Constitutional Process LATIN-AMERICA

Constitutional Reform – A Latin American Phenomenon

SANTIAGO – Chile is exploring constitutional reform, a concept more common in South America than anywhere else in the world. Over the last 30 years, constitutional reform has spread over the continent leaving almost no country unaffected. The constitutional changes have not all been equal in their potency, and some have had the opposite of the intended effect. 

In Western Europe the average “lifespan” of a constitution is 77 years, while in Latin America it is a mere 16.5. 

The most recent trend of constitutional reform started with the new Brazilian constitution of 1988. Since then, it has become rather commonplace, with many countries either adopting new constitutions or vigorously augmenting their existing ones:

Countries that have adopted new constitutions

  • Brazil (1988) 
  • Colombia (1991) 
  • Paraguay (1992)
  • Peru (1993)
  • Ecuador (1998)
  • Venezuela (1999)
  • Bolivia (2009)

Countries that have augmented their existing constitution 

  • Costa Rica in (1989)
  • Mexico (1992)
  • Argentina (1994)

The four countries that top the list with the most constitutions are all South American or Caribbean. The Dominican Republic has had a staggering 32 constitutions since 1844. Venezuela, Haiti, and Ecuador are not far behind. Each country is its own unique case, but the trend stands firm nonetheless with several underlying similarities. 

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Common Threads

As different as every constitutional change has been, they do all seem to veer towards changes in ideological principles of the state and the rights and duties of the citizens. 

A common manifestation of this is the inclusion of multi ethnic and multicultural populations and the acknowledgment of diversity.

The second common factor is the reestablishment of the role of the Catholic Church and the equality between different religions. 

A third is the official acknowledgment of indigenous groups and their languages, and the extension of certain rights and controls to these groups. In 1991, Colombia’s constitution was the first to grant political power to the indigenous forms of justice according to their customary law, within limits. 

The fourth common change is the recognition of civil rights such as privacy, due process, freedom of expression, and the right to vote, as well as collective rights to education, housing, and health care. The Ecuadorian constitution even recognizes the rights of Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth, as in nature. 

Fifth stands the commitment to equality, meant to prohibit discrimination based on gender, race, and other such factors. 

Finally, most reforms have dealt with the economic role of the state. Here, countries span the scale, with Peru tending towards the free market, while Ecuador and Bolivia look more to government regulation. 

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From Rhetoric to Reality

All of the constitutional changes promise a better life, but the difference between rhetoric and reality has been a troubling one. 

As they stand now, none of the reforms have radically transformed their countries of origin for the better. While many of the reforms have indeed made notable improvements, inequality and discrimination still reign free in the continent. 

Constitutional reform is also fraught with pitfalls, one of which is hyperpresidentialism, that may at times accompany the adoption of referendums and plebiscites under the guise of overcoming inherent differences and strengthening a unified will of the people.

The danger of constitutional reforms that fall short are much more sinister than just a broken promise. The real danger of constitutional reform lies in the perception of change which conceals a state of arrested development. Governments have used constitutional reform as a mechanism for overcoming a political impasse and pacifying restless citizens with vague hopes, while restoring the legitimacy of the existing social and political status quo. 

Thus, what started out as attempts to overcome authoritarianism, led to new forms of dictatorship in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. 

The continual pliability of South American constitutions also signals an inherent cultural, social, political, and economic instability that ultimately does little to further the long term development of these nations.


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