Cuba: Opening Pandora’s Box?

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuba constitutional reform

Reading about the constitutional reform project in Cuba. / Twitter: @SoberonGuzman

The constitutional reform process that the Cuban government is undertaking — controlled and cautious — and adjustments to one or two regressive regulations may be setting in motion political dynamics that will fuel pressure for more change.  After months of consulta popular, the constitutional drafting committee is preparing a new draft for consideration by the National Assembly during a two-day session beginning December 21.  Current plans are still for it to be subjected to a referendum vote in February 2019.

  • Skepticism about the real impact of the consulta, which reportedly resulted in hundreds of thousands of written comments, is deep, but most non-governmental observers believe that participation was so strong that the popular input had an impact. Debate about Article 68 — establishing the constitutional right of same-sex marriage — was most obvious.  Evangelical churches, with Catholic support, led the push against it, organized demonstrations, and circulated posters easily visible on Havana streets.  Local observers report that government officials were surprised by the mobilization and, fearing the article will spark abstention from the referendum or votes rejecting the whole constitution, now face the challenge of balancing the forces for and against it.
  • Debates are reportedly also taking place, including among senior officials, about the role of the Communist Party. Observers say that the party has accepted its subordination to the constitution and laws of the country, but — while it will remain the “fuerza dirigente superior de la sociedad y del Estado” — there reportedly is no consensus on its exact role and relationship with the government.  Another controversial provision deals with vague limits on the “concentration of property” versus the “concentration of wealth.”

The government’s handling of opposition to regulations announced last summer (but scheduled to take effect this month) has also left opponents — justifiably skeptical about any government signals of compromise — wondering where process and policy are headed.

  • The day before a regulation tightening controls on private sector businesses was to be implemented on December 7, the government rescinded several harmful provisions. Under the original version, Cubans could hold only one business license, and private restaurants could have no more than 50 chairs, but both measures were overturned as a result of private sector complaints, according to Labor and Social Security Minister Margarita González.  In a speech to law students, President Díaz-Canel reportedly emphasized the importance of cuentapropista input as well.  There were also hints of a softening of a regulation increasing government control on artists — requiring their credentials to hold shows be validated by a government office — when the government delayed implementation and said it was subject to further elaboration.  With both regulations, officials tried to appear to be listening to the strong opposition they faced.
  • The government has left in place, however, new controls on private transportation operators, particularly the ancient private vehicles (almendrones) running on established routes where public buses are lacking. The government claimed drivers were overcharging, not paying taxes, and not maintaining their cars adequately.  The measure itself, as well as many private drivers’ work slowdown and surrender of their special transport licenses in protest, have significantly hindered Havana citizens’ ability to get around the city.  The government has announced that it is importing several hundred microbuses to cover the routes but has given no sign of compromise on the regulation.

The road to reform in Cuba is littered with unfulfilled expectations; the skepticism of common folk affected by the revised constitution and various regulations, as well as government opponents, is not unwarranted.  It is impossible that the National Assembly could give the thousands of proposed changes to the constitution draft serious consideration in a two-day session.  But some aspects of the ongoing processes, such as the government’s recognition of affected sectors’ concerns, appear likely to create new expectations of government attentiveness and even civic participation.  Non-fulfillment of those expectations may not lead to destabilizing protests in the short term, but it would be yet another negative signal about the Party’s willingness to allow the country to evolve toward the new and more stable model it has claimed interest in establishing since 2011.  The public statements of former President Raúl Castro, President Díaz-Canel, and others suggest awareness that, in the post-Castro era, legitimacy will come from economic results and improved living standards – which require broader and deeper public inputs into policymaking.  Everyone will be watching whether the recent, partial consultations were a short-term show, an experiment, or a hint of a shift in approach.

