An Andean arc of crisis?

by Dave

Ambassador Heine is Chile’s former ambassador to India.
Jamaica Gleaner News – Sunday | October 12, 2008

On September 28, Ecuador approved, by a comfortable majority, a new Constitution. Over the past decade five new constitutions have seen the light in the Andean region – the broad arc that goes from Venezuela to Colombia and Ecuador all the way down the Pacific coast to Peru, and then into Bolivia. This is a big victory for President Rafael Correa, a United States-trained economist, who made the proposal of a new Constitution a key item of his election plank.

President Evo Morales of Bolivia is facing opposition to his own new Constitution in the low-land, Eastern provinces like Santa Cruz, and President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela suffered a defeat in the referendum on reforms to his own Constitution in December 2007.

Why is this happening in the Andes, rather than, say, in the Southern Cone or Central America? Quite apart from a long tradition of weak ‘stateness’, over the past three decades these countries have had difficulties in adapting to a changing global environment, unable to find a suitable niche for their exports – except for their most prized one, illegal drugs.

Poorest and hardest hit

Bolivia and Ecuador are the poorest and hardest hit, despite their valiant efforts at economic reform and to apply the ‘Washington Consensus’ to the letter and beyond. Ecuador went so far as to adopt in 2000 the US dollar as its national currency, with the predictable inflationary effect.

Bolivia and Ecuador have also been highly unstable – since 1995 Ecuador has had eight presidents, and Bolivia nine. The notion that a key problem in these countries is excessive concentration of power in the executive branch, or that the new constitutions would somehow exacerbate such an existing problem, is oxymoronic. These are countries in which the very fact of a president finishing his or her term in office is a major achievement.

As Samuel P. Huntington put it 40 years ago in his classic Political Order in Changing Societies, “There is a failure to recognise that most such countries are suffering from the absence of power in their political systems. The problem is not to seize power but to make power, to mobilise groups into politics and to organism their participation in politics.”

And this is precisely what presidents like Rafael Correa and Evo Morales are doing.

It so happens that their countries are two with the highest share of Amerindian populations in the region (Morales himself, a native Aymara, is the first Amerindian to be elected president in the Western Hemisphere), and one reason for the instability and lack of development of Bolivia and Ecuador has been the long-standing exclusion of that part of the population.

The peculiar notion that in countries such as Ecuador the creation of a set of constitutional rules to allow a government to actually govern, to allow the president to have some degree of influence on the legislative agenda, and to stabilise the game of musical chairs played by the in-today-out-tomorrow predecessors of Correa, would be somehow undemocratic is, to put it mildly, odd.

As Huntington put it in another context, “These statements seem to imply that power is something ‘flying around on the floor of the capitol or the presidential palace’.” Before dividing power (between the presidency and the Congress, between the central government and the provinces) in developing societies such as these, power has to be created in the first place.

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