May 2, 2008

No means no

Quico says: "No es no."

Three words, six letters, short, sharp, unambiguous, devastating.

The slogan is one of the most heartening developments in recent Venezuelan politics: it crystallizes the way the opposition has rediscovered its spine in the wake of its December Referendum victory.

Suddenly, the myriad presidential initiatives that amount to "smuggling constitutional reform through the back door" are meeting far more determined opposition: "no means no" has become a rallying cry for those of us convinced that if democracy it's too mean anything at all, the constitutional reform proposals defeated at the polls must not be resurrected through regular laws.

What a difference a year makes. In spring 2007, I was posting a lot about the distinction between the "hard constitution" (el hilo constitucional) and the "soft constitution": everything else. My argument then was that 95% of the reform proposal was filler, soft constitution stuff that Chávez didn't really need to change the constitution to implement - the evidence being that, in many cases, it was stuff he was already doing.

As I put it at the time at the time, "Supposing the reform proposal were defeated at referendum, do you really think the government would stop regulating pay-TV? Start funding FIEM? Disband the Guardia Territorial? Of course they wouldn't...but in that case, what exactly is the point of asking us to vote on it?" What difference could a vote make?

Every item in that little agenda was already being implemented before the December Referendum, and is still being implemented today. It's not any more unconstitutional today than it was a year ago.

But there is a difference: the referendum made the opposition as a whole much more conscious that the government has no legal basis to do much of what it's doing. December left us with a new awareness of the constitution's role as a bulwark against the abuse of power, and that awareness is becoming a focal point for resistance against further encroachment on our rights.

The government's climb down on the "Bolivarian" School Curriculum is the most visible example, but it goes further than that: the legitimacy of any move to implement Chávez's main agenda - all of which was contained in the reform proposal - has been badly undermined.

We should be clear: the opposition is still much weaker than it once was, hardly unified, still a minority, and only sporadically effective in holding the line against government encroachment. But the ability to say "No es no" has certainly bolstered its legitimacy, at least when it comes to rear-guard actions.

In a way, our referendum win ended up hardening up parts of the "soft constitution", strengthening our allegiance to it, even as the government systematically violates it. It's not much, but I call that progress.