December 18, 2018

Cuba: Sticking to the Plan

By Fulton Armstrong

Miguel Diaz Canel

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. / Irene Pérez / Cubadebate / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel passed the six-month mark in office this month, his administration – not surprisingly – continued to produce no surprises.  His rhetoric and policies, similar to the package of constitutional reforms now undergoing consulta popular and scheduled to be approved by referendum next February, are an extension of Raúl Castro’s tightrope walk between continuity and gradual change.

  • Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, Díaz-Canel condemned the “selfishness and exclusion” of capitalism as the cause of poverty, instability, climate change, and other ills. He also proclaimed, “The generational change in [Cuba’s] government should not deceive the enemies of the revolution; we are continuity, not rupture.”  He welcomed the almost-friendless Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to join one of his biggest public appearances.  Showing his pragmatic side, however, Díaz-Canel also met in New York with U.S. technology companies and icons of U.S. capitalism – Google, Bloomberg, Microsoft, Twitter, and others – declared his hope to “computerize [Cuban] society,” and welcomed the announcement of the first U.S.-Cuban biotech joint venture.  Upon his return to Havana, he launched his own Twitter account.
  • On economic reform, Díaz-Canel has continued the same halting approach toward market socialism as did Raúl. New regulations announced in July, to be implemented in December, seemed designed to restrain the growth of the private sector rather than accelerate the reform program.  New mechanisms to ensure that cuentapropistas pay more taxes and operate within the law will dampen their growth in the short term and aggravate contradictions in current policies – for example, curbing black-market purchases of supplies without creating wholesale markets for them.

Ongoing national discussions on constitutional reforms, launched by the National Assembly in July, are compatible with Díaz-Canel’s approach to change.

  • The new document reaffirms two tenets of the Communist Party’s revolutionary platform – the party’s continued leading role as sole political representative of the Cuban nation, and a commitment to a socialist system in which state property predominates and universal social services remain free. But, importantly, the draft omits the goal in the 1976 constitution of “building a Communist society,” signaling the leadership’s recognition that private property and markets will be a permanent feature of the new Cuban model.  It reconfigures policymaking processes to increase efficiency (such as by formalizing the position of Prime Minister), increases the autonomy of local government, and separates more clearly executive and legislative functions.  An amendment allowing same-sex marriage has sparked heated public debate and given rise to an unprecedented political organizing drive by churches opposed to it.
  • The amended constitution does not significantly expand the space for private enterprise, but it provides a stronger legal foundation for the reforms that have already been implemented in various waves since 1992. The draft also strengthens protections of Cuban and foreign-owned private property and investment, providing guarantees against future expropriation.

When introducing changes over the years, the government has routinely, if not obsessively, emphasized continuity – and Díaz-Canel’s administration is proving to be no different.  The signs of change are often nuanced, whereas hardline positions, which tamp down progressives’ expectations and assuage conservatives’ anxieties, are unmistakable.  Díaz-Canel’s adherence to Raúl’s program gives him both essential political cover emphasizing continuity as well as a platform for continuing gradual change.  That formula doesn’t help him with some major challenges, such as the need to unify the country’s two currencies, that have loomed large for several years.  But Díaz-Canel’s gradualist approach – particularly if enshrined in a new constitution next year – is compatible with the view held by many Cubans that change should be evolutionary, not disruptive, even if they wish it went faster.  Washington’s curtailment of bilateral normalization is depriving the private sector of much-needed resources to drive change, but the country’s continued international outreach and expansion of internet access have given entrepreneurs a moral, if not economic, lifeline.  Cubans have often said they’ll do change “their own way,” and Díaz-Canel, with his abundance of caution, may be leading that process. 

October 31, 2018

Honduras: Would a Constituent Assembly Help?

