Transitions

Venezuela: The Constitution as Graphic Novel

The overall effect is reminiscent of the Gospel of Matthew: the little children come unto Hugo Chávez. Resplendent in a field of daisies, the national flag draped across his broad shoulders, Venezuela's late president stands at the center of a group of adoring youngsters. They embrace him, gaze upon him, or simply tug at the hem of his garments.

Surprisingly, the aforementioned scene is not found on one of the government-issued political murals in Caracas, nor is it leaked footage from Oliver Stone's upcoming biopic on Chávez. Rather, this is the image currently emblazoned on the cover of some five million newly printed copies of the Venezuelan constitution that are to be issued to every Venezuelan school child over the coming weeks in what current President Nicolás Maduro has characterized as "a beautiful gift to our nation's children."

The book's cartoonish illustrations -- a bit incongruous beside the legalese of the constitutional text -- also show a colorful, sword-swinging incarnation of Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar. Chávez and his revolutionary compadre act out various constitutional provisions with the children while also fending off sinister (and apparently American) imperialist agents garbed in black trench coats.

So where does civic education end and political indoctrination begin?

This "gift," Maduro assured his audience during a speech at the newly-inaugurated Supreme Commander Hugo Chávez Frías Elementary School, will help children "absorb values" with the effect of "motivating their mothers and fathers -- through the love of their children and grandchildren's love for Chávez, who gave his life to make us free." Understandably, some critics have raised concerns that the illustrated constitutions may represent an attempt by the government to brainwash the nation's youth, forcing them to buy into the revolution's cult of personality and anti-imperialist paranoia.

There are also practical considerations that would seem to render this initiative particularly ill-timed. One of the symptoms of the ailing economy that currently plagues Venezuela (inflation currently stands at 45.4 percent over the least year while the currency trades at over six times the official peg on the black market) is an acute nationwide paper shortage. This month alone, several local newspapers have been forced to stop printing due to the unavailability of paper, and the latest Dan Brown thriller currently runs the Caracas conspiracy buff in the neighborhood of $80. Even toilet paper is shockingly scarce (although I shall refrain from speculating how this might be affecting local demand for Dan Brown books).

Meanwhile, with its 350 articles, Venezuela's constitution is among the longest and most arcane in the world: the illustrated version weighs in at just over 320 pages. At five million copies, the project thus accounts for a rather staggering grand total of 1.6 billion sheets of paper.

Given Venezuela's propensity for shedding constitutions, the books would likewise seem unlikely to last into the adult lives of the children who are receiving them. At age fourteen, Venezuela's current 1999 constitution has already lasted nearly twice as long as the average life expectancy of its 25 predecessors. (The government has already attempted to replace it once, unsuccessfully, back in 2007.)

Then again, the artist Omar Cruz, who oversaw the creation and design of the illustrated constitutions, has already gone on the record regarding plans for a second edition, promising to incorporate feedback from the children themselves and to translate the constitution into proper comic book form -- in place of the current version with its stand-alone illustrations.

The project is part of a broader trend. The ruling regime has long attempted to co-opt every symbol of state into the revolution -- changing the currency, the flag, even the name of the country over the last 15 years so as to rebrand them in its own image. By fusing the state and its ruling party, the regime seeks to make itself irreplaceable. Ironically, however, its habit of overreaching more likely decreases the possibility that any of its "accomplishments" might someday outlive it.

If past history is any guide, whatever political system follows Chávez's revolution will probably be just as prone to reinventing history as the chavistas have been. When Pedro Carmona briefly became president following a short lived coup against Chávez in 2002, among the very first acts of his two-day tenure was changing the name of the country -- by decree -- from "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" back to, simply, "Republic of Venezuela." As each new regime strives to create a nation in its own image, any constitution too closely associated with the old is likely to be the first thing to meet with extinction.

Unfortunately, there are some other products of the current system that are likely to prove all too durable: the class enmities fomented during the revolution, a well-deserved international reputation for governmental lunacy, and the vast amount of paper wasted on five million obsolescent copies of the constitution. Thank goodness for recycling.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez

Transitions

Why It Makes Sense to Engage with Burma's Military

On September 18, Burma marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the most important military coup in its recent history. When state-owned radio announced that the military had taken over at 4 p.m. on Sept. 18, 1988, I was just 14. My fellow students and I were staging a hunger strike as part of a nonviolent protest to call for the restoration of democracy in Burma.

