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Interview: Alfonso Quiroz on Constitutional Reform in the Andes

September 18, 2008

"One of the main connections, of course, is the centralization of power and the preeminence of the executive over the other branches of the state."

In an exclusive interview, Professor Alfonso Quiroz speaks to AS/COA’s Carlos Macias about the history of constitutional changes in Latin America with an eye to recent proposed reforms in Andean nations. Venezuela voted against a new constitution in December 2007, Ecuador prepares for a vote on September 28, and Bolivia’s push for a new constitution has served as a source of tension leading to deep political rifts. In this interview, Quiroz underlines the centralization of power in the hands of the executive branch as an essential feature connecting the proposed constitutions.

A history professor at Baruch College, Quiroz is the author of Corrupt Circles: A History of Unbound Graft in Peru. He received the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship in the field of Latin American constitutional law.

AS/COA: What are some of the hemispheric precedents for this trend of constitutional reforms happening now in Latin America?

Quiroz: I would say that we’re witnessing a new wave of constitutional reforms in the last few years and it’s different from the constitutional reforms that existed in the late 1980s and 1990s. Earlier reforms, especially in the 1990s, showed a trend towards adjusting institutions in Latin American countries to a new wave of democratization that was happening at that time and that was also connected to the fall of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The reforms were part of a global expansion of democracy, so countries in the 1990s—you have the case of Colombia and Mexico and other Latin American countries—began to adapt to that transition. In the case of Colombia, for example, you also had an important constitutional reform that shifted the voting and power bases from the countryside to the urban sector. It was a major shift in Latin American countries to modernize their institutional structures.
The new wave that we’re seeing nowadays is, to a certain degree, a kind of reaction in a new historical and international environment, where the United States is no longer so much interested or so much willing to engage in Latin American issues due to other affairs that the United States has to deal with in the Middle East and in other parts of the world. In Latin America, therefore, this situation has provoked a series of reactions from certain leaders such as [Venezuela’s] Hugo Chávez, [Bolivia’s] Evo Morales, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. They are at the forefront of a distinctive move toward expanding the powers of the president. Within larger constitutional issues in Latin America going back to the nineteenth century, the issue of the executive and the controls of the executive, and the ways of maintaining or limiting the presidential power are at stake at this time in those countries. You can see it as a reverse of the process that existed in the 1990s.
AS/COA: What are the pros and cons of the current constitutional drafts, which open the door to presidential reelections?

Quiroz: The newer reforms suggested and some of those being implemented are being propelled by certain popular support. At least at the beginning, the promises of more inclusion of the populace in the political process, a series of affirmations of minorities’ rights, even the existence of popular presidents with charisma, all those factors have contributed to rising expectation in those countries for change—changes that, generally, in Latin America, are expressed in constitutional change because that is the way of shifting power bases in moments where emerging forces seek to transform the political system. As we know, the rules and regulations of the state, sometimes the policy-oriented emphasis, all those elements are seen by the popular support of these constitutional reforms as bringing about important benefits for the majority of the population.
Let’s just remember a very important case that we can say was, to a certain degree, comparable to the situation today: The enormous expectation that the Cuban constitution of 1940 could provide the necessary rights and democracy and distribution of income that was expected in Cuba, especially because [Fulgencio] Batista undermined that constitution through his dictatorship. One of the first important fights was for the restitution of the constitution of 1940, which after the Cuban Revolution was never brought back. Instead, a constitution that limited democracy was established many years later under a totalitarian type of regime.
AS/COA: Can we talk about the connections between the proposed changes in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela? What is the underlying connection between these changes?

Quiroz: One of the main connections, of course, is the centralization of power and the preeminence of the executive over the other branches of the state, which mainly means aiming at less constitutional control on the presidential branch, or less checks and balances. There are other common elements, in the cases of Ecuador and Bolivia regarding ethnic minorities and the power bases of certain regions or the weight of local provinces or states within the larger national unit. This is an important subject that’s being debated. It has been addressed in other Latin American countries, even in Spain in the late twentieth century.
Countries like Bolivia and Ecuador now have regional issues that remain unsolved, and bring about a series of conflicts and frictions that are expressed in the constitutional and electoral debates of those countries. The use of referendum and their disputed legality and outcomes are producing the conflictive part of the process. The problem is how you bring about constitutional change by using established constitutional rules or introducing other types of rules to achieve that. That’s a serious problem that appears as the events unfold.