By Hugo Noé Pino*

Several people raise their hands in the Honduran National Congress

A recent session in Honduras’ National Congress. / Congreso Nacional de Honduras / Creative Commons

The need for Honduras to convene a National Constituent Assembly appears increasingly compelling even though the country’s political elites continue to oppose one.  Proponents of an “ANC” argue that it would not only help the country overcome the fraud perpetrated in last November’s elections; it would give oxygen to the country’s failing democracy.  They note that the current constitution, promulgated in 1982, has been violated and modified so many times – such as when President Juan Orlando Hernández was allowed to run for reelection – that the document’s original meaning has been obscured if not lost.  ANC proponents cite other facts pointing to the need for an assembly:

  • The constitution calls for a “planned economic policy,” in which the state and law “shall regulate the system and process of planning with the participation of the Powers of State, and political, economic and social organizations shall be duly represented.” But that planning model, which has never been implemented in Honduras, has been overtaken by the neoliberal model, based on market freedoms, adopted in the 1990s.  Amendments passed in 2012 were intended to create special employment and development zones, but not a single one has emerged.
  • Since the 2009 coup, Honduran society has been polarized by violations of the law, the concentration of power, abuses, corruption, and other problems – all aggravated by the widely contested election of last November. Business, workers, farmers, trade unions, academia, non-governmental organizations, and other sectors have been unable to find agreement on how to deal with the nation’s pressing problems.  ANC supporters say that true national reconciliation is going to require a new social pact that a new constitution can create.
  • Backers also argue that the ANC would breathe new life into the political parties – deeply discredited by the corruption and chaos engulfing them – and allow them to become a mechanism for intermediation between society and the state. An assembly, they say, would bring political leaders and the people together in pursuit of better alternatives to the current system.  A system of checks and balances, including a new judicial system, would help guarantee the separation of powers and enhance citizen participation in public policy.

Prospects for an ANC do not look good at this moment despite important endorsements, such as that of the Honduran Catholic Bishops Conference in a public letter last December.  Most of the political elite, responsible for setting the country on its destructive course, stridently oppose the idea, but proponents feel the elites will eventually have to accept one.  The “national dialogue” launched after the November elections has made no progress or, worse, has aggravated tensions.  The black cloud over those elections and the surge in corruption cases under investigation – an important achievement of the Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) and its partners working under the Attorney General – have driven politicians to dig in their heels.  Their efforts to hold onto power, prevent transparency, and block accountability puts them directly against the sort of reforms an ANC would represent. 

  • Even when the political class eventually allows the ANC proposal to take off, many obstacles lay ahead. One of the first – and extremely difficult – steps would be selection of a truly independent Supreme Electoral Tribunal to oversee a referendum on the ANC and the election of assembly delegates.  The questions on the ballot would be simple, focused on support for the ANC and support for presidential reelection, but the task of making Honduras an inclusive society, with transparency, accountability, and respect for the rule of law would take the sort of vision and discipline that only a new constitution would provide.  While critics claim an ANC would be playing with fire, it’s certainly better than the current situation in which we are all threatened with being burned.

August 14, 2018

* Hugo Noé Pino is currently a professor and coordinator of a Ph.D. program at the Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana (Unitec) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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.

Bolivia’s Remarkable Political Stability

By Miguel Centellas*

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Political slogans in support of Bolivian President Evo Morales and his MAS party (Movement for Socialism), calling for “500 more years” of their rule. / Francoise Gaujour / Flickr / Creative Commons

In the 11 years since he was first elected president of Bolivia, Evo Morales has delivered remarkable stability and progress even though his drive for power still concerns many opponents.  Along with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, he was labelled by some observers as part of the “irresponsible” or “populist” left – in contrast to more “social democratic” leftists like Brazil’s Lula da Silva or Chile’s Michelle Bachelet.  The “populists” were also widely criticized for weakening and playing loose with democratic institutions and for authoritarian practices associated with the region’s caudillo legacy.  But Morales’ course has neither followed Venezuela’s, whose populist regime lies in ruins with no clear exit strategy; nor Ecuador’s, which looks set to accept a peaceful transition of power to the opposition later this year.  Bolivia appears to have reached a sort of political equilibrium.

