As left-leaning forces have been elected to power in several countries in South America’s Andean region, they have undertaken constitutional reforms to incorporate far-reaching economic and social changes. The trend stands in contrast to left or centre-left governments farther to the south, which have implemented social programmes, put a stronger emphasis on nationalism or brought to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity committed by past dictatorships, without the need to rewrite their constitutions.
(IPS) As left-leaning forces have been elected to power in several countries in South America’s Andean region, they have undertaken constitutional reforms to incorporate far-reaching economic and social changes.
The trend stands in contrast to left or centre-left governments farther to the south, which have implemented social programmes, put a stronger emphasis on nationalism or brought to justice those responsible for crimes against humanity committed by past dictatorships, without the need to rewrite their constitutions.
But the shift to the left in the Andean region ran into hurdles this year which could give rise, in 2008, to results that differ from those sought by the proponents of change.
"The majority of Ecuadoreans, as represented in the constituent assembly, want to dismantle the pernicious neoliberal model that has led to such huge inequities in the country," the president of the constituent assembly, Alberto Acosta, told IPS.
Acosta, a member of President Rafael Correa’s Alianza Pais, said the new constitution "should lay the foundations of an economy based on solidarity, in which the state regulates the market."
The assembly, which recently began to meet, is made up of 130 delegates elected by voters in September, of whom 95 belong to the Alianza Pais or allied parties.
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez tried early this month to push through reforms of the constitution, which had already been rewritten and approved by 80 percent of voters in 1999, the year he took office.
But he suffered his first defeat at the polls in nine years. His attempt to introduce even more sweeping changes, that would have made it easier for him to move the country towards "21st century socialism", was rejected by a narrow majority, 50.6 against 49.3 percent of voters.
However, the president said he would not be deterred by the setback, and he and his supporters say they will bring in the reforms through new laws and decrees.
In Bolivia, meanwhile, the constituent assembly elected last year under indigenous President Evo Morales approved a draft constitution in late November.
If ratified by voters in a referendum, the new constitution would set a limit on the size of individual landholdings, to fight the highly inequitable distribution of land in Bolivia, would recognise native communities and their rights, languages and cultures, and would give indigenous people greater participation in decision-making.
But the proposed changes have run into stiff resistance from right-wing opposition parties, and from the wealthier eastern lowlands region, which is demanding greater autonomy and control over the country’s prime farmland and natural gas reserves, most of which fall within its geographical area.
As a result, the opposition boycotted the constituent assembly, in which Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) party and allies hold a majority.
The assembly nevertheless met and approved the draft constitution, while opposition groups held demonstrations that turned violent in the city of Sucre in late November.
The polarisation in the country between the impoverished indigenous western highlands, where Morales has his main support base, and the eastern lowlands, has reached boiling point and is threatening governability.
Colombia, which is governed by right-wing President Álvaro Uribe, and Peru, where the administration of Alan García has kept in place free-market "neoliberal" economic policies, both reformed their constitutions in the 1990s, although leftist opposition sectors have proposed further constitutional amendments.
The push for new constitutions in the Andean region "is aimed at correcting inequalities and shortcomings in the democratic processes built throughout the 20th century," said Héctor Maldonado, a professor at the Central University of Venezuela and former Venezuelan representative at the Andean Community of Nations, which is now made up of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, since Chávez pulled his country out of the trade bloc.
"These shortcomings go from the appalling social inequality in Bolivia to the chronic institutional instability in Ecuador," he told IPS.
But these constituent assembly "processes can fail when they are basically mounted on the popularity of a president, which can be transient, as Bolivia and Venezuela have begun to show, and which should serve as a lesson for Ecuador," Elsa Cardoso, professor of international studies at the Central and Metropolitana Universities of Venezuela, told IPS.
"Bolivia in particular is experiencing a crisis that could end up worse than the one that led to the removal of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada," said Cardoso, referring to the mass protests and brutal police crackdown that claimed dozens of lives in late 2003 and forced the former Bolivian president to step down. Morales was one of the leaders of those demonstrations.
In the analyst’s view, "a president must know how to administer his strength because the temptation of absolute power is very strong, I hope less so in Ecuador than in Bolivia and Venezuela, and for that reason the result of these constitutional changes, if they are hasty and not based on negotiations and consensus, can turn out to be different from the original aims."
The defeat of Chávez’s proposed reforms, which would have made it possible for presidents to stand indefinitely for reelection, "was a strategic defeat for the regional plan of the so-called 21st century socialism — an expression also used by President Correa — because it was a setback in the political centre of that proposal, Caracas," Venezuelan political analyst Manuel Sierra told IPS.
"It also gave the opposition a new lease on life, with the emergence of an active student movement, and possibly the map of the country in 2008 will not be so red," political scientist Maryclen Stelling, referring to the trademark colour of Chávez’s supporters, commented to IPS.
Although virtually all of the provincial governments, and most of the municipal governments, are now governed by Chávez allies, Stelling predicted that many of them could shift to the hands of the opposition in 2008.
Lawmaker Calixto Ortega of Chávez’s Fifth Republic Movement told IPS that "the result of the referendum in Venezuela will not affect foreign policy, although the right-wing opposition in Bolivia and Ecuador will try to use it to undermine the processes in their own countries."
Cardoso said "the interpretation that people in Bolivia, Ecuador or Nicaragua could make is that peaceful opposition to these processes can bear fruit."
Correa said the outcome of the referendum in Caracas "is neither bad nor good; it merely shows that Venezuela enjoys full democracy."
But Acosta said it was "a wake-up call for Chávez to correct the direction he is taking, and stop trying to concentrate so much power in his own hands."
In a recent column for IPS, Jennifer McCoy, political science professor at Georgia State University and director of the Americas Programme at The Carter Centre in Atlanta, summed up the message sent by the referendum: "Slow down, Chávez."
*With reporting by Franz Chávez (Bolivia), Constanza Vieira (Colombia), Kintto Lucas (Ecuador) and Ángel Páez (Peru).