Latin America: The Spirit of Constitutionalism under Attack

By Maxwell Cameron*

Venezuela constitition

A participant in a march in Venezuela holds up the country’s constitution. / TeleSURtv / Flickr / Creative Commons

Recent events in Paraguay and Venezuela raise yet again the issue of whether political leaders are capable of deliberating and acting in ways that show an appreciation for constitutional essentials, or whether they choose instead to perform their roles and offices in ways that continuously test constitutional principles and, over time, contribute to their erosion.  The principles of re-election and term limits are important in every presidential democracy, the product of historical circumstance.  In the case of Paraguay, a dictatorship under strongman Alfredo Stroessner from 1954 to 1989, sensitivity to the idea of a president serving for too long is strong.  Venezuela’s elimination of term limits a few years ago set a dangerous precedent.  Other constitutions limit incumbents to one term (Mexico, Paraguay) or two terms (United States, Colombia); in some constitutions, presidents cannot be re-elected immediately but can run later after a term has elapsed (Peru, Uruguay).

  • More important than the constitutionality of term limits is that the re-election issue be settled in a way that commands the assent of all parties – within a certain spirit of constitutionalism. Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes’s error was to think that he could change the constitution by means that violated this spirit, even if the public would arguably support a modification of the re-election rule if pursued in the right way.  (Since the fall of Stroessner, the Partido Colorado, the pillar of his rule, has won every election except in 2008, when Catholic priest Fernando Lugo was elected.  Lugo was deposed in 2012.)  The President of the Senate, Roberto Acevedo, opposed the change and was outraged by the way it was adopted: the Senate voted in a special session held behind closed doors.  In that session, 25 Senators approved the measure, bypassing the opposition Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico.

The showdown in Venezuela over President Maduro’s effort to shut down the congress was another undemocratic blunder.  A decision by the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ), Venezuela’s supreme court, to arrogate legislative functions to itself or delegate them to other branches or agencies was unconstitutional.  (The TSJ has the power only to declare a law invalid or that another branch of government is operating outside the law.)  When the Fiscal General de la República, Venezuela’s equivalent of attorney general, Luisa Ortega Díaz argued that the TSJ’s decision was unconstitutional, she gave herself political cover by expressing loyalty to the Constitution of 1999 – the legitimacy of which has long been undermined by the fact that it is a document made to measure for chavismo.  As a result of this and significant domestic and international pressure, the government backed down – a rare event.  The attorney general’s insistence that the constitution not be violated indicates that a spirit of constitutionalism among chavistas is not completely dead, but it also shows that it remains a mechanism for coordinating the actions of agents within the government.  Her position also raises the possibility of a split between constitutionalists and hardline militarists within the regime.

Democracy is not just a system of rules.  It requires politicians to acknowledge and respect the essential constitutional agreements that have to underpin the struggle for power in a self-governing community.  The crises in Paraguay and Venezuela both forewarn of the dangers of excessive partisanship and the risks of playing fast and loose with constitutional rules.  Something similar seems to be playing out in Ecuador, where allegations of fraud have been made by the opposition.  If spurious, they are condemnable; if supported by evidence, they are deeply disturbing.  Either way, they reflect mistrust in institutions after a decade of rule by Rafael Correa (Likewise, U.S. Senate Republicans’ threats to use of the “nuclear option” to confirm Judge Gorsuch threatens to deepen the politicization of the U.S. Supreme Court.)  The cost of the failure of politicians and citizens to cultivate a spirit of constitutionalism is very heavy.  In Paraguay, it has resulted in deadly protests and resignations by top officials; in Venezuela it has taken the country to the brink of civil war; in Ecuador, there is a real prospect of debilitating governance problems as Lenín Moreno of Alianza PAIS takes office; and in the United States we are starting to see the kinds of governance problems that have long been associated with the “politicized states” (to use Douglas Chalmers’s phrase) of Latin America.

April 5, 2017

* Maxwell A. Cameron is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at the University of British Columbia.

Venezuela: Maduro versus Capriles, again

By Michael McCarthy*

Henrique Caprile / Photo Credit: ICP Colombia / Foter.com / CC BY-SA and  Nicolas Maduro / Photo credit: OEA - OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Henrique Capriles / Photo Credit: ICP Colombia / Foter.com / CC BY-SA and
Nicolás Maduro / Photo credit: OEA – OAS / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Venezuela’s municipal elections on December 8 didn’t conclusively answer the single question on people’s minds:  Would the parties aligned under the leadership of President Nicolás Maduro or those under opposition leader Henrique Capriles win a commanding victory?  Attention centered on this question because Capriles had rejected the results of the April 14 balloting as fraudulent and this time called on voters to give a clear majority to his opposition “electoral bloc.”  Maduro came out ahead in last Sunday’s contest, with its complex ballot asking voters to choose mayors and councilpersons in 335 districts.  His alliance, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) plus left-wing parties, totaled 49 percent of the vote, and parties aligned with the opposition received 42 percent.