  • Despite charged economic rhetoric and his championing of leftist socioeconomic policies, Morales has pursued prudent, conservative macroeconomic policies. Bolivia has carefully increased its reserves from a little over $3 billion in 2006 to more than $15 billion by 2014.  As of 2015 reserves amounted to 40 percent of GDP.  At the same time, the GDP has grown from just over $8 billion in 2000 to nearly $33 billion by 2015, with GDP per capita (PPP) nearly doubling from $3,497 to $6,954 in the same time span.
  • Morales’s signature socioeconomic reforms borrow from the “responsible” leftist models, rather than the vertical chavista model. He has created cash transfer programs similar to those used successfully in Mexico and Brazil.  These bonos, including some created by Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, provide unconditional cash for pensions, pre- and post-natal care, and education.  While this spending pales in comparison to “megaprojects” such as highways and soccer stadiums, it goes directly to Bolivian households – with obvious political benefit for the Morales government and clear, direct benefits to average Bolivians.
  • The new constitution adopted in 2009 – a product of compromise between Morales and the regionalist opposition – radically decentralized state structure, satisfying opponents’ desire for significant space at the local level. The eastern lowland regionalist opposition can regularly count on winning governorships in Santa Cruz, Beni, and Tarija, while middle-class, liberal opponents win in the major cities of La Paz, Cochabamba, Potosí, and now even El Alto.  This diffuses political conflicts and prevents the consolidation of unified opposition.  Conflict between the central state and regionalists continues, but it has become routinized and therefore has stabilized.
  • The electoral court, elevated to be a “branch” of government in the 2009 constitution, has remained largely impartial, maintained its political independence, and significantly improved its capabilities – increasing Bolivians’ trust in the legitimacy of elections. A referendum last year, rejecting a constitutional reform that would allow Morales to run for another term in 2019, was managed competently and (for the most part) fairly.

Not all is well, however.  Despite losing the referendum, Morales and his MAS party made clear that he intends to find a way to run for reelection yet again in 2019.  The opposition’s concerns about his authoritarian tendencies are not wholly exaggerated.  Indeed, the government frequently lashes out at its perceived enemies in ways that go well beyond the niceties of democratic adversarial politics.  Likewise, there are clear signs that corruption remains deeply rooted within the government.  But none of this contradicts what seems obvious: The MAS government has brought relative prosperity and stability – even fueling optimism that if (or when) it steps down, its transition may be more like the one that Ecuador appears likely to experience later this year than the meltdown that is tearing apart Venezuela.

March 23, 2017

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the University of Mississippi’s Croft Institute for International Studies and has written extensively on Bolivian electoral and subnational politics.  He also co-directs an interdisciplinary summer field school based in La Paz.

Bolivia’s Constitutional Referendum Marks New Political Era

By Miguel Centellas*

Referendo Morales

Photo Credit: Organo Electoral Plurinacional de Bolivia and Alain Bachellier, respectively / Wikimedia and Flickr / Creative Commons

Bolivian voters’ rejection last week of a constitutional amendment to allow an incumbent president to run for a third consecutive term is a setback for President Evo Morales but a step forward for the country.  Both the government and opposition understood the national referendum as a plebiscite on Morales, who is now the longest serving head of state in Bolivian history.  Had the referendum passed, Morales would have been able to run for a fourth five-year term in 2019.  (Because Morales was first elected in 2005, before the new constitution was approved in 2009, the high court decided that he was eligible to run for reelection in 2014.)  During the months leading up to the referendum vote, polls showed a narrow gap between the votes in favor of the amendment and the No votes, with a large number of undecided.

As the final count began to crystalize (the official count is not yet available), it became clear that No won by a slim margin (51.3% to 48.7%).  At first, Morales and members of his government disputed the results, arguing that late-arriving rural ballots would vindicate him.  Later, they claimed opposition fraud and manipulation, including a “dirty” war waged by the opponents and the media.  Several scandals, however, appear to have been the real cause of Morales’s loss.

