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Right to Rebel in Venezuela

This is the second country study in Tom Ginsburg and I’s ongoing project to identify the potential risks and rewards of a constitutional Right to Rebel – Venezuela has had 26 separate constitutions since independence and the most recent have included various justifications for a popular right to rebel.

Case Study 2: Venezuela

The seeds for democratic governance in Venezuela were planted, or rather shot out of the ground, when oil was discovered early in the 20th Century. Oil wealth revolutionized the country, changing Venezuela from a sparsely populated agricultural backwater, to an economically powerful and internationally relevant nation. Democratic institutions began to grow around the increasing flow of petrodollars, leading to the dismantling of autocratic institutions and a brisk transition towards democracy. Venezuelan Historian Francisco Rodriguez argues that the sudden influx of wealth created a new elite commercial class to vie for power with the traditional military caste, which had ruled the country since independence. This tension persists, and remains a defining characteristic of Venezuelan politics.

The last caudillo ruler of Venezuela was overthrown in 1945 through a neatly executed coup-de-tat between Acción Democratica (AD), a group of progressive intellectuals which had become a clandestine political party, and a group of junior military officers who felt that the cronyism among President Angarita’s cadre was holding them back professionally.

The transitional government that followed the 1945 coup, spent two years preparing the Constitution of 1947, a document which would be enforced for only one. This constitution acknowledged a broad range of civil rights, and was criticized by TIME magazine as “the hemisphere’s most leftist.” It provided specific guarantees for labor (a right to strike, paid vacations, pay for Sunday work, profit-sharing etc) and set up a governmental structure similar to that of the United States with a Senate, a Supreme Court and a constitutionally limited executive branch. Congressional and presidential positions would also be decided by popular election.

Controversially, the 1947 constitution also contained a provision to give advantage to the incumbent party, which, for the foreseeable future, would clearly be Acción Democratica. The president could (with congressional approval) arrest anyone on mere suspicion of attempting to overthrow the government. This law led to the institutionalized persecution of the two newly founded minority parties (COPEI and URD.) These outfits in short order began to scheme with many of the same military officers who had overthrown Angarita. These officers felt increasingly marginalized by the current civilian administration and, although many had been personally promoted and honored for their participation in the 1945 coup, the military as an institution become less relevant to government than previously.

In 1948, Carlos Delgado Chalbaud and Marcos Perez Jiménez, with the acquiescence of the minority parties, seized control of the government and exiled AD leaders, declaring the party illegal. They abolished the unpopular 1947 Constitution and reinstated the autocratic 1936 constitution that had preceded it. Although the Constitution of 1947 had lasted for only one year before being overthrown, every Venezuelan constitution since then would base itself upon its foundation.

In 1948 Marcos Perez Jiménez, took sole control of the government, following the mysterious assassination of Chalbaud. The Perez Jiménez regime was marked by ten years of unparalleled economic prosperity and brutal political repression. Known as ‘P.J.’, by the grateful American businessmen, and local elites who profited from the highly liberalized (and minimally regulated) economy, Perez Jiménez modernized Venezuela with a brutal disregard for the needs of its people. Throughout this period Perez Jiménez’s rule was constantly being undermined by the (now underground) AD movement which still held much popular support.

To silence international critics, Perez Jiménez called for a new constitution for 1952. A ‘freely elected’ Constitutional Assembly would draw up a new apparatus of state and then legitimately declare him president. Obviously, all the resources of the State would be at the disposal of P.J.’s new political party, and the still popular AD would be barred from participating. Incentives were put in place, and not until registration figures showed that the government outnumbered the combined opposition (including previously registered AD supporters) by 400,000 votes (out of a total two million), did the election actually move forward.

During this time, exiled Acción Democratica leaders had orchestrated a scheme in which AD supporters were secretly told to register with the government and then vote for either COPEI or URD. As a result, with 25% of the vote counted, Perez Jiménez’s party was trailing both COPEI and URD (neither of which had ever polled above 55,000 votes) by over a hundred thousand votes. Following the 25% announcement, government censors stopped publicizing returns, and the election was promptly declared for Perez Jiménez. In the wake of this blatant electoral fraud Caracas was wracked by riots and student protests which were violently put down by the government and punished (the universities were closed for a year.) Perez Jiménez remained president, but did not get his constitution and his international credibility and domestic position were weakened considerably.