But Maduro’s crowing about a “great victory” that propels the Bolivarian Revolution forward with “greater force” and legitimates a “deepening of the economic offensive” rings hollow.  Some of the 9 percent of the vote that went to candidates identified as independents may lean toward him, but the PSUV aspires to be a hegemonic party, claiming a much stronger base, and some hardcore chavistas are complaining about the opposition’s resilience in major urban centers and victories in the capitals of three interior states, all chavista strongholds, including former President Chávez’s home state of Barinas.  In broad strokes, Maduro’s economic populism – attacks last month on so-called economic criminals and measures forcing stores to lower prices – gave him a late boost.  Polls indicate that, with annual inflation running at 54 percent, the move paid off.  Maduro’s blitzkrieg gave urban working-class voters a means to afford items ahead of Christmas and showed the radical base of chavismo his commitment to challenge crony capitalism.  The opposition failed to mount an effective counterattack.  Preparations next year for 2015 National Assembly elections will tell the staying power of this victory for Maduro and the effectiveness of his “economic offensive.”   Capriles, who offered a calm post-election speech, sounded confident of his strategic game, but some in the opposition are probably disappointed that they did not take more Chavista strongholds.

Even though the opposition didn’t win the global numbers game, its significant presence in city halls around the country gives it a position from which to build the outline of a governance model.  One important winner appears to be the electoral process itself, in which the technical machinery ran smoothly and no sustained allegations of fraud were made.  A second winner was governability.  Notwithstanding some bullying of Capriles campaign workers, no violence transpired during the campaign or on voting day, and both sides can claim victories.  Maduro’s triumphalist rhetoric confirms that Venezuelan politics is going to remain far from harmonious, but even a modicum of governability could go a long way as the country faces many tough, if not intractable, questions in the coming year and beyond.

*Michael McCarthy is Lecturer, Latin American Politics, at Johns Hopkins University, School for Advanced International Studies.

Chavismo Wins a Battle But the Tide May Have Turned

By Eric Hershberg

Inauguration of Nicolás Maduro | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Inauguration of Nicolás Maduro | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Nicolás Maduro’s inauguration last Friday marked a new stage in the contest between chavistas and the Venezuelan opposition.  Maduro’s surprisingly weak showing at the polls – winning by a meager 1.8 percent margin despite the huge (and abused) advantages of incumbency – plus tensions within his party and his own rhetorical excesses, suggest that chavismo without Chávez confronts challenging odds.  Chávez attracted more votes alive than he could in death, as his hand-picked successor could not match his patron’s appeal at the ballot box.  Looking forward, Maduro and the Partido Unido Socialista de Venezuela (PSUV) will be judged on the basis of their performance.  The road ahead will not be easy for Maduro, as the government  confronts growing economic and security problems, and his ineffective campaign may energize potential competitors from within Chavismo.

Henrique Capriles’s strong showing in the election bodes well for the opposition.  However, athough Maduro’s blanket reference to them as “fascists” is absurd, their apparent eagerness to use the vote recount – reluctantly agreed to by the electoral council hours before Maduro’s inauguration – to remove him from office could breathe life into his allegation that the opposition consists of  golpistas obsessed with taking power.  Overreaching could be their undoing, as it has been in the past.

Latin American presidents, through a UNASUR statement of support and participation in the inauguration, have endorsed Maduro’s ascendance to the Presidency.  Their strong interest, for a variety of reasons, is in a balance between continuity and change in Venezuela. Although there are signs that both Chile and Colombia wavered momentarily, South American governments overall were united in their preference for a chavista government, as this would favor both  internal and regional stability.The United States, on the other hand, has appeared timid.  Maduro’s accusations of U.S. attacks on him and the presence of Iranian leader Ahmadinejad at the inauguration made it impossible for Washington to send a senior emissary to the swearing-in.  Yet the evident absence of the United States, even after the UNASUR endorsement, was petty.  Through statements calling for a recount of 100 percent of the votes both the State Department and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations came across as unable to outgrow a grudge match with Chávez or to grasp that the American position would isolate Washington once again from prevailing sentiment in South America.

