The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
is the current constitution
. It was drafted in mid-1999
by a constitutional assembly that was created by popular referendum. This 1999 Constitution was adopted in December 1999
, replacing the 1961 Constitution which had been, of the 26 constitutions in use by Venezuela since its independence in 1811
, the document that had remained in force for the longest time. It was primarily promoted by the current President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez
and thereafter received strong backing from diverse sectors, including figures involved in promulgating the 1961 constitution such as Luis Miquilena and Carlos Andrés Pérez
. Chávez and his followers (chavistas
) refer to the 1999 document as the "Constitución Bolivariana" (the "Bolivarian Constitution
") because they assert that it is ideologically descended from the thinking and political philosophy of Simón Bolívar
The Constitution of 1999 was the first constitution approved by popular referendum in Venezuelan history, and summarily inaugurated the so-called "Fifth Republic" of Venezuela due to the socioeconomic changes foretold in its pages, as well as the official change in Venezuela's name from the "República de Venezuela" ("Republic of Venezuela") to the "República Bolivariana de Venezuela" ("Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela"). Major changes are made to the structure of Venezuela's government and responsibilities, while a much greater number of human rights are enshrined in the document as guaranteed to all Venezuelans including free education up to tertiary level, free quality health care, access to a clean environment, right of minorities (especially indigenous peoples) to uphold their own traditional cultures, religions, and languages, among others. The 1999 Constitution, with 350 articles, is among the world's longest, most complicated, and most comprehensive constitutions.
President Hugo Chávez was first elected under the provisions of the 1961 Constitution in the presidential election of 6 December 1998. Chávez had been contemplating a constitutional convention for Venezuela as an ideal means to rapidly bring about sweeping and radical social change to Venezuela beginning from the eve of his 1992 coup attempt. Chávez would state later that:
We discussed how to break with the past, how to overcome this type of democracy that only responds to the interests of the oligarchical sectors; how to get rid of the corruption. We had always rejected the idea of a traditional military coup, of a military dictatorship, or of a military governing junta. We were very aware of what happened in Colombia, in the years of 1990-1991, when there was a constitutional assembly – of course! – it was very limited because in the end it was subordinated to the existing powers. It was the existing powers that designed Colombia’s constitutional assembly and got it going and, therefore, it could not transform the situation because it was a prisoner of the existing powers and thoughts.
After his imprisonment and release, he began to seek a political career with such a convention as its political goal. Thus, in the 1998 presidential elections, one of Chávez's electoral promises was to organise a referendum asking the people if they wanted to convene a National Constituent Assembly. His very first decree as president was thus to order such a referendum, which took place on 19 April. The electorate were asked two questions whether a constituent assembly should be convened, and whether it should follow the mechanisms proposed by the president. The "yes" vote in response to these two question totalled 92% and 86%, respectively.
Election of the Constitutional Assembly
Elections were then held, on 25 July
, to elect 131 deputies to the Constituent Assembly, which convened and debated proposals during the remainder of 1999. Chávez's widespread popularity allowed the constitutional referendum to pass with a 71.78% 'yes' vote; in the second election, members of Chávez's MVR and select allied parties formed the Polo Patriotico
("Patriotic Axis"). Chávez's Polo Patriotico
went on to win 95% (120 out of 131 seats) of the seats in the new voter-approved Venezuelan Constitutional Assembly.
The "judicial emergency committee"
However, in August 1999, the Constitutional Assembly first set up a special "judicial emergency committee" with the power to remove judges without consultation with other branches of government over 190 judges were eventually suspended on charges of corruption. In the same month, the assembly declared a "legislative emergency," resulting in a seven-member committee that was tasked with conducting the legislative functions ordinarily carried out by the National Assembly legislative opposition to Chávez's policies was thus instantly disabled. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Assembly prohibited the National Assembly from holding meetings of any sort.
Framing of the new 1999 Constitution
Afterward, over the span of a mere 60 days in late 1999, the new and voter-approved Constitutional Assembly would frame and found a document that enshrined as constitutional law most of the structural changes Chávez desired. Chávez stated such changes were necessary in order to successfully and comprehensively enact his planned social justice programs. Sweeping changes in Venezuelan governmental structure were to be made; Chávez's plan was, stemming from his 1998 campaign pledges, thus to dramatically open up Venezuelan political discourse to independent and third parties by radically altering the national political context. In the process, Chávez sought to fatally paralyse his AD
opposition. All Chávez's aims were, in one move, dramatically furthered.