  • New developments in lingering accusations of fraud committed at the Fondo Indígena, an organization established to support economic, social, and political development of marginalized peoples. Government auditors last year uncovered more than a hundred incomplete or non-existent projects valued at tens of millions of dollars.  The case involved several ex-ministers in Morales’s government and leaders of his MAS party.
  • New allegations of corruption involving Gabriela Zapata Montaño, a romantic liaison of the President in 2006 who is now an executive for a Chinese-owned company (CAMC) that was awarded a large number of no-bid contracts for government development projects. Some sources claim millions of dollars have been misappropriated.  Zapata was arrested shortly after the vote.
  • Accusations that the MAS (and, implicitly, Morales) instigated angry protesters to attack the municipal building in El Alto, Bolivia’s second largest city, killing seven people and injuring many others. The mayor, Soledad Chapetón, and La Paz provincial governor Felix Patzi, a former education minister under Morales, were the first two opposition candidates to win those positions since MAS came to power.  The government dismissed the allegations and suggested that Chapetón orchestrated the violence to make herself a martyr.

The results of the referendum – and, more importantly, the frenzied reactions from Morales and other high-ranking members of his government – make the immediate future appear uncertain.  Morales accepted the results of the referendum but also ominously pointed out that there are other ways to amend the constitution.  He also dared opponents to initiate a recall referendum to remove him.  Nevertheless, some members of MAS – showing eagerness to carry the party’s wide support among Bolivians into the future – have begun publicly discussing possible successors.  Another positive sign is that Bolivia’s electoral court showed itself to be truly autonomous, bolstering opposition confidence in a key institution.  The question is whether Morales believes his party (and by extension his legacy) is worth preserving, or whether he wants to risk them for another dubious bid for reelection.  Claims that Morales’s setback is part of a “conservative tide” sweeping through Latin America may be premature, but this referendum may have repercussions elsewhere.  Ecuador’s Rafael Correa’s public comments that he would not seek reelection in 2017 may now become firmer.  The day of the three- or four-term president seems over.

March 3, 2016

* Miguel Centellas teaches political sociology at the Croft Institute for International Studies at the University of Mississippi.

Honduras: Dare Anyone Criticize?

By Fulton Armstrong

Hernandez Honduras

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Photo Credit: Presidencia de la Republica del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

The decision last week by the Constitutional Chamber of the Honduran Supreme Court to legalize presidential reelection appears to have benefited a man – current President Juan Orlando Hernández – whose political fortunes got a shot in the arm from the 2009 coup that removed President Mel Zelaya for proposing a constitutional assembly to consider just such an action.  A Liberal Party magistrate said he wanted to recant his vote the next day, but the ruling party published the decision in the Gaceta Oficial before he could.  The Supreme Court, ruling in favor of petitions by former Nationalist President Rafael Callejas and several members of Hernández’s National Party, repealed two key articles of the Honduran Constitution, including one that says “the citizen who has served as the head of the executive power cannot be president or presidential candidate.”  Callejas immediately announced that he was resurrecting his Callejista movement, called MONARCA, which won him the presidency in 1990, and his campaign literature appeared in the streets of Tegucigalpa soon after.

The Court did not explicitly overturn Article 4 of the Constitution, which states that an “alternation in the exercise of the presidency of the republic is obligatory.”  That action reportedly will fall to the National Party-led Congress, but President Hernández is almost universally seen as the big winner from the Court decision, culminating his effort to continue as President.  After the coup that removed Zelaya from power, Hernández had a hand in congressional strategies to give a constitutional and legal framework – widely debunked – to Zelaya’s military ouster and later, while serving as president of the Honduran Congress and while campaigning for president, Hernández engineered the removal of four of the five justices of the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court and replaced them with more sympathetic judges.  He subsequently had a role in selecting a replacement for the fifth, who became Attorney General – making for a court unanimously indebted to him.  (He was sworn in as national President in January 2014.)  Reacting to the court decision last week, Hernández noted that “reelection is something that is a general rule around the world … Prohibition of it is the exception … [and] Honduras has to make progress.”  His opponents have vowed to fight the repeal.  Leaders of the Partido de Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) have accused the justices of “betrayal of the fatherland.”  One said the court “guaranteed the impunity” of the Hernández government, but the opposition’s legislative strategies have failed before.

