A Penchant for Rewriting Democracy
A Formula for Arrested Development in Latin America

August 1, 2008 - Washington Post

By Marcela Sanchez, desdewash@washpost.com
Special to washingtonpost.com

WASHINGTON -- Ecuadorian Security Minister Gustavo Larrea's mission here last week was, as he described it, to end this city's "stigmatization" of Ecuador.

Not an easy task. Ever since Ecuador's new President Rafael Correa came to power in January 2007, Ecuador has picked fights with U.S. oil companies, informed the U.S. that it will no longer be allowed to fly anti-drug surveillance missions from its territory, and broken diplomatic relations with Colombia, Washington's closest ally in the region. Central to the dispute with Colombia is Larrea's meeting with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, listed by the United States as an international terrorist organization.

In an interview at the start of his visit, Larrea lamented that Washington has taken these disagreements as antagonistic gestures, when they are not. Later that day he told a Washington audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that Ecuador should be considered "a friend in the fight for peace and democracy," rather than an enemy.

Meanwhile, back in Ecuador, Correa's "fight" for democracy has been to send a new constitution to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which will put it to popular vote on Sept. 28. Rewriting Ecuador's carta magna has been Correa's No. 1 priority. The new document would give him more power and allow him to serve an additional term.

Correa was the change candidate in 2006, and in Latin America that has come to mean the change-the-constitution candidate. Indeed, dumping the old constitution and writing a new one has strangely become a popular and acceptable method to deal with a country's ills. Correa, in fact, has widespread support for doing exactly that in Ecuador.

Latin America's penchant for tampering with constitutions is unmatched. According to one count by University of Illinois political science professor Zachary Elkins, nearly half of the 801 new constitutions adopted in the world since 1789 have been written in Latin America. The Dominican Republic leads with 29 constitutions. Ecuador will narrow the gap with 20, if its latest is approved in September.

The writing of constitutions for political purposes is a "perversion" of the region's democratic tradition, according to Arturo Valenzuela, director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University and a former Clinton administration official. "A democratic constitution is not meant to give guarantees to a fleeting majority," said Valenzuela. It must withstand the whims of a leader or a majority at any given time and it has to "give assurance to everyone," particularly minorities.

Latin America's obsession with constitutional reform has at times been fodder for cross-cultural disconnect. In New York two years ago, an enthusiastic Bolivian President Evo Morales talked to potential investors about plans for a new constitution, but his passion was lost on an audience seeking assurances of Bolivia's stability. Now, two and a half years into his presidency, Bolivia's constitutional reform effort has turned so contentious that it has impaired Morales' ability to govern.

More profoundly, churning out new constitutions, as Elkins points out, "makes it very difficult to consolidate democratic institutions." Without continuity, bureaucracies flounder and democratic institutions can't advance. Thus a pernicious cycle develops in which change is promised, expectations of the electorate are raised, and nothing gets delivered.

What's more, constitutions are no substitute for urgently needed sound policies. But frequently regional leaders are elected by small margins and enter office with weak political coalitions. Suddenly, what should be a tall order -- to write a new constitution -- seems simpler than attempting to get urgent reforms passed through congress.

With 444 articles, Ecuador's new constitution most likely will have a little something for everyone. But as Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, rightly puts it, "what people are going to remember about that constitution is what they remember of the Venezuelan constitution, that it will allow for re-elections." Shifter believes, in fact, that much of Correa's antagonistic behavior, particularly toward Colombia, is meant to rouse nationalistic sentiment that will help him win the September referendum.

A key motivation for constitutional amendments in Latin America has too often been to serve the incumbent. Over the last two decades, presidents of Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Bolivia and Colombia have also attempted and largely succeeded in reforming constitutions to get re-elected.

Of course, no one can say for sure what re-electing Correa will mean for Ecuador. But it would seem that the process of rewriting constitutions perpetuates a state of flux -- an arrested development -- all too prevalent in Latin America.