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South America's Constitutional Battles
As Three Leaders Attempt to Reshape Power, One Question Is Central: Who Would Benefit?

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.

Just as Ch¿vez did before being elected in 1998, both Morales and Correa campaigned on the promise of creating constitutional assemblies to dramatically alter what was perceived by many as the failure of government institutions and of the rule of law.

"Large-scale constitutional reforms are extremely popular with citizens," said Jonathan Hartlyn, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina who has studied constitutional politics throughout Latin America. "They're particularly popular in a context of perceived economic and social exclusion, and in places where political parties and politicians are both weak and extremely unpopular and are blamed for the crisis."

The political tension has been worst lately in Bolivia, where thousands of people took to the streets last month, many of them advocating a break from the central government. Several regional governors created "autonomy statutes" calling for more independence and local decision-making power.

A draft of the constitution was passed Dec. 9, but the opposition continues to protest some of its articles, including those that would give the federal government more control of local tax revenue and limit the size of individual landholdings.

Jaime Aparicio, a former Bolivian ambassador to the United States who also helped oversee Ecuador's constituent assembly elections last year, places the blame for Bolivia's constitutional problems on the makeup of its assembly.

"The problem in Bolivia is that Morales's supporters elected people based on their loyalty to the party and on their political activism experience," said Aparicio, who also serves as vice president of the Inter-American Juridical Committee, based in Rio de Janeiro. "So once they were seated there in the assembly, there was clearly a problem that was very simple -- incompetence."

That's exactly the kind of statement that angers Morales's supporters most. They have argued all along that the constituent assembly should give more power to grass-roots movements -- not lawyers or the political elite.

When the opposing sides met in La Paz this month, they adopted a tone of conciliation, promising to focus on what brings the different regions of the country together rather than what splits them apart.

"When drafting a lasting constitution, you need to take specific policy off the table and focus on principles," said David King, associate director of Harvard University's Institute of Politics and a native of Bolivia. "It can be helpful to focus on abstractions and not particulars."

Morales, who has been accused of trying to consolidate power through the constitution by expanding presidential authority, last week seemed to suggest that the battles of the constitutional drafting process -- despite the deep rancor that has marked it so far -- might eventually lead to a consensus of what it should mean to be Bolivian.

"When there are no personal or sectorial ambitions, it's possible to understand each other for the well-being of the country," Morales said.

That has been the hope for the process since its inception, before something as basic as a face-to-face conversation between the two sides of the constitutional debate could have been labeled a breakthrough in negotiations.

"I think it will be a very difficult process, but I think we're in a much better place now," said Aparicio. "Like it happened in Venezuela, the circumstances are changing and I think President Morales realized that. We were very close to a confrontation, and he had everything to lose."

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