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Latin American Constitutionalism: Promises, Asymmetries, and Conflicts

'The political history of Latin America is a long account of republicanism and constitutionalism. This process, however, has never been a walk in the park.'

Ciudad de México

The political history of Latin America is, in large part, a long account of republicanism and constitutionalism. Over the course of 210 years, the people of the region have—though besieged to greater and lesser degrees by frauds, civil wars, and caudillos—elected our leaders, rejecting monarchical forms of government.

And, again and again, we have created constitutions with the task of establishing and defending different catalogues of rights for citizens in this part of the world.

This process, however, has never been a walk in the park. In a recent book—which, given the quality of its exposition and the topical nature of its cases, is sure to become an essential reference work—political scientist Javier Corrales analyzes the ways in which constituent processes have contributed to the strengthening of democracy in the region. In particular, he deals with the factors that intensify or limit power asymmetries between presidents and their opponents, and likewise between executive power and other branches of government. He demonstrates the ways in which presidents who enjoy high levels of popularity can use constituent processes to expand their power when facing weakened oppositions. And vice versa.

This warning, however, does not necessarily mean that the “wave of constitutionalization” must be regarded, per se, as a preamble to autocracy. Basing his work on a study of 24 constituent processes—13 of which were aborted—Corrales reminds us of the extensive participatory mechanisms that these processes can trigger, thus recognizing new rights and diverse subjects. They can open the way to moments of high symbolism, creativity, and unity for nations, and likewise create opportunities to renovate traditional elites and political forces.

Nevertheless, the constitutional processes of reform and re-foundation—due to their ability to change the rules of the game and existing power quotas in short periods of time and by dramatic amounts—represent real sources of danger and fear for all involved, whether they are part of the ruling party or the opposition. Therefore, even though these can be processes of inclusion and cooperation, they have also served to increase political polarization. Corrales’s examination of the cases of Bolivia and Venezuela, in particular, demonstrates how the respective forces of oppositions and ruling parties made their mark on the Magna Laws, thereby respectively contracting and expanding the powers of Morales and Chávez.

Fixing Democracy: Why Constitutional Change Often Fails to Enhance Democracy in Latin America should be translated and read for the good of politics and the citizens of Latin America. In Venezuela and Cuba, Schmittian constitutionalism is being recreated. Ecuador is revising its legal framework in order to decentralize and limit imperial presidencies. Mexico, by way of democracy, is reconstructing a new political hegemony that may well invoke a constitutional lawsuit. Other countries are incorporating democratic programs of diversity and innovation in step with the 21st century. Given all of these conditions, the academic contribution of this new work, if it receives its due attention, will have an important civic impact. Let us hope that it does.

This article was translated by Robert Croll.

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