Lots of ideas on offer for how to rewrite Venezuela's constitution

Caracas (AFP) –


President Nicolas Maduro and the candidates in Sunday's election for a new assembly to rewrite the constitution promise a lot: from a return to peace after months of deadly unrest to relief from economic woe in the form of subsidized food.

The socialist Maduro is accused of holding the vote as a way to extend his powers and stay in office beyond the end of his term next year in this oil-rich country now saddled with an acute economic crisis so bad it is hard for people to buy food, medicine or even soap or toilet paper.

Maduro says that with the new Constituent Assembly as it is called, he will "perfect" the economy and enshrine in the constitution generous social welfare programs that make him popular among many working-class and poor people.

A total of 6,120 candidates are running in this election, for which the opposition has called a boycott. In their ads on television and radio they have suggested a variety of ways -- some quite novel -- for amending the constitution.

- Truth Commission -

Maduro says the Constituent Assembly's first job will be to set up a truth commission that would probe four months of anti-government street protests that have left 113 people dead. Maduro says right-wing agitators are behind the unrest.

"I, more than anyone, want the whole truth to come out," Maduro said recently in response to accusations that police and soldiers have outright shot and killed people during the street protests.

A prominent assembly candidate named Dexy Gomez has a simpler, more basic pledge. Hers is to "guarantee peace and love."

- 'Perfecting the economy' -

With this assembly Maduro also says he wants to overhaul Venezuela's economic system, which he says is too dependent on revenue from oil exports. On Thursday he released a booklet that outlines his proposals and is entitled "Venezuela, a country of 1,001 opportunities."

His ideas include a law to control prices and fight what he says is speculation and "economic war" being waged by the opposition and business owners in a bid to destabilize his government.

To counter a staggering rate of inflation -- the IMF forecasts it will come in at 720 percent this year -- the government has since 2003 imposed price controls that have taken a tough toll on Venezuelan companies.

The companies, in turn, argue that with such strict limits on what they can charge for goods, producing them can be a money-losing venture. So they don't, and thus there are such awful shortages.

To fix this, a candidate named Alexander Sala has proposed "a development system" based not on oil but on natural gas.

- Inscribing social programs in the constitution -

Another promise from the president is to etch into the constitution the so-called missions, or social welfare programs, created by his predecessor, the late socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez, and the "homeland card" -- an electronic card that would let people buy basic goods at subsidized prices.

Assembly candidate Antonio Leon suggests the government distribute basic foodstuffs on credit in underprivileged areas. "People receive the stuff, and when they come up with money, they pay for it," Leon has said.

- Security -

The Maduro government wants to reform the police force and stiffen sentences for rape, kidnapping, murder and terrorism.

Venezuela is one of the most violent countries in the world, with 70 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016 -- nine times the global average -- according to prosecutors.

Assembly candidate Hector Idrogo says there should even be "a section in the constitution on guaranteeing safety on public transport."

- Participative democracy -

Maduro also wants to introduce what he calls "new forms of participative democracy." The opposition counters that this is aimed at establishing an electoral system that favors people who support the government.

Assembly hopeful Oneida Garcia proposes "giving power to communes and the communal councils." Others suggest "transforming the state" but do not say how.

- Sign language -

Maduro's zeal to reform the constitution goes as far as the fight against global warming and even sign language, which he says he wants to learn.

Assembly candidate Carlos Viana, a student, wants to see the creation of a monitoring body to ensure that every research project undertaken at a university is actually worthwhile.