Representing Central America’s most violent and most corrupt nation, President Hernández is seen in Washington as essential to success of U.S. policy in Central America and initiatives such as the “Alliance for Prosperity of the Northern Triangle.”  With a request for a billion dollars on its way to the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration can ill afford to point out Hernández’s hypocrisy for doing what he condemned former President Zelaya for trying to do in 2009.  Political inconveniences aside, the political cynicism and tensions that his and former President Callejas’s maneuvering will incite in violence-ravaged Honduras can hardly be seen as helpful to the goals of good governance and democratic consolidation that all profess.  When Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega engineered a similar judgment by his Supreme Court in 2009, allowing him to run for an additional term, the State Department did not mince words about its “concern” for its implications.  Hernández, in contrast, was in Washington securing support for funding when his court announced its decision.  The U.S. Southern Command’s new task force of some 250 Marines is expected to arrive in Honduras and begin training of security forces involved in “fighting the drug traffickers.”

May 1, 2015

Constitutions: End-State or National Dialogue?

By Todd Eisenstadt

Protestor holding the Constitution of Honduras. Photo credit: giggey / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Protestor holding the Constitution of Honduras. Photo credit: giggey / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

The role of constitutions is evolving as deeply as the countries in which they are being written.  At least since 1787, constitutions have been pacts around which societal expectations converge – the written record of elite agreements on how things should be.  During the “Third Wave” of democratic transitions (since the 1970s), they were viewed as precursor “contracts” to founding elections.  But increasingly, constitutions are way stations rather than destinations.  The content and implementation of constitutions is of course important, but the politics surrounding them can, in some cases, be more important than the clauses and amendments contained therein.

In Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and perhaps, in the near future in Paraguay, constitutional moments seem to be taking on different meanings.  Optimism about constitutions as core elements of Third Wave democratization pacts is giving way to the 21st century reality of democratic backsliding, semi-authoritarianism, and hybrid regimes – making it all the more important to reconsider how to read constitutions and evaluate governments’ adherence to them.  These are not stale parchments, but living narratives which represent iterations in decades-long intra-elite bargaining efforts to stall Arab Spring-like social movements (regardless of whether they actually seek to create spaces for new political actors).  They represent societal gains – both real and symbolic, even with ephemeral institutional advances.  This may be especially true in new and developing democracies, which need government services, constitutions that improve fairness and equity, and implementation of those commitments.  Developed democracies fall short too, but in developing countries new to the art of promulgating democratic constitutions, these shortcomings are more transparent as they are less proficiently hidden from view.

We need an intellectual space where Madison’s Dilemma – how to empower citizens without overpowering political institutions with the tyranny that unruly majorities can bring – meets Hugo Chávez’ shadow.  Chávez, who was obsessed with linking the Boliviarian Union of nations via new trade agreements and political arrangements, sought to empower himself and his political allies in the guise of solomonic constitutional reform to consolidate democracy.  Observers have long criticized “window dressing institutions” in the electoral arena, as evident in studies of “electoral engineering” and “sham elections.” While “sham constitutions” – a phrase that may ring too loudly – require more subtlety and political craftsmanship, we do need to question the longstanding stylization of constitutions as the “last word” (literally) on a nation’s quality of democracy.  There is much to learn, and a conference held last week at American University by CLALS Affiliate Rob Albro, SIS Researcher Carl LeVan, and I, and sponsored by the Latin American Studies Association and the Mellon Foundation, made some headway in finding new ways to conceive of constitutions not as the “final word,” but only as the most recent one.