CARACAS, Venezuela — In 1999, the year Hugo Chávez took office, Venezuelan voters overwhelmingly backed his push to rewrite the constitution. Chávez was so pleased with the new version that he ordered millions of pocket-size editions to be handed out across the country. He liked to whip out a copy in the middle of his speeches and political sermons, like a preacher with a Bible.
Its cover was blue, but it became the Little Red Book of Chávez’s socialist “revolution.”
Which is one reason Venezuelans were surprised — and aghast — when President Nicolás Maduro, who succeeded Chávez after his death in 2013, said Monday that he wants to rewrite it.
Maduro's plans are a little different from those of Chávez. Venezuela is buckling from a deep economic and political crisis, but instead of getting voter approval to overhaul the constitution, Maduro gave the order Monday by decree. The constituent assembly’s delegates are likely to be drawn heavily from community and social groups loyal to his government.
The purpose of the new document will be to promote what Maduro and his supporters call “the communal state.” Its basic goal is to channel the government’s oil wealth into a system of locally elected “communal councils” that would assume some of the powers currently held by mayors, governors and the National Assembly.
Critics say the commune system is simply a way for the socialist government to give away money to its supporters and replace traditional democratic institutions with more pliant ones.
Analysts say the move to write a new constitution may fulfill a more immediate need of Maduro, by further delaying state-level elections, which his United Socialist Party is almost certain to lose, and possibly deferring presidential elections due to be held in 2018.
“This is a pretty lame attempt to avoid presidential and regional elections,” said Eugenio Martínez, a Venezuelan legal analyst and political scientist at Andrés Bello Catholic University. “They want to convene a process that would create the only election they could win.”
In the plan Maduro outlined, at least half the delegates for the constituent assembly would be chosen from groups that support government, Martinez said. “Meaning this attempt won't allow for universal, equal, direct and secret elections.”
Such an assembly would further sideline the opposition-led legislature, the only branch of government Maduro doesn’t control. It also could push Venezuela further toward pariah status in the Western Hemisphere, where the region’s largest countries have increasingly accused Maduro of descending into authoritarianism.
Venezuela’s opposition won majority control of the legislature in 2015, and Maduro has since maneuvered to muzzle his rivals, while the country suffers from growing crime and hunger.
Opposition leaders say Maduro’s plans are a ploy to further consolidate dictatorial rule, even at the expense of trampling the constitution so venerated by Chávez. They called on supporters to block roadways Tuesday morning and continue protests and marches that have swelled in the past month. At least 29 Venezuelans were killed in April in the tumult, according to human rights groups.
Maduro’s plans for a new constitution will depend on the continued support of Venezuela’s armed forces, analysts say. It is not clear how the proposal will be received by other members of the “chavista” movement — Chávez loyalists — who have becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the Maduro government’s more radical turn.
“This will be a real test of the chavista movement and its dedication to democracy and the figure of Chávez,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Opposition leaders are demanding new elections, the release of political prisoners and respect for the legislature. Maduro's bid to change the constitution could further energize their supporters and keep them mobilized in the streets.
At the same time, if the constituent assembly goes forward, the opposition could be confronted with a difficult choice, Smilde said.
It paid a steep price in 2005 when it boycotted elections in protest of the Chávez government, losing what little institutional power it had. Maduro may be betting that he can set a similar trap and get his rivals to abstain.
“I honestly have a hard time imagining this getting to the point that it would be tempting for the opposition to participate, but it could,” Smilde said.
A key difference is that Chávez in 2005 remained a popular figure, with the majority of voters behind him. Maduro’s approval ratings have fallen below 20 percent in recent polls.