Latin America's Document-Driven Revolutions

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- Once a product of armed rebellion, the revolution in Latin America today is taking place on paper in the form of new constitutions, a mostly peaceful process influenced by the work of European legal scholars who have played a behind-the-scenes role in drafting the populist documents.

Venezuela's referendum Sunday on whether to amend a constitution less than a decade old to allow President Hugo Chávez to run for office indefinitely is just the latest example. Two other South American countries have embarked in the past decade on rewriting their societies' fundamental rules, creating enormous new charters that vastly expand the social and economic rights granted to citizens, particularly the poor.

In all three cases, from the Venezuelan charter in 1999 to the new constitutions in Ecuador last year and Bolivia last month, a team of Spanish legal scholars influenced the conception, drafting or implementation of the documents, which have stirred domestic class tensions and harmed relations with the U.S. government. The leader is Roberto Viciano Pastor, an author and constitutional law professor at the University of Valencia whose technical, and some say ideological, assistance in writing the constitutions is generating new scrutiny across South America.

"Why now? Because I believe that there is a popular crisis in these countries," said Raúl Prada Alcoreza, who served in Bolivia's constitutional assembly. "In these recent constitutions, there is a very strong sense of political history, and leaders have emerged who synthesize this passion and the demands of the people."

Constitutional law scholars point to several similarities among the constitutions of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, including the emphasis on "re-founding" those nations to correct historical injustices, to solidify the power of the leader and to focus public policy and spending on the social needs of classes traditionally overlooked by the government.

The leaders of those three countries have linked themselves with "what they consider the most important aspects of history for their country," such as the legacy of founder Simón Bolívar in Venezuela or the experience of the indigenous people in Bolivia, said Alfonso W. Quiroz, a history professor at Baruch College at the City University of New York, who is studying the constitutional history of Spanish American countries.

"They rely on that to achieve even more power for the executive," he said. "You definitely have to conclude that the three of them are driven by concrete political objectives."

Chávez has ruled for a decade. And President Rafael Correa in Ecuador and President Evo Morales in Bolivia both easily won referendums on their new constitutions that give them the possibility of a decade or more in office.

Each governs with a strident populist tone, animated by an anti-U.S. spirit, that places him to the political left of liberal Latin American governments such as those in Brazil or Chile.

While the three leaders' speech often borrows from a Cold War-era anti-imperialist message, each of them has relied on democratic polls to be elected and to approve new constitutions, unlike earlier rebellions by the armed left in Cuba and Nicaragua.

"What we have achieved in these last years was, in truth, the result of the deaths of many people, many young people, who decided to take up arms to bring down the authoritarian regimes in Chile, in Argentina, in Uruguay, in Brazil, in almost all the countries," Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said at a social forum last month. "They died, and we are doing what they dreamed of doing -- and we have won this by democratic means."

The popularity of these new populist movements could complicate the Obama administration's anti-narcotics efforts in the cocaine-producing Andes. Venezuela and Bolivia have sharply curtailed cooperation with U.S. drug agents, while a military base in Ecuador used for U.S. surveillance flights is scheduled to close this year. Each of these leaders has also questioned the benefits of free trade, a long-standing U.S. policy goal in the region.

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