“The Constitution reads more and more like subversive pamphlet…”

The phrase is Teodoro Petkoff’s. When he penned it, a few years, he was reaching for humor through hyperbole, but as time passes, his words have come to read more and more like a straightforward description of the situation we face. Consider just these few bits from the Constitutional text:

Article 34. All citizens  who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education, property status, or length of residence, except persons deprived of political rights according to law.

 

Article 35. Citizens  enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

 

Article 36. Citizens  enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.

 

Article 37. The freedom of person of citizens  is inviolable. No citizen may be arrested except with the approval or by decision of a prosecutor or by decision of a court, and arrests must be made by a public security organ. Unlawful deprivation or restriction of citizens’ freedom of person by detention or other means is prohibited; and unlawful search of the person of citizens is prohibited.

 

Article 39. The home of citizens  is inviolable. Unlawful search of, or intrusion into, a citizen’s home is prohibited. 

 

Article 40. The freedom and privacy of correspondence of citizens  are protected by law.

 

Article 41. Citizens  have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary. Citizens have the right to make to relevant state organs complaints and charges against, or exposures of, violation of the law or dereliction of duty by any state organ or functionary; but fabrication or distortion of facts with the intention of libel or frame-up is prohibited. In case of complaints, charges or exposures made by citizens, the state organ concerned must deal with them in a responsible manner after ascertaining the facts. No one may suppress such complaints, charges and exposures, or retaliate against the citizens making them. Citizens who have suffered losses through infringement of their civil rights by any state organ or functionary have the right to compensation in accordance with the law. 

Does that sound like it describes Venezuela today? Or an opposition political party’s platform for reform in the post Chávez era?

It’s neither. In fact, these fragments are taken from the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China

The other day I heard on this BBC radio documentary that if you type various fragments of the Chinese constitution into a search engine in China, the regime’s censorship software blocks the search. In China, Petkoff’s warning is literally true.

With Oswaldo Álvarez Paz’s arrest, Venezuela moves one significant step closer to operating on the Chinese Model, at a level of remove from the human rights protections supposedly enshrined in law that makes its pretention to democratic legitimacy not merely wrong, but actually grotesque. 

Even the most notorious dictatorships feel the need to pay lipservice to various civil rights in their written consitutions. In a way, the measure of a regime’s authoritarianism is given by the gap between its practices in power and the principles heralded in its constitution.