A dreary rain was falling. A voice on the radio read the coup announcement over and over again, alternating with loud military marching songs. The noise from the radio was agonizing enough. But then we heard a series of gunshots, and when we realized that they were gradually getting closer, older students and community leaders rushed to a nearby intersection to set up roadblocks so that an approaching column of soldiers couldn't reach us and clear out our camp. The younger hunger strikers, including myself, were promptly escorted to a nearby Buddhist monastery that the opposition was using as a refuge from the military crackdown. The junta imposed martial law and a corresponding curfew. General Saw Maung, the man in charge of the coup, once notoriously stated that "martial law means that there's no law in the country."

In the military crackdown that followed, I saw people being shot to death in front of me. Thousands of people, including many of my colleagues, left for the border areas, where ethnic rebel groups helped them form a student army to wage an armed struggle against the junta. After a few months of activism, I went into hiding to avoid arrest. That period ultimately lasted nine years. Eventually I crossed the border into Thailand in 1997. I've worked as a journalist ever since.

That was 25 years ago. In 2011, President Thein Sein (once the top general in the previous junta) took office, and the government he headed soon began signaling a political opening and the possibility of reform. Thein Sein's administration released political prisoners, lifted media censorship, and allowed opposition participation in the country's parliament. Most exiles, including me, were allowed to come back home.

I recently went back to the place where we staged the hunger strike and the monastery where we took refuge. It was a surreal experience. None of the people in my old neighborhood believed that they would ever see me again in this life. They've always assumed that anyone who fled the country and lived in exile would never be able to return. Whenever they see me again, they pinch my hand as if to convince themselves that it's really me. They hope, they tell me, that our horrible past won't ever be repeated. I have the same dream. I don't ever want to relive such a tragic past, not even in memory. And yet I sometimes feel like we're reliving those old days again, right now.

People often ask me if I think the country is sliding back into the dark age of military rule. If someone had asked me that question last year, I would have given a more optimistic answer. But now, I see that Burma and my people are slipping into a state of profound anxiety as communal riots, deepening poverty, ongoing civil strife, and the rivalries of political elites ravage the country. I don't think we can rule out any scenarios. In fact, two senior insiders of the ruling party have told me that another coup could well be a last resort if the nation slides into chaos.

A coup can be carried out legally under the current constitution, and that's the likely outcome if the reforms fundamentally hurt the army's institutional, political, or economic prerogatives. The military's decision to stage a coup, however, would depend not only on domestic politics, but also on the army's geopolitical calculations.

The Burmese military has long been aware of its over-dependence on China for equipment and training as well as political and economic support. Almost all the former and current military officers I've met tell me that the quality of Chinese equipment is terrible. The officers can still remember the days when they received U.S. military assistance, which they preferred. They recall that the United States financed $4.7 million in military sales in the 1980s as well as paid for about 175 Burmese officers to attend U.S. military schools under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) security assistance program. This bilateral defense relationship was abruptly terminated by the United States when the Burmese army seized power in September 1988. That was the end of the "good old days," as one officer lamented.

Since the mid-1990s, the Burmese army has been eager to diversify and reduce its dependence on China. But U.S.-led Western arms embargoes have prevented the military from doing so. Yet the military's willingness to support political reform in Burma has won Washington's support. Now a lot is riding on the possibility of reestablishing military-to-military relations with the Western countries.

The U.S. defense secretary said in 2012 that the United States was open to forging better military ties with Burma. Early this year, the United States allowed Burma to send a team of observers to the Cobra Gold military exercise in Thailand. In late August 2013, U.S. Ambassador Derek Mitchell met with the head of Burma's armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to discuss legal practices in military combat in a "cordial" effort to strengthen defense relations between the two countries. Australia, Britain, and other Western countries are also gradually resuming military ties with Burma.

Though the skeptics are rightly uneasy about the nature and extent of such defense relations, the opportunity to re-engage with Western militaries is an important incentive for the military's continued support of political reform.

In short, any positive political concessions the Burmese military is likely to make regarding constitutional reform and the 2015 elections rest to a significant degree on a mil-to-mil incentive package from the United States. I think that smart, timely action by the United States to reconnect with the Burmese military would be one of the best insurance polices against another military take-over. And that could well save me and my compatriots from reliving that tragic day in September 1988.

Min Zin is the Burma blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

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