The Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Spanish: Constitución de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela (CRBV)) is the current and twenty-sixth constitution of Venezuela. It was drafted in mid-1999 by a constituent assembly that had been created by popular referendum. Adopted in December 1999, it replaced the 1961 Constitution, the longest-serving in Venezuelan history. It was primarily promoted by then 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 and Bolivarianism. Since the creation of the Constituent National Assembly in August 2017, the Bolivarian government has declared the 1999 constitution suspended until a new constitution is created.
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 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.
One of the outstanding differences between Venezuelan and most of the other constitutions of the Americas is the lack of the possibility of impeachment of the president by the national parliament. Instead, it enables citizens to remove the president through a recall referendum.
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.
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.
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 72% '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 92% (120 out of 131 seats) of the seats in the new voter-approved Venezuelan Constituent assembly.
Conflict soon arose between the Constituent assembly and the older institutions it was supposed to reform or replace. During his 1998 presidential campaign, and in advance of the 25 July elections to the Assembly, Chávez had maintained that the new body would immediately have precedence over the existing Congress and the courts, including the power to dissolve them if it so chose. Against this, some of his opponents, including notably the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Cecilia Sosa Gomez, argued that the Constituent assembly must remain subordinate to the existing institutions until the constitution it produced had been ratified.
In mid August 1999, the Constituent assembly moved to restructure the nation's judiciary, claiming the power to fire judges, seeking to expedite the investigations of corruption outstanding against what the New York Times estimated were nearly half of the nation's 4700 judges, clerks, and bailiffs. On 23 August, the Supreme Court voted 8–6 that the Assembly was not acting unconstitutionally in assuming those powers; however, the next day Cecilia Sosa Gomez resigned in protest. Over 190 judges were eventually suspended on charges of corruption.
On 25 August, the Constituent assembly declared a "legislative emergency," voting to limit the Congress's work to matters such as supervising the budget and communications. In response, the Congress, which in July had decided to go into recess until October to avoid conflict with the Constituent assembly, declared its recess over, effective 27 August.
At one point the Constituent assembly prohibited the Congress from holding meetings of any sort. However, on 10 September, the two bodies reached an agreement allowing for their "coexistence" until the new constitution took effect.
Afterward, over the span of a mere 60 days in late 1999, the new and voter-approved Constituent 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 and COPEI opposition. All Chávez's aims were, in one move, dramatically furthered.
This new 1999 constitution was presented to the national electorate on 15 December 1999 and approved with a 72% "yes" vote (audited by the National Electoral Council). The new constitution then legally came into full effect the following 20 December.
Text and guiding doctrines
The text of the constitution is a 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 independence of the republic from foreign domination.
Innovations of the new constitution
The Constituent assembly itself drafted the new 1999 Venezuelan constitution. With 350 articles, the document was, as drafted, one of the world's lengthiest constitutions.
Despite the initial reluctance of the constituent assembly's deputies, it changed the country's official name from the "Republic of Venezuela"” to the "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela".
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. The legislative branch was changed from a bicameral system to a unicameral system.
It also increased the presidential term of office from five to six years, subject to a limit of two terms. 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 2004 Venezuelan recall referendum. The Presidency was also strengthened, aside from being the Chief Executive, head of state and head of government, with the power to dissolve the National Assembly under certain conditions, and can issue decrees that has the force of law, upon authorization by the National Assembly.
In 2009, term limits (not only that for President) were abolished by a referendum.
And a post of Executive Vice-President was created to direct the day-to-day operations of the government and to exercise duties and powers that may delegated to him or her by the President as well as to act as the chief operating officer. He or she is being appointed by the President and can be removed via censure by the National Assembly. The Executive Vice-President is also politically responsible to the National Assembly side by side with the ministers.
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.
Provision was also made for a new position, the Public Defender (Defensoría del Pueblo), which was to be an ombudsman 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 Venezuelan government, tasked with defending public and moral interests.
This is an idea derived from Bolivar's constitutionalism.
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.
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 administration attempted 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 reads:
Article 308 of Title VI the Venezuelan constitution showed a changed view on businesses. This article sought to introduce support for alternative management of businesses. Mentioned in the article are cooperatives, family-owned businesses, small businesses and savings funds. The government supported these alternatives as a way to democratize capital and challenge oligopolistic control of the economy.
Amendments proposed by President Chávez and parliament were twice decided in referendums:
- 2007 Venezuelan constitutional referendum – wide-ranging amendments were very narrowly rejected;
- 2009 Venezuelan constitutional referendum – abolition of term limits for various public offices (including president; a proposal to abolish Chávez's term limits was present also in 2007 amendments) was narrowly approved.