There were two winners in the Venezuelan election:  Maduro, who is now the elected President, and Capriles, who managed to secure nearly half the votes in the face of overwhelming odds.  The latter comes out ahead in the long run, but only if he manages his cards wisely.  Washington, meanwhile, seems still not to understand two things:  First, after Bush v. Gore, it will be at least another generation until Americans can say anything about how to count votes.  It was legitimate and appropriate for the OAS to demand a recount, as its record in election monitoring is impeccable.  Secretary General Insulza achieved the core objective of the Organization and should be recognized for having done so.  For the American government to have taken the position that it did suggests an inability to understand the consequences of the 2000 election in Florida for its credibility in election-related issues in the region.  Second, democratic change in Latin America is typically an evolutionary process.  This may be less satisfying to some policymakers who would prefer to see a foe’s outright defeat, but it may be better, for Chavismo’s enemies in both Washington and Caracas, than having their favorite step in at this particular time of high tensions.  If Capriles and his coalition can brand themselves as democratic reformists rather than golpistas, they have a good chance of coming to power when Maduro’s six-year term is exhausted, or even before, and if they convey a message of responsible opposition, key South American governments might well approve of an alternation in power the next time around.

Venezuela: A New Start?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Memorial for Hugo Chavez | by Steve Rhodes | Flickr | Creative Commons

Memorial for Hugo Chavez | by Steve Rhodes | Flickr | Creative Commons

The death of President Hugo Chávez yesterday, as has been duly noted, marks the beginning of a new era – new opportunities and new challenges – for Venezuela.  In view of the country’s history and institutional weaknesses through the 1990s, some of the convulsions of his 13 years in power may have been inevitable, but the need is now compelling, across the political spectrum, to take a sober look at the future, set aside some of the stalemated grudge matches, and get serious about becoming something better.

It’s easy to predict at least some short-term instability, bombastic rhetoric, and jejune nationalism, such as some fringe Chavistas’ allegation that the United States was responsible for Chávez’s death.  It’s harder for Venezuelans and outsiders alike to figure out how this country, hindered by the original sins that plague all rentier economies, learns how to do politics in a transparent, inclusive manner.  For analysts like us, the key thing is to set aside wishful thinking and keep our eye on the fundamental drivers of change.  Some thoughts:

  • For better or worse, Chávez had an impact that – if not as transcendental as he wished – dismantled the key institutional pillars of the sclerotic Venezuelan political system.  Beyond that, his legacy includes the profound and intentional division of Venezuelan society and politics into two camps – a tense split that did not exist (or was sublimated) 20 years ago and will take a long time to heal, as has the cleavage around Peronism in Argentina.  Like Peronism, over time chavismo need not necessarily have a standard left-right quality, and it is likely to retain a cult around Chávez’s persona, larger in death than in life.  Evita a la venezolana.
  • Chávez wasn’t the regional or global threat that the Bush Administration made him out to be, but he did open space for a particular species of Latin American populism – call it radical, “socialist,” or clientelist – that coincided with a broader U.S. withdrawal from Latin America.  Few observers could have imagined that this former military colonel – a failed putschist – could capitalize on the region’s crisis of representation and development to bring about the emergence and prosperity of the ALBA coalition and the identities it fostered.  The lifeline of petro-dollars that Chavez opened, a tool that, it is often forgotten, had been deployed by previous Venezuelan governments to gain outsize presence on the international stage, explains some of his influence, but his forceful personality and the siren song of his peculiar Bolivarian ideology multiplied his impact.  His model was not replicated elsewhere, but his fervent regional pride was.
  • Chavez’s successors, of any political stripe, will test Washington’s capacity to keep its hands off.  Venezuela – even the opposition – has changed, and United States policymakers will hear rhetoric and see things, such as a relationship with Cuba that’s likely both to shape and to survive both countries’ transitions, that will test their self-discipline.  Chávez is gone, and chavismo, though certain to endure, will inevitably change.  But Venezuela’s need for space – space granted by its neighbors and the United States – to grow and even make mistakes remains a constant.  Over the 15 years in which Chávez dominated the scene, from his first election in 1998, Washington sometimes resisted the temptation to play into the game, but more than occasionally took the bait.  Washington has often misread Latin America and, by endorsing the 2002 coup against Chávez and other actions, actually strengthened the Venezuelan president domestically and regionally.  Chávez’s passing presents an opportunity for a fresh start for the United States, too.

