South America's Constitutional Battles

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 18, 2008

BUENOS AIRES -- Movements to rewrite national constitutions are dramatically changing the political paths of several South American countries, triggering bitter debates over whether new charters will benefit future generations or simply serve the political ambitions of current presidents.

In three Andean countries -- Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela -- political leaders recently have pursued constitutional rewrites that would make it more difficult for future administrations to reverse the policies they instituted while in office. But in recent weeks, the proposals have reenergized opposition movements, which complain that their governments are tilting toward authoritarianism.

"In all of these cases, the constitutions will only last as long as the ruler does," said Allan Brewer-Car¿as, an opponent of Venezuelan President Hugo Ch¿vez who participated in a constituent assembly in the 1990s. "The main changes that they are calling for are to centralize the government and to concentrate power in that central government. If you want to reinforce democracy after that, you have to change them again to decentralize the governments and the power."

In trying to rewrite the charters, Ch¿vez and his allies in Bolivia and Ecuador hope to forge new national identities -- and awaken a strong sense of hope among their poorest citizens. They speak of their proposed changes in revolutionary terms, advocating a stronger state role in the economy and less reliance on global markets, which they say favor more-developed countries.

No one in South America is talking about abandoning electoral politics, but each of the three countries undergoing constitutional battles is experimenting with what the Venezuelan president calls "21st-century socialism." The experiment has not been easy, partly because determining exactly what 21st-century socialism looks like on the page has sparked painful periods of self-evaluation.

Both Ch¿vez and Bolivian President Evo Morales proposed changes that would do away with current term limits for presidents, and Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa's supporters advocate permanently dismantling the country's opposition-controlled legislature. To those who don't share their ideologies, the proposals appear to be attempts to win a tighter hold on power and silence the opposition.

The opposition, though, has only gotten louder since the changes were first proposed.

After nearly two years of bitter deadlock, an elected constitutional assembly in Bolivia passed a draft of a new constitution last month -- only to see it fiercely opposed by large sectors of the population. The controversy sparked riots and led Morales to call for a referendum on his own rule, and that of regional governors.

In Ecuador, a similar assembly made up primarily of Correa's allies effectively dissolved the National Congress. Critics cast the developments as the end of democracy, though judges reviewing the matter upheld the action.

And in Venezuela, voters last month dealt Ch¿vez his first electoral defeat by narrowly refusing a set of constitutional changes that would have given him even more authority. Though Ch¿vez and his supporters have hinted they could press for the proposals through other means, such as new laws or decrees, the constitutional referendum for the first time forced Ch¿vez to rethink the nature of his self-styled "Bolivarian Revolution."

"It would be a mistake if we ignored this and tried to increase the pace," he said this month. "I'm forced to put on the brakes."

The current constitutions are not exactly musty documents on yellowing parchment. Bolivia substantially revised its constitution in 1994, Ecuador's was ratified in 1998, and an assembly in Venezuela dominated by Ch¿vez allies drafted that country's charter in 1999. In 2004, the legislature in Colombia, a U.S. ally, changed its constitution to allow presidents to be reelected, permitting ¿lvaro Uribe to win another term two years later.

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