Regardless, Perez Jiménez remained vehement about the necessity of legitimizing his personal rule with a new Constitution. So in 1957, after 10 years of operating under the reinstated autocratic Constitution of 1936, he called up an election for a Constitutional Assembly that would draft a constitution in 1958. This time P.J., would not take any chances. All opposition parties were banned, and when other serious candidates emerged they were thrown in jail. The voting system was restructured so that you could only vote ‘for’ or ‘against’ Perez Jiménez and upon voting you would receive a colored receipt saying which way you had voted that you would deliver, in person, to a government official. Needless to say, the government won the election but the post-election criticisms and protests that resulted were what finally overwhelmed the dictator. The army felt that the election had been an embarrassment to Venezuela, businesses threatened to leave, and the Catholic Church began a letter writing campaign against Perez Jiménez. Two months later he was ousted, and his constitution will forever remain unwritten.

Perez Jiménez’s fall, led to the celebrated return of the exiled AD leadership who, in conjunction with COPEI, set down the Constitution of 1961 this constitution was similar in many respects to the failed 1947 Constitution, although it emphasized interparty cooperation, and placed significant institutional checks on the power of the ruling party. As a way of ensuring the new constitution’s survival and shield it from the fate of its precursor, the drafters included the following provision, the first Right to Rebel in a Venezuelan constitution.

Article 250. This Constitution shall not lose its effect even if its observance is interrupted by force or it is repealed by means other than those provided herein. In such eventuality, every citizen, whether or not vested with authority, has the duty to collaborate in the re-establishment of its effective validity. Those who are found responsible for the acts mentioned in the first part of the preceding paragraph shall be tried in accordance with this Constitution and laws enacted in conformity with it, as shall the principal officials of governments subsequently organized if they have not contributed to the re-establishment of its force and effect.”

The Venezuelan Constitution of 1961 remained in force until 1999 with no suspensions, coups or undemocratic successions; an accomplishment which for Latin America, a region where the average national constitution lasts for only around 10 years, stands out as a huge regional outlier. What eventually destroyed the constitution was economic collapse.

After growing at a steady 6% per annum through the 1960s, the quadrupling of oil prices due to Middle East instability in 1973 caused an unprecedented economic expansion and consumption boom in Venezuela. During this period the government created hundreds of new public works and undertook expensive projects such as the nationalization of the oil (1976), steel (1975) and mining (1975) industries. Public debt grew exponentially and when the price of oil came back down in 1983 the fall in government revenues, alongside higher worldwide inflation and a spike in interest rates caused a severe economic crisis.

For the next 15 years, economic growth remained negative or stagnant as successive administrations attempted to remedy the country’s economic woes to no avail. In 1989, an effort by the Carlos Andres Perez administration to institute IMF free-market reforms doubled the price of gasoline and raised the price of public transportation. Protests began in Caracas’ satellite cities, where citizens relied on public transportation to reach their jobs downtown. The protests quickly turned into riots and spread to the capital. When the so-called “Caracazo” was finally put down around 2500 Venezuelans lay dead alongside millions of dollars in looting and property damage.

Government credibility was severely damaged and the economy grew steadily worse; and an armed military coup against the Carlos Andres Perez administration narrowly failed in 1992. Among the leaders of this coup was Hugo Chavez. Chavez was sentenced to jail for sedition but when Perez was forced to resign for corruption charges, his successor Rafael Calderas pardoned the young lieutenant colonel.

Chavez was released from prison in 1994 and in short order he founded a new political party named Movement Towards a Fifth Republic (V). The 1998 presidential elections saw Chavez run on a populist platform promising a reversal of IMF dictated ‘neoliberal’ policies of the 1990s and better life for Venezuela’s majority-poor. His opponent was Henriquez Salas Romer; a unity candidate backed by the now largely discredited COPEI and AD parties.

Throughout the campaign, the Venezuelan media and conventional elites did much to bring attention to the inherent irony that Chavez would be sworn in under a constitution that he himself had attempted to overthrow less than a decade before. Regardless, Chavez won with 56% of the vote and among Chavez’s first acts was to announce a constitutional referendum to replace the constitution of 1961.

The Constitution of 1999 gave the president stronger centralized powers, abolished the upper house of congress (making the system unicameral), rearranged the Supreme Court, and added two nominally independent new powers: an electoral council and citizens councils. While many of Venezuela’s poor agreed that an overhaul of the governmental system was desirable, the country’s middle and upper classes looked upon the stronger presidency with suspicion. The draft passed through plebiscite with 71% support and the draft constitution became law.

