CARACAS, Venezuela - "NO."
With one-word, political buttons here quietly urge voters to reject a proposed constitution in a referendum today. If adopted, however, this new charter would leave America's top oil supplier largely in the hands of a charismatic, left-wing populist.
This document, drafted by the National Constituent Assembly, strains beneath the weight of its 350 articles. (America's has seven.) Its chief sponsor is 45-year old President Hugo Chavez Frias. Elected in December 1998, he first made headlines in 1992 for leading an attempted coup d'etat. Lately, he has played Mini-Me to Cuba's Dr. Evil. "I feel happy to follow the path of Fidel," Chavez said in Havana last month.
Chavez's charter would make James Madison gag. "This is a centralist, presidentialist constitution with no spread of power to the states and cities," says Henrique Capriles Radonsky. As President of the Chamber of Deputies, this 26-year-old freshman legislator already functions as the Dennis Hastert of Venezuela. "This is a corrupt constitution," Capriles adds, "that will leave Venezuela backward and poor."
This document is a campaign platform elevated to the supreme law of the land. Like a supermarket shopping cart on half-off day, it overflows with new entitlements, protections and "rights."
Public retirement and health costs could skyrocket, for instance, since the constitution promises everyone full benefits, regardless of prior employment or payments into the system. Pensions must be delivered as "a non-profit public service." This seemingly would deprive Venezuelans of the private retirement accounts that have spread prosperity from Chile to Argentina to Mexico.
Article 79 grants young people "the right and the duty to play an active role in their development." The state will pitch in by providing access to first-time employment.
Article 91 assures a minimum salary based on the annually-indexed cost of a basket of goods. Article 107 promises environmental education for all students. Article 111 outlines a "right to sports and recreation" while the state guarantees promotional funds. Even the ozone layer is shielded by Article 127.
"The entire Constitution is based on the premise that the state has inexhaustible resources," complains Jorge Olavarria, an Assembly member who rejects the proposal.
Property rights are forgotten until Article 115, while entire industries - such as water - are deemed "strategic" and thus open to state control. "Someone with a well on his property may be told, 'Your cows cannot drink this water until the people in the town below are finished with it,'" predicts Vladimir Chelminski, Executive Director of the Caracas Chamber of Commerce.
This constitution would impede "unjustified" downsizing, even if companies were overstaffed in lean times. Such constitutionally-imposed red tape, and a requirement that the oil industry remain nationalized, repels outside capital. "There will be no new foreign investment," the Venezuelan Confederation of Industry declared in a statement. "The president's foreign trips will be worthless because confidence in the country simply will be ruined."
Venezuelan Credit Bank President Oscar Garcia Mendoza believes the constitution would "deepen the recession and not create opportunities." This would be terrible news for an economy that shrank 9.6 percent through June and reels under a 20 percent jobless rate. Garcia points to article 305 mandating agricultural self-sufficiency. Will Venezuela grow all its own wheat or launch a wine industry? Wouldn't some food imports make economic sense? Team Chavez thinks otherwise. "More than ever," Garcia says, "they're trying to close Venezuela."
Chavez, a former paratrooper, has become a dashing civilian. He recently appeared before a hall full of artists in a three-button suit with a French blue shirt and equally blue tie. "There's no turning back," he said. TV stations carried his remarks for nearly three hours, as they often must, even as they sacrifice advertising and programming. He has held viewers' attention by describing the coffee he sips and singing folk songs.
While Chavez remains popular, some find his battlefield rhetoric frightening. CEDICE, Venezuela's premier libertarian think tank, invited Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa to lecture here. After the award-winning novelist criticized him in print, Chavez denounced Vargas Llosa as "an illiterate intellectual." He added: "We'll welcome him with our cannons loaded."
On November 24, some 10,000 protesters marched here against the constitution's proposed federal power grab. "No to centralism," read one broad, white banner. "Respect the provinces," demanded another. The next day, Chavez said of his opponents, "Those who side with the 'No' vote should get ready because the attack will be merciless...I will put my boots on and unsheathe my sword."
Consequently, some Chavez critics now tread lightly. One prominent detractor itches to unmask Chavez in a leading U.S. newspaper that already has published his work. Today, he fears reprisals. As the referendum vote visibly nags at him, he wonders half-seriously, "Will my next trip to Miami be voluntary?"