As Venezuela's constituent assembly worked on a new constitution to change the country's governmental relationships, three members of the elected body of 131 came to Washington to justify their agenda for "profound changes."
The visit came one week ahead of a meeting planned at the United Nations between President Clinton and the Venezuelan president, former Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez, a populist reformer who has vowed to stamp out corruption and callousness toward the poor. Chavez's radical program has prompted complaints from traditional party leaders that he is violating the constitution and putting too much power in his own hands. Echoing some of those worries, the Clinton administration has expressed concern and urged Chavez to stay within the bounds of legality.
No need to worry, the three visitors said.
The constituent assembly, approved by referendum last April and elected in July, will consult the people again through a referendum on its draft bill for a new constitution, which will reorganize the legislative and judicial branches of government, among other things. Isaias Rodriguez, the first vice president of the constituent assembly, Ricardo Combellas, chairman of its executive power commission, and Claudio Fermin, deputy chairman of the state and municipal powers commission, outlined their work Wednesday afternoon at the International Republican Institute. They said 128 members of the constituent assembly were elected from a pluralistic palette of 10 political parties, while three represent the indigenous people.
Rodriguez said judicial reform is necessary because 3,360 complaints have been lodged in the Supreme Court against 1,500 judges. More than 5,000 cases have been delayed with no justification, he added. The reorganization of the judicial system will target these judges with disciplinary investigations.
Once the new constitution is approved, new parliamentary elections will be held. The present legislature is in recess, but members are still getting their salaries and have not been stripped of their immunity, Rodriguez said. He noted that the move to form a constituent assembly was the "most intelligent measure" Chavez and his followers could have adopted to ensure "a peaceful and democratic transition."
Fermin, once a presidential contender, stressed that the new constitution would ensure private property and a free flow of capital. "We are a country and a set of politicians that are very clear about servicing our external debt with punctuality," he said in response to a question about Venezuela's $4 billion foreign debt.
He urged journalists to ask Chavez next week about plans for reactivation of the economy that are being crafted by a group of Venezuelan entrepreneurs. "I don't believe we have an economic plan yet. But people who voted for Chavez did not come from Mars," he said. "However, we all have to do something to build confidence in the country."
When the group was questioned about the ruin of traditional political parties, which are unable even to pay their bills, Combellas pointed out: "We did not destroy anything. They destroyed themselves. In 15 years the percentage of infant deaths in Venezuela due to respiratory complications and other illnesses amounted to 25 percent of Washington's residents," he said, adding that people are eating out of garbage cans and living in cardboard houses.
On U.S. concerns about how Venezuela is going to manage its vast oil wealth, Combellas said this was a sensitive issue for Venezuelans. "Oil is not a religion, it is a business. The fact that the new constitution is not a set of rules on economic conduct is good news," Fermin said.
Davis Goes Back to Work
When in trouble, call Lanny Davis. We are not talking about presidential slander or humiliation. The former scandal buster has returned to his firm, Patton and Boggs, to take up the cause of Pakistan again. The firm, which does legal work for the Pakistani Embassy, has been retained by the Committee for Peace and Justice in South Asia, composed of Pakistani Americans who are organizing a network to lobby Congress on issues such as the disputed Kashmir region.
The group is led by Nassim Ashraf, a Washington physician. The two-pronged approach to the Kashmir issue will question India on its reluctance to sit and talk about Kashmir and its refusal to allow human rights observers from Amnesty International, the United Nations or other organizations from entering Indian-occupied Kashmir, Davis said.