The Americas

AP Explains: Venezuela's 'anti-capitalist' constitution

With hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets daily and international pressure mounting, embattled President Nicolas Maduro is doing something that once seemed unthinkable: Tearing up the constitution written by his beloved political godfather, the late President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez pushed through what he called an "anti-capitalist" constitution soon after he launched his socialist revolution here in 1999. Maduro's move to rewrite that charter could allow him to postpone elections he was sure to lose. But many are appalled that he wants to mess with this one of Chavez's signature acts as president. How did a constitution come to be so important in a country that's rewritten its founding document more than two dozen times?

Here's a look at Chavez's constitution and why it's such a big deal in Venezuela:

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LITTLE BLUE BOOK

When Chavez was sworn in in 1999, he put his hand on the old constitution and called it "moribund." His first order of business as president was to rework the charter. He had the resulting constitution packaged into a tiny blue book that became one of the most iconic visual symbols of his revolution. He loved to whip it out at public events, and referred to it as the most important text after The Bible.

Supporters carried huge posters of the little blue book at Chavez rallies, and begged him to sign their copies. When he died in 2013 and Maduro became president, the blue book became an even more potent symbol, connecting the deeply unpopular Maduro to the revolution's founder. Hardly a day passes without Maduro or some other government official appearing in public and waving the document, which has become the Venezuelan version of the late Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong's "little red book."

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SWEEPING CHANGES

Symbolism aside, the new constitution profoundly altered Venezuela's political structure. It extended presidential terms, consolidated the two houses of congress into a single body, expanded the branches of power from three to five, and let Chavez call immediate across-the-board elections.

Together, the changes allowed Chavez to parlay a five-year presidential term into a 13-year presidency, and ushered in two decades of socialist rule. At times, the sweeping changes played both ways. The leaders of a short-lived 2002 coup against Chavez cited the right conferred by the new constitution to rebel against undemocratic governments.

The constitution also included a raft of more cosmetic changes, including changing the country's name from just Venezuela to "The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela."

Chavez himself tried to amend — though not rewrite — the constitution twice. A 2007 effort failed in a referendum, but he won a 2009 amendment that eliminated presidential term limits.

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CHAVEZ'S LEGACY

Chavez remains the most charismatic political figure in a generation here, and the opposition has started to use him as an unlikely spokesman. Protesters last month began circulating videos of Chavez speaking on police brutality and the right to protest. Maduro's bid to rewrite the constitution has played right into the opposition narrative that he is betraying the revolution's core values. His opponents charge that Maduro is using the constitutional convention as an excuse to put off next year's presidential elections, which he was sure to lose.

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CONFUSION BOMB

Maduro has been vague about what changes he wants to make. He says the convention is needed to "restore peace" and has mentioned giving more power to communes, the small neighborhood groups created by Chavez that have been one of the revolution's last bastions of support. The current constitution does not really dictate how Maduro should select the members of the convention, and he will probably pick a sympathetic group.

The whole enterprise is likely meant as a "big confusion bomb," according to Northwestern University professor Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, who has studied the country's constitutional history. Maduro's main aim may be to get people talking about something besides the five weeks of anti-government protests that have left three dozen dead.

Old habits die hard, though. At his rally to kick off the rewriting process, Maduro could not resist the practice that's dominated socialist rallies in this country for a generation: He held up a copy of the little blue book for the crowd to cheer.

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Hannah Dreier on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/hanahdreier