Ratification by popular referendum
This new 1999 constitution was presented to the national electorate in 15 December 1999
and approved with a CNE
-audited 71.78% "yes" vote. The new constitution then legally came into full effect the following 20 December
Text and guiding doctrines
The text of the constitution is an interesting hybrid of jurisprudential and political norms drawn from sources as wide as Simón Bolívar
's writings on constitutionality and popular sovereignty, José Martí
, the Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui
, and Evgeny Pashukanis. It is essentially a Bolivarian-Marxist charter, incorporating elements of popular sovereignty
(such as frequent referendums), social responsibilities, the right to rebel against injustice and the eternal independence of the republic from foreign domination.
Reforms introduced by the 1999 constitution
The Constitutional Assembly itself drafted the new 1999 Venezuelan Constitution. With 350 articles, the document was, as drafted, one of the world's lengthiest constitutions.
Venezuela's official name: the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela"
Despite the initial reluctance of the constituent assembly's deputies, it changed the country's official name from “Venezuela” to the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela", in honour of Simón Bolívar
. The change was made largely at Chávez's personal insistence.
Five branches in the Venezuelan government
Significant changes were made to the separation of powers
. Instead of the usual three branches
, the new Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has five:
- The executive branch (the Presidency).
- The legislative branch (the National Assembly).
- The judicial branch (the judiciary).
- The electoral branch (poder electoral, or "electoral power").
- The citizens' branch (poder ciudadano, or "citizens' power").
The electoral branch is headed by the National Electoral Council (CNE) and is responsible for the independent oversight of all elections in the country, municipal, state, and federal. The citizens' branch is constituted by the (defensor del pueblo) (ombudsman or "defender of the people"), the Chief Public Prosecutor (fiscal general), and the comptroller general (contralor general). It is responsible for representing and defending the citizens in their dealings with powers of the Venezuelan state.
A strengthened and recallable presidency
It also increased the presidential term of office from five to six years and introduced a presidential two-term limit. The document also introduced provisions for national presidential recall referendums that is, Venezuelan voters now were to be given the right to remove their president from office before the expiration of the presidential term. Such referendums were to be activated upon provision of petitions with a valid number of signatures. The new provision was activated for the first time when such a referendum was held in 2004, but it failed to receive majority support. See Venezuelan recall referendum, 2004
. The presidency was also strengthened, with the power to dissolve the National Assembly under certain conditions.
A unicameral and marginalized legislature
The new constitution also converted the formerly bicameral
National Assembly into a unicameral
legislature, and stripped it of many of its former powers. Thus, the new single-chamber National Assembly
dropped the prior traditional arrangement of the bifurcation of legislative powers between a Chamber of Deputies
and a Senate
. In addition, the legislative branch's powers were substantially reduced and transferred to the President of Venezuela
The Public Defender
Provision was also made for a new position, the Public Defender, which was to be an office with the authority to check the activities of the presidency, the National Assembly, and the constitution Chávez styled such a defender as the guardian of the so-called “moral branch” of the new Venezuelan government, thus putatively tasked with defending public and moral interests.
This is an idea derived from Bolivar's constitutionalism.
Public examination for judicial candidates
Lastly, the Venezuelan judiciary was reformed. Judges would, under the new constitution, be installed after passing public examinations and not, as in the old manner, be appointed by the National Assembly.
Health care as a human right
As Articles 83-85 under Title III of the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution
enshrine free and quality healthcare as a human right guaranteed to all Venezuelan citizens, the Hugo Chávez Frías
administration has sought to fulfill its constitutional obligations via the Barrio Adentro
program. Notably, Article 84 under Title III mandate that the healthcare furnished through such public programmes as Barrio Adentro
be publicly funded, and explicitly proscribes under any circumstance its privatization
. The relevant text from the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution
Article 83: Health is a fundamental social right and the responsibility of the State, which shall guarantee it as part of the right to life. The State shall promote and develop policies oriented toward improving the quality of life, common welfare and access to services. All persons have the right to protection of health, as well as the duty to participate actively in the furtherance and protection of the same, and to comply with such health and hygiene measures as may be established by law, and in accordance with international conventions and treaties signed and ratified by the Republic.
Article 84: In order to guarantee the right to health, the State creates, exercises guidance over and administers a national public health system that crosses sector boundaries, and is decentralized and participatory in nature, integrated with the social security system and governed by the principles of gratuity, universality, completeness, fairness, social integration and solidarity. The public health system gives priority to promoting health and preventing disease, guaranteeing prompt treatment and quality rehabilitation. Public health assets and services are the property of the State and shall not be privatized. The organized community has the right and duty to participate in the making- of decisions concerning policy planning, implementation and control at public health institutions.
Article 85: Financing of the public health system is the responsibility of the State, which shall integrate the revenue resources, mandatory Social Security contributions and any other sources of financing provided for by law. The State guarantees a health budget such as to make possible the attainment of health policy objectives. In coordination with universities and research centers, a national professional and technical training policy and a national industry to produce health care supplies shall be promoted and developed. The State shall regulate both public and private health care institutions.