Adela Pons, who immigrated to the United States from Venezuela, chattered excitedly with her friends and co-workers on July 16, 2017. That was the day she was finally able to vote against the policies of Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro. And, thanks to volunteers who set up polling places—five hundred of them around the world—she did so in her new home, Atlanta, Georgia. She found out where to vote by social media!
Why does Pons—who designed the eye-catching illustrations for Fault Lines in the Constitution—oppose the president? Because, like millions of other Venezuelans (and the US government), she fears he’s turning into a dictator.
Back in 1999, the previous president, Hugo Chavez, started snatching power away from the Supreme Court and the National Assembly (which is composed of elected officials, like our Congress). Elected to the presidency in 2013, Maduro made himself even more powerful by taking control of the military, jailing his opponents, and threatening to rewrite the constitution and hold his own election, which would likely be rigged. As of mid-2017, Venezuela is in danger of becoming a “failed state:”
- 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.
- Food is so scarce that a box of cereal can cost $30.
- Medicine, too, is unavailable, and patients are dying of infections that could be cured with simple antibiotics.
Believing that resistance is necessary, many citizens protested and marched for months. Maduro didn’t back down but another strategy offered hope for change.
The nation’s constitution, which Chavez had written, gives Venezuelans the right to hold a plebiscite. That is, they can hold an election if they believe the government “violates democratic values…or impairs human rights.” And, according to the constitution, the government is required to abide by the results of the election.
On July 16, 7.5 million Venezuelans, including Pons, voted—more than 98 percent of them against the president.
“It’s mesmerizing what regular citizens can achieve when they come together with one goal in mind,” she said.
Unfortunately for them, Maduro did not accept the verdict of the election. “But,” Pons said, “it demonstrated to the world that what’s happening in Venezuela has no support from its people.” She added that she still believes “in change and progress and the power of people when they come together.”
The United States will not fall into the clutches of a dictator, as Venezuela seems to be doing. Yet, the constitution of that South American country seems to give more power to the people, at least theoretically, than ours does.
The US Constitution doesn’t allow the public to vote directly on anything at the national level. Unlike all other democratic countries, Americans don’t even vote for the president—only for electors who cast the official ballots. And, unlike California and Wisconsin, whose citizens can “recall” their governors (it happened in California in 2003 and failed in Wisconsin in 2012), Americans cannot vote to boot our chief executive out of the White House. This is the case even if we have no confidence in the president’s judgment about wars, the economy or basic justice.
Most Americans probably don’t want to compare our constitution to Venezuela’s. But, as we explain in Fault Lines in the Constitution, people in some countries—and in states here—have more ability to rein in a leader whose reign they object to than we do.
Are there ways that you wish our government did things differently?
The current situation in Venezuela demonstrates that any constitution, no matter how lofty its principles and how elaborate its safeguards, is only as effective as the willingness of its leaders to abide by its principles and provisions. A ruler who refuses to step down after losing a regular election or constitutionally-sanctioned referendum renders the document useless and rule of law nonexistent. Furthermore, voters can themselves create the conditions for the erosion of rule of law, which happened in Venezuela with the very popular Hugo Chavez, who used the country’s substantial oil resources, at a time when prices were high, to improve living conditions for working-class and poor Venezuelans. But when oil prices collapsed, his government’s failure to diversify the economy or establish a reserve has contributed to starvation and economic ruin. No matter what, democratic government relies on trust — trust that the economically powerful won’t hold their fellow citizens hostage through capital strikes, hoarding, or other economically destabilizing activities; trust that losing candidates will obey the results of an election; and trust that those who are elected will rule for all the people and in the best interests of the country regardless of ideology or policy preferences.
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Everything you say is depressingly true–depressing because, while the co-authors take serious issue with the Constitution, we do (or would) like to assume that a better one would protect us. As you point out, that’s not necessarily the case.
Assuming the Monroe Doctrine really ever had meaning, based on President Trump’s Afghan non-comforting speech last night has it lost all meaning despite what he said earlier about the situation in Venezuela earlier about the military option?