The Common Good
May 2004

We Wrote It

by Rose Marie Berger | May 2004

Venezuela's constitution is more than a political document.

Venezuela is a country where pocketsize constitutions are sold on the street corner, and old people and children carry dog-eared, sweat-soaked copies with them wherever they go.

"President Chávez is only passing through," says a member of a base Christian community in a barrio called Caricuao. "He is only a sojourner. It is the constitution that remains."

The new Venezuelan Constitution, constructed through a popular process and ratified through popular vote, combines the theological vision of the Latin American Catholic bishops at historic meetings in Medellín, Colombia, and Puebla, Mexico, with a populist political framework. In 1968, the bishops met in Medellín to examine the church’s role in social and political transformation in Latin America. Here the vision of a "preferential option for the poor," which had been rising up from the base for several years, was first clarified.

"The Lord’s distinct commandment to evangelize the poor," wrote the bishops at Medellín, "ought to bring us to a distribution of resources and apostolic personnel that effectively gives preference to the poorest and most needy sectors…."

The Medellín documents dealt with economic justice and development, anti-violence and peace, families, shifting social demographics, and the wealth and poverty of the church. They called for a social order where a person is not treated as an object, but as an agent of his or her own history. At Puebla, in 1979, the Latin American bishops renewed their commitment.

Chávez was listening and learning. "We must remember Puebla, when 25 years ago the bishops’ conference of Latin American and the Catholic Church expressed the option for the poor," he said when he addressed the leaders of 34 democracies at the January 2004 Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico. "This past must guide our vision of the future. It must inform our discussions on economic growth with equality and justice for all."

Chávez was also heavily influenced by Simon Bolivar. A Venezuelan-born leader in the early 19th century struggle for the country’s independence from Spanish colonial rule, Bolivar went on to liberate four other South American countries—Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Inspired by the republican ideal of a sovereign people shaping its own political future, Bolivar fought for a united and independent Latin American continent with enough economic and political strength to negotiate evenly with the United States.

In the 1980s, the figure of Bolivar re-emerged as a popular symbol. With the crash of the oil market, the Venezuelan economy took a nosedive. A populist "Bolivarian vision" began to emerge in Venezuela, promoting a new social and political order. It was to be based on a process of participatory democracy, civil rights, patriotism, national independence, economic self-sufficiency, an ethic of service to the people, and a preferential option for the majority of Venezuelans—in other words, for the poor.

The documents from the Medellín bishops’ conference called for protection of the human rights of the family, the individual, and the worker and the promotion of a just economic system. Venezuela’s Bolivarian constitution attempts to enact those same principles by calling for "reshaping the Republic to establish a democratic, participatory, and self-reliant, multiethnic, and multicultural society in a just, federal, and decentralized State that embodies the values of freedom, independence, peace, solidarity, and the common good…."

The Venezuelan constitutional process has been much more than political—it’s social and theological, as well. Many who are poorest now have that rarest of commodities: Hope. Hope in their constitution, hope in their besieged president, and most important for long-term success hope in themselves. Venezuela’s new economics is not just about poverty eradication. It’s a social economy for creating a more equal, democratic, and unique society.

"It is the constitution that is leading the process," says a woman from the Parish of the Resurrection in Caricuao. "It is the people who are leading the constitution. It is our constitution. We wrote it."

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