The new constitution retained the gist of the Right to Rebel insurance policy from 1961:

Article 333: This constitution shall not cease to be in effect if it ceases to be observed due to acts of force or because or repeal in any manner other than as provided for herein. In such eventuality, every citizen, whether or not vested with official authority, has a duty to assist in bringing it back into actual effect.”

But also introduced a new provision, establishing a natural law argument for Chavez’ actions in 1992:

Article 350: The people of Venezuela, true to their republican tradition and their struggle for independence, peace and freedom, shall disown any regime, legislation or authority that violates democratic values, principles and guarantees or encroaches upon human rights.”

While the provision formalized Chavez’ philosophical argument for legitimacy; reconciling his own role as failed coup-master with that of his current position as democratically elected president into law, it has proven problematic during the tumultuous years to come.

A coup that briefly overthrew Chavez in April of 2002 at times invoked Article 350 as a justification for their actions. When the plot miscarried and Chavez returned to power the opposition organized a general strike, a record period of civil disobedience which caused irreversible harm to the economy and was again justified through the Constitutional Right to Rebel.

In October of the same year an article in the international periodical the Economist reported the following:

“Dissident generals and admirals, many accused of backing April's coup, declared themselves in ‘legitimate rebellion’ against Mr. Chavez, and set up camp in Plaza Altamira, a square in a leafy Caracas district. Calling for civil disobedience to force the president's resignation, they were joined by dozens of more junior officers and by several thousand civilians. The officers invoked Mr. Chavez's own, 1999 constitution, which enshrines the right to rebel against any regime that “contradicts democratic values, principles and guarantees, or limits human rights…”

The Right to Rebel again seems to serve as a double-edged sword, offering short term legitimacy to leaders with questionable democratic pedigrees but also causing a permanent legal and philosophical justification to those who would seek to overthrow them.


  1. I read this post and the one before it and was thinking about the right to rebel as a kind of extra-constitutional version of the constitutional insurance policy discussed in Professor Ginsburg's book. That is, a ruling party or regime puts in a right to rebel because it is not sure when the next coup will come and the regime wants to ensure it has a means of fighting back if the constitutional regime meets a premature death.

    You write about right as a response to extra constitutional means that bring about the constitutional regime, as a sort of self justification for actions already undertaken, could you or Professor Ginsburg discuss how it might be used as a future insurance policy?

  2. Nice point, Andrew. I suppose the empirical implication of the insurance rationale is that the right would be preferred by coup-makers who are not confident in their future position. those who, on the other hand, possess overwhelming power, might only use the right to rebel as retroactive justification.

  3. Tom,

    Thanks for the response. That's an interesting dichotomy, especially in light of the fickle nature of democracies that emerge via extra-constitutional means.


  4. Agreed Andrew and this is a great point. The framework we are setting up for analyzing the constitutional Right to Rebel actually takes the category you mentioned into account. We essentially subdivide the RtR into three different categories:

    1. Constitutional Defense: These forward-looking provisions are the most common rationale behind a constitutional Right to Rebel and serve as an extralegal insurance policy for the existing regime. These constitutions seek to pre-empt any move to suspend the extant constitutional order by declaring ex ante that whosoever it was that toppled the existing order did so illegally regardless of the circumstances. Article 333 of the Venezuelan Constitution quoted above provide a nice example of this.

    2. Natural Law: a provision which subordinates the existing constitution, and by extension those preceding it, to some greater law or truth. Predictably, these provisions are most often seen in constitutions drafted by regimes that either came about as result of some interruption in the previous order through a coup or by popular rebellion. By recognizing a “legal order” which trumps even the constitution these provisions can offer a retroactive Lockean justification for having overthrown, or attempted to overthrow, the previous regime. Article 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution quoted above serves as a good example.

    3. Self–Defense: similar to Natural Law in that it establishes the superiority of certain rights over the general authority of the constitutional order, however it differs in the scope of those rights. Whereas a Natural Law provision allows for people to rise in rebellion against the system itself, overthrowing it if necessary, Self Defense merely allows for people to protect their personal rights against abusive government. An example can be found here in an excerpt from the 1976 Portuguese Constitution:

    "Article 20 Everyone shall have the right to resist any order that infringes his rights, freedoms or safeguards and to repel by force any form of aggression when recourse to public authority is impossible."


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