Caudillos and constitutions

The tradition of the charismatic strongman dies hard in Latin America.
Pedro Dutour | Apr 4 2009 | comment  

Latin American politicians have spent 200 years re-branding and relaunching governments and constitutions. The history of the region is a saga of caudillo retreads: from the petty kings in the 19th century to national security dictatorships to the Marxism of Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution to the demagoguery of Argentina’s Juan Perón in the 20th. Populism has always been a Latin American temptation.

Nowadays it is Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, with his “Bolivarian revolution” and “socialism for the 21st century”, who is the champion of re-branded populism. Bolivian President Evo Morales and his Ecuadorian colleague Rafael Correa are his enthusiastic followers. Indeed, their new constitutions are very similar. Curiously, to complete the work allotted to them by destiny, they claim that they need to occupy the Presidential palace for a long, long time.

In February, after ten years as President, Chávez finally won a referendum which opens up the possibility of re-election in 2012. He can stay in power as long as he wins elections, which should not be too difficult for him to organise. Morales also has the indefinite re-election bug. And Correa has a new constitution which allows the President to be re-elected in four times, instead of just once. He can remain in power until 2017.

Unlike simple re-election, unending re-elections are something novel in the region. Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Carlos Menem in Argentina reformed their constitutions with an eye to dying in harness, but they disappeared from the political stage before they were able to take advantage of it. At the moment, Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, is thinking of seeking a third term, even though this is currently forbidden by his country's constitution.

In a study carried out by the think-tank Nueva Mayoría, the Argentine political analyst Rosendo Fraga says that the Andean region (which includes Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia) “whether right or left, at this historical moment, supports strong leadership which is perpetuated in power”. The tradition of the caudillo, the Latin American strongman, dies hard.

The new constitutions of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are all in the same “Bolivarian” mould. They are full of politically correct ideals and nostalgia for the peace, fairness and justice inspired by the great 19th Century liberator Simón Bolívar. They all emphasise righting historic injustice, increased government spending to eliminate inequality, nationalisation, and condemnation of the neo-liberal economic model. According to the Washington Post, three Spanish experts under Roberto Viciano Pastor, of the University of Valencia, were employed to oversee the three re-branded constitutions. In Ecuador, the group reportedly was paid US$ 120,000.

Rewriting the constitution is something of a national pastime in Ecuador. Last year voters approved a new one, the twentieth in 140 years. This opened the door to liberal laws on abortion, legalised euthanasia, the abolition of private education and same sex marriage. The President now controls the central bank, can govern by decree and can dissolve Parliament if it “obstructs the execution of the National Development Plan”. In addition – a world first -- it grants rights to nature and to the ecosystem.

Bolivia has not been quite so cavalier about redrafting its constitution, with only 17 in about 180 years. The latest, which was also approved last year, is intended to give the indigenous population (55 percent of the population) a voice in policy. So far, it seems to have accentuated differences in a deeply divided country without redistributing wealth. It promotes the nationalization of the energy and telecommunications sectors, limits the size of large estates to 5,000 hectares and separates Church and State. Private property will be only be respected so long as “it acts in a social way”.

This generation of “Bolivarian” leaders has managed to secure power through the ballot box, not pistols, as used to happen. So this is a clear improvement. But democracy means something more than voting, and the new constitutions were not free of controversy. In Bolivia, a constituent assembly was responsible for drafting the constitution in 2007. At the time of voting, 153 of the 255 delegates approved it -- but the opposition had been locked up in a military high school. Although 170 was the minimum number for approving the draft, a national referendum still went ahead.

Selling the new constitution in Ecuador was a stormy affair, too, with a well-financed government slugging it out with businessmen, who abhorred its “socialism”, and the Catholic Church, which objected to its stand on pro-life issues. The same government support was a feature of the campaign for Chávez’s new constitution in Venezuela. Public servants and the nationalised media supported Chávez.

By the way, the future of the economy in each of these countries is a major concern. The global financial crisis will almost certainly have a negative impact on the re-branding project, especially since their economies are so closely tied to basic commodities. Oil exports incomes have shrunk due to a 75 percent fall in prices. Oil generates 97 percent of Venezuela’s exports nowadays, and about 50 percent in Ecuador. And prospects for Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, despite its immense gas reserves, are poor.

Alas for Latin America! Like the new owner of an old house, its caudillos are hooked on the buzz of repainting and renovating everything in sight. But they have little idea of long-term structural change. Do-It-Yourself constitutions will be with us for years to come.

Pedro Dutour writes from the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo.

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