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Latin America's Document-Driven Revolutions

In this process, the role played by Viciano and his fellow Spaniards has generated controversy among some opposition figures, who consider the team to be agents of the ruling parties intent on translating government wishes into legally binding text. One Spanish newspaper, ABC, described Viciano in a 2007 article as Chávez's "gray matter" and the "principal ideologue" of Venezuela's constitutional amendments. Viciano objected, and the paper later retracted the assertions. But an air of mystery still clings to the work of the group, which operates largely beyond the scope of the public debate, according to assembly members in Ecuador and Bolivia.

Before Martha Roldós, the daughter of a former Ecuadoran president and a member of the country's constitutional assembly, first met Viciano at a university gathering in Quito, Ecuador's capital, she had heard only rumors about this man she described as an "almost ghostlike figure."

"I half-jokingly said to him, 'Ah, you are the one who already wrote our constitution,' " she recalled.

The criticism was perhaps most vocal in Ecuador, where the group worked as advisers to the president of the constitutional assembly, Alberto Acosta, and were paid more than $120,000 by the attorney general's office. A report on their work, apparently co-written by Viciano and published in the Ecuadoran press last year, discussed how they sketched political "red lines" for Acosta and received suggestions from the president's office. They also provided analyses on constitutional issues such as same-sex marriage, according to the news Web site Ecuadorinmediato.

The controversy impelled Acosta to deny that the Spaniards had written Ecuador's charter. He said the constitutional experts were helpful but had contributed no more than his Ecuadoran advisers. While Viciano shared an "ideological empathy" with President Correa, Acosta said, "Viciano's fingerprints are not on our constitution."

"They did not write drafts of the constitution, not that I know of. They contributed with issues," he said in an interview. "There was no time to get organized, so their experience became very valuable."

Kintto Lucas, an author and adviser to the Ecuadoran assembly on issues of sovereignty and foreign relations, said his committee asked the advisers to stay out of their work. "I always disagreed with their presence, because I believed that they truly didn't know the country," Lucas said. "Their fundamental role was to help the government put its ideas into the constitution."

Viciano has not responded to questions about his role in the constitutions, but in the past he has denied that he or his colleagues influenced any of the texts.

Rubén Martínez Dalmau, who worked as an adviser with Viciano in all three constitutional processes, said in a phone interview from Spain that his group had played only a technical role, helping assembly members "understand what would be the result if you put a comma in one place or another, or an article in one place or another."

"We are not the fathers of any type of concept," he said. "We are not machines that think all the same. There is not a common politics or a common ideology."

Martínez, also a constitutional law professor at the University of Valencia, said members of the group occasionally differed among themselves, as well as with the governments they were advising. For example, Chávez initially wanted a bicameral legislature, he said, but the advisers argued for a unicameral system, which the assembly eventually adopted. Acosta said the Spaniards also disagreed with the Ecuadoran assembly's decision to outline inherent rights for nature, which environmental groups said was unprecedented language in a constitution.

The final products are sprawling documents. While the U.S. Constitution has seven articles and 27 amendments, Venezuela's constitution has 350 articles, Bolivia's has 411, and Ecuador taps out at 444. Each document spells out a lengthy list of rights. The Bolivian constitution, for example, guarantees rights to food, water, free education and health care, sewer service, electricity, gas, mail and telephones, cultural self-identification, privacy, honor, dignity and a life free from torture and physical, psychological or sexual violence. There are special rights for children, old people, families and the disabled and 18 different rights for indigenous groups.

"It makes it almost impossible not to vote for them, they are promising all these rights," Quiroz said of the government. "I think they are clearly populist types of constitutions. Some of their provisions are so difficult to enforce, impossible, that the criteria for enforcing such very difficult things have to be left to the executive and the president himself."

Jaime Aparicio, a former Bolivian ambassador to the United States, said the problem is that such constitutions, "in which you mix good wishes with laws, become a shopping list."

"You can't solve problems by creating a constitution. You can say everybody's entitled to public health, but that doesn't solve the problem of public health," said Aparicio, who helped oversee the assembly elections in Ecuador and is vice president of the Inter-American Juridical Committee, based in Rio de Janeiro.

The new constitutions also give weight to the collective rights of groups, such as indigenous peoples and human rights and environmental organizations, enlarging their opportunities to act alongside, or as a check on, governments. In Venezuela, the Spanish advisers were influential on those issues, according to Carlos Ayala, a prominent Venezuelan jurist.

"They were, in our opinion, departing from what the constitution said, toward a more radicalized popular orientation, in the bad sense of the word," he said. "Popular power in terms of rule of law."

Supporters of such changes consider them necessary, and democratic, transformations.

"We are trying to resolve historical contradictions," said Carlos Romero, Bolivia's minister of agriculture and a member of the constitutional assembly. In the past, he said, Bolivia failed to protect indigenous people as "collective actors," was weak in dealing with its regions and was "divorced from its economy." The new constitution attempts to rectify those problems, he said.

In a panel discussion the day after Bolivians voted for the new charter Jan. 25, Viciano spoke critically of the document, particularly a series of amendments the National Congress had approved in October that he said acceded to too many of the opposition's demands.

"This is what those who call themselves revolutionary sometimes don't understand: In the revolution, you can't always reach consensus," Viciano said. "You either have revolution or you don't. But you can't force consensus."

Special correspondent Andres Schipani contributed to this report.

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