progressive, was endorsed by the Venezuelan people in a nationwide referendum. The writing and implementation of the constitution marked a significant break with Venezuela’s troubled past, forging a new path for a more inclusive and participatory democratic system, recognition of Venezuela’s diversity and an unparalleled emphasis on securing social justice.
On December 15, 1999, 71 percent of the Venezuelan people voted for the new constitution, replacing its 1961 predecessor. The 1999 Constitution was drafted by a Constituent Assembly elected by the Venezuelan people in the wake of President Hugo Chavez’s first historic presidential election victory in 1998. At the time, years of political and economic crisis had left the majority of Venezuela’s people isolated from their government; the writing of the new constitution allowed for a new contract with the Venezuelan people and new roadmap for the country’s democracy and development.
The constitution’s 350 articles were written with unprecedented participation of Venezuelan civic associations and social movements, including women, Afro-descendents, indigenous groups and human rights activists.
The 1999 Constitution re-founded the country as the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” calling upon the name of independence hero Simon Bolivar as a guiding force for the creation of the country’s fifth republic since independence in 1811. It defined the Bolivarian Republic as a “democratic and social state of law and justice” aimed at “the defense and development of the person and the respect of their dignity, the democratic exercise of the popular will, the construction of a just and peace-loving society, the promotion of the country’s prosperity and well-being and the guarantee of the fulfillment of the principles, rights and responsibilities consecrated in this Constitution.”
The new constitution expanded the branches of government from three to five, adding an Electoral Branch charged with organizing and overseeing elections and a Citizen’s Branch tasked with protecting the rights of the Venezuelan people. It also included articles allowing for four different types of national referenda – consultative, recall, approving and rescinding. The recall referendum has been most prominent, allowing voters to choose whether or not to allow elected officials to finish their term in office after half of it has been completed. In 2004 President Chavez was subjected to a referendum on his tenure, emerging victorious with close to 60 percent of the vote.
The constitution also increased the number and scope of protected rights to include social, economic and cultural rights. It also placed many international human rights treaties on equal footing as the constitution. The constitution endorsed progressive principles on women’s rights, adopting the strict definition of discrimination outlined in the UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and including the right of homemakers to receive social security benefits. And in a break with the past, the language of the new constitution was made gender-neutral.
Venezuela’s indigenous people were given additional rights in the new constitution, including three set-aside seats in the National Assembly and the right to their languages, cultures, territories and intellectual property. Additionally, native languages were granted official status alongside Spanish.
Since its national endorsement in 1999, the constitution has become a symbol of Venezuela’s hopes and aspirations for a more peaceful, equitable and just future. Millions of miniature-sized versions of the 1999 Constitution are sold on street corners throughout the country, allowing average citizens the opportunity to directly engage with the text of the founding document that they helped write ten years ago.
Press and Communication Office of the Embassy of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in the U.S. / December 15, 2009