Caudillos and constitutions

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
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

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.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.