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 U.S.-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 Chávez of Venezuela suffered a defeat in the referendum on reforms to his own Constitution in December 2007.
These "refoundational," new constitutional charters espoused by these South American leaders are often portrayed as naked power grabs aimed at concentrating and personalising power in the hands of the President. By labelling their leaders as "populists," their efforts are also sometimes dismissed as being somehow not fully democratic, though they derive from constitutional assemblies that have been elected by the people, and these leaders enjoy high approval