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.

Historic August for LGBT Rights in Colombia

By Juliana Martínez

Colombia Diversa / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Colombia has again shown itself to be a country of contrasts – a society ostensibly ruled by Catholic and conservative morals with one of the hemisphere’s most progressive Constitutional Courts – with two important legal decisions on LGBT rights.  The Court has defended the democratic, pluralistic, and inclusive spirit of the Colombian Constitution against powerful authoritarian and conservative forces for years.  In 2007 and 2008, it granted pension, social security, and property rights to registered same-sex couples, and it ruled that same-sex couples “constitute a family” in 2011.  In spite of some recent rulings tarnishing its liberal record, last month the Court made two decisions that, though limited, have historic implications.

  • It ruled in favor of step-child adoptions by gay couples.  After much political, legal, and even religious debate, the Court broke a four-year silence on the highly contested issue, ruling 6 to 3 that Verónica Botero could legally adopt the biological children of her wife, Anna Leiderman.  The ruling does not explicitly allow joint adoption by gay couples, but the decision cites ample scientific evidence and declares that parental homosexuality cannot be considered a risk factor for children, thus leaving the door open for further LGBT-friendly jurisprudence in the matter.
  • The court recognized the gender identity of trans women by declaring that they do not have to comply with the compulsory military service required of all Colombian males.  The case centered on Gracy Kelly Bermúdez, a transgender woman who filed a lawsuit against the mayor’s office in Bogotá when she was denied a job for failing to provide proof of her military service.  Bermudez had not entered the military because she identifies as a woman, and therefore did not have the Military Service Registration Certificate (libreta militar) required when applying for jobs, studying at the university level or accessing health care services.  She would have been exempted if she had undergone an official sex change – the right to change one’s sex has been protected in Colombia since 1993 – but this can only be legally done after undergoing sex realignment surgery, a procedure that most trans women do not have access to, cannot afford, or do not want.  Therefore, despite their gender identity and expression, the legal sex of the majority of trans women continues to be “male.”  The Court decided in favor of Bermúdez and ordered the mayor’s office to hire her immediately.

These decisions are far-reaching.  In the Bermúdez case, the Court was essentially prioritizing gender identity over assigned sex at birth.  It declared that asking trans women for the Military Service Registration Certificate when hiring them is unconstitutional because it violates their right to define their own gender.  Furthermore, the Court told Congress to draft a bill that regulates the rights of transgender people in Colombia, paving the way for a much-needed Gender Identity Law.  The ruling also has deep regional implications.  Since Argentina passed a groundbreaking Gender Identity Law in 2012, many countries have been struggling to achieve similar results – and the Colombian legal precedent can become a viable alternative for impact litigation.  Currently, at least ten countries in Latin America have compulsory military service with different levels of enforcement attached to non-compliance.  But as the Bermúdez case illustrates, military conscription mandates can turn into strange, yet effective platforms to denounce how the state routinely imposes gender identity on its citizens, often against their own will, and to catalyze legal reform that advances LGBT rights in the Americas.

* Dr. Juliana Martínez teaches gender and sexuality and Latin American Literature in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

September 25, 2014