Political Participation in Latin America Expanding

participatory democracy coverFrom local citizen initiatives to national referenda, mechanisms of direct political participation have been spreading with astonishing vigor throughout Latin America in recent years. Some of these mechanisms are new and unprecedented in the way they involve citizens in politics, such as frequently touted participatory budgeting systems at the municipal level in numerous countries.  Other initiatives, such as the National Policy Conferences that consult the citizenry regarding an array of issues in Brazil, are less widely known. In most Andean countries and to some extent elsewhere, these forms of participation often emerge where established representative institutions, such as party systems, have collapsed, or where legislatures have fallen into disrepute.  Yet they also proliferate alongside strong parties, legislatures, and interest associations, as we see in Brazil and Uruguay.

A recent CLALS-sponsored book* examines these new forms of participation and analyzes when they promote, and when not, the consolidation and deepening of representative institutions. The participatory innovations vary along a number of key dimensions, including how they interact with political parties and established institutions, their focus on collective versus individual rights and, perhaps most importantly, their autonomy from political and economic elites.  These differences and their implications are analyzed in detail in case studies on seven Latin American countries: Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.

When new forms of political participation emerge spontaneously and independently – as a natural reaction to an unfulfilled need at a local or national level – their voices are authentic and tend to enhance democratic rule.  Brazil’s National Policy Conferences and Uruguay’s referenda to enhance accountability are examples of the incorporation of new voices in policy formulation – to the benefit of the constituencies driving them and the nation as a whole.  We also find instances where participation has exacerbated and reinforced longstanding patterns of clientelism (including in Mexico and Brazil), and autocratic leaders have sought to create or capture such voices to bypass representative institutions (including in Nicaragua and Venezuela).  A valuable lesson of this research, however, is that, once in place, these spaces may become increasingly autonomous. Venezuela’s community councils are an important case to watch: created to reinforce the Chavista project as defined by the Casa Rosada, they may take on a life of their own when the politicians who sponsored them relinquish their positions of power or pass away.

New Institutions of Participatory Democracy: Voice and Consequence, published by Palgrave Macmillan 2012, resulted from a multi-year project co-organized by CLALS and the University of British Columbia’s Andean Democracy Research Network.  More information on the project can be found here .  (The volume has also been published in Spanish by FLACSO-Mexico, Nuevas instituciones de democracia participativa en América Latina: la voz y sus consecuencias)

Uncertainty in Runup to Venezuela Elections

Photo: Venezuela elections 2012 | by World Development Movement | Flickr | Creative Commons

Polls in anticipation of Venezuela’s presidential election on October 7 yield, not surprisingly, wildly different results.  A survey by Datanálisis puts President Chávez ahead of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by nearly 15 points, and Consultores 21 predicts a much tighter race and places Capriles on top with just a narrow margin.  Both Chávez and Capriles have declared that they have the support of the majority of Venezuelans.  Chávez insists that he needs to complete his “Bolivarian Revolution.”  Capriles has vowed to tackle everyday issues, such as rising crime and violence, and has pledged to liberalize currency controls and promote investment in agriculture.  Both predict dire consequences if they lose.  Chávez contends that “civil war” will break out, and Capriles insists that a Chávez victory would take Venezuela one step closer to becoming “another Cuba.”

Polling data are notoriously unreliable wherever elections are not strictly about choosing a government but, to some citizens, are perceived as involving a change in the underlying regime.  For many Venezuelans, both pro- and anti-Chavista, the balloting in October is precisely about regime continuity or change.  The surveys undoubtedly reflect that this may indeed be a transcendent election in Venezuela.  This unreliability further complicates analysis of what happens after the election: how both sides would respond to a razor-thin margin of victory or to a decisive verdict.  In the latter circumstance, the losing parties would seem to have no option but to relent, but the challenge would be no less daunting if Capriles wins and has to effect a smooth transition.

The Obama Administration, for its part, has tried to keep its distance from the Chávez government – except for the occasional counternarcotics cooperation – and overall has avoided interference in the electoral process.  But persistent tensions in the relationship make it hard for Washington to assert neutrality in the elections.  Capriles, in an interview with the Miami Herald, criticized the Obama administration for caring little about Latin America, saying “I think the bureaucracy ate him up.”  Capriles urged the U.S. to establish a “relationship of equals” with Latin American nations.  Such criticism most likely reflects a desire by Capriles to appear independent of Washington, but should he find himself in the Presidency, it may take on a life of its own – and he may join most of the region’s leaders in regretting U.S. aloofness toward the region.