Constitutional Reform in Latin America?

Yesterday I went over to the Organization of American States (OAS) for a roundtable on “Constitutional Reform in the Americas.” The event featured opening remarks by the OAS Secretary General, followed by country-specific presentations by experts on Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

I won’t bore you with the details, but three themes emerged:

1) The ever-expanding constitutions of many Latin American countries, both to strengthen strongmen (Chavez) and to add to the copious list of positive rights (Brazil). This is not good for either constitutionalism or rule of law because on the one hand you have the country’s founding document being changed at the whim of a single man and on the other a constitution bloated with such things as the fundamental right to, e.g., four weeks’ paid annual vacation decreases in legitimacy. To paraphrase an old Argentine lawyer who advised that country’s last significant amendment process in 1993-94, “constitutional inflation leads to rule of law devaluation.” Alternatively, the Latin American counterpart to the old saw about French constitutions being filed in libraries’ periodicals section is that Latin ones are filed as encyclopedias.

2) The desire to constitutionalize (or rebalance constitutional structures relating to) the “special rights” of indigenous peoples. There is nothing wrong per se with wanting to recognize that certain native peoples preceded the arrival of European colonists/conquerors (British-American in the U.S., Spanish and Portuguese in Latin America) and that these people should not be exploited as a result of their having been vulnerable to colonization. But to enact wholesale nationalizations and special privileges on the basis of race, or caste, or tribe – let alone raise these perversities to the constitutional level as is being proposed in Bolivia – is a political and legal travesty.

3) The battle over political reform is no longer, if it ever was, between left and right or socialism and neoliberalism (the common Latin American term for pro-market policies and the Washington Consensus), but rather between democracy and authoritarianism. This may not represent that much of a change from the past – the populist governments that plagued the region in the 20th century could be alternately left or right wing – but it does confirm that the “consolidating democracy” project of the ’80s and ’90s has stalled if not taken a reverse. That is, the narrative that those of us studying Latin America in college and grad school in the late ’90s to early 2000s learned – the Third Wave of democratization, Latin America finally being on the right path but just needing time to grow economically –  underestimated some nasty undercurrents of resistance.

In short, the roundtable was equal parts fascinating and frustrating. You can watch it (in Spanish) here.