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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Latin American Leaders Need Less Constitutional Reform, More Action

Henry Mance | 21 Sep 2007
World Politics Review Exclusive

BOGOTÁ, Colombia -- President Evo Morales wants to "refound Bolivia." His Ecuadorian counterpart Rafael Correa wants to "correct the barbarities committed by the party-ocracy." Their chosen method -- like Venezuela's Hugo Chávez before them -- is a new constitution. Ecuador will elect a Constituent Assembly on Sept. 30; Bolivia's version has been deliberating since June 2006. Meanwhile, Chávez himself is trying to reform the 1999 constitution that he promulgated, including provisions for a new six-hour week and a much-publicized change in the country's time zone.

The moves are far from unprecedented. For Latin American constitutions, life has often been nasty, brutish and short. Since 1811, Venezuela has had 25 constitutions -- more than its initial model, the U.S. Constitution, has had amendments. This is not just radical leftism, but instead draws on a continent-wide tradition. During the 1930s and 1940s, and again in the late 1980s and the 1990s, the constitutions of most Latin American countries were rewritten or substantially altered.

This might suggest that it is easy and desirable. By comparison with the United States, perhaps. In absolute terms, almost certainly not.

What inspires the focus on constitutional reform?

On the one hand, supporters argue that existing institutions are too corrupt, too politicized, too unwieldy to enact necessary changes. So, the institutions themselves must be restructured, often to give greater power to the president. Correa has blamed Ecuador's Congress for the country's recent instability, which has included nine different presidents in the past 11 years. His contempt for the institution was made clear by the Electoral Tribunal's sacking of 57 legislators in March.

On the other hand, the necessary changes are claimed to be so significant -- in terms of human rights, social justice or political structures -- that they deserve constitutional status. Morales has claimed the new constitution will correct centuries of wrongs suffered by Bolivia's indigenous peoples. Incorporating such changes into the constitution makes them legally and politically more difficult to revoke.

Certainly Correa and Morales can draw some comfort from achievements of constitutional renewal in the late 1980s and 1990s. The new texts embodied democratic opening in countries which had experienced autocratic government, including Brazil and Argentina, and even those which hadn't, like Colombia. Citizens' rights were strengthened, and many countries belatedly recognized the cultural and territorial rights of indigenous peoples.

However, with these achievements come considerable costs. Firstly, reform processes have been more tortuous than their proponents expected. Both Morales and Correa mistook post-election honeymoons for political dominance. In 2006, the former predicted his allies would win 70 percent of the seats in Bolivia's Constituent Assembly; in fact they won little over half. It is unclear whether Correa, despite his charisma and popular social spending, will be able to count on a majority in Ecuador's Assembly. Like other, less radical leaders, they have been unwilling to compromise with minority oppositions.

The result is that the current reforms are divisive, lengthy and even illegal. Political tension in Bolivia has led to violent street protests, hunger strikes, and even a fist-fight in Congress. Old gripes -- such as Sucre's demand to replace La Paz as the official capital -- have reemerged, while issues such as decentralisation are polarizing the western highlands from the eastern lowlands. The Constituent Assembly's slow progress led Morales to extend its mandate until December, but even that now seems unrealistic. Wary of a similar delay, Correa promised "shock therapy." He plans for the new Ecuadorian constitution to be approved by July 2008 at the latest. However, to keep this timetable may require actions of dubious legality, like the sacking of the 57 legislators. Such actions would have antecedents: Even many supporters of Colombia's 1991 Constitution admit that the assembly which designed it was unconstitutional.

Constitutional reform can become a polarizing process . . .

Not all constitutional reform has to endure such costs. Venezuela's 1999 constitution was designed in four months, after the opposition's decision to boycott the assembly elections gave the chavistas an overwhelming majority of delegates. Other constitutions, such as Bolivia's and Argentina's 1994 texts, have been designed consensually. However, the dogged ambition of many leaders who have proposed constitutional reform means that it tends to become a polarizing, winner-takes-all process.

Nor will Correa's and Morales' difficulties end with the approval of the texts themselves. Colombia's 1991 constitution, designed in a moment of optimism following the disarmament of several guerrilla movements, created unsustainable spending commitments. The resulting fiscal deficit was a key cause of the recession of the late 1990s, the worst in the country's history.

And, if implementing a detailed constitution has costs, so too does failing to do so. Brazil's constitution, an unbinding set of aspirations, contains rights to social services which the state lacks the capacity to realize. As the German analyst Peter Schroeder notes, "these unfulfilled promises are very damaging for both constitutions and democracies. . . . If it does not exist in practice, [the constitution] cannot generate trust or credibility."

Latin American leaders -- especially those as popular and ambitious as Morales and Correa -- would do better turning their attentions elsewhere, to two tasks, likely to be less controversial and more rewarding.

The first task is the designing of innovative socioeconomic policies. It is one thing to establish universal primary education as a constitutional right. It is quite another to help make it a reality by paying poor families to reduce their children's truancy, as pioneered by Mexico's Progreso programme in the 1990s. In Bolivia, Morales proposed "a social power" to ensure citizens' control over government; he would have done better to copy the participatory budgeting of the Brazilian Workers Party. Equally, a focus on export diversification is desperately needed on a continent whose current commodity boom will only temporarily disguise its inability to compete with Asian manufacturing. As it is, political instability in both Bolivia and Ecuador is deterring investors.

The second task is seeking durability not by changing the constitution, but by building broad-based political movements. Popular discontent with traditional party systems has led to the success of politicians who seem to break with them, such as Chávez, Morales and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe. This personal popularity can only last for so long. Morales' Movement to Socialism is increasingly outdated, and Uribe's allies are hopelessly divided. Yet, all three presidents have implied that the major barrier to their political project's longevity are constitutional term limits, and have sought reforms to enable presidential reelection. Whether or not these reforms are justified, they are no substitute for movements capable of taking forward ideological debates and popular representation for decades.

It is perhaps unsurprising that leaders like Correa and Morales prefer barn-storming constituent assemblies to less glamorous social reforms and political organizing. Yet what might deter future Latin American leaders from making the same mistake is understanding that the new constitutions are likely to last much less time than their designers intend.

Henry Mance is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá. He holds and M.Phil. in Development Studies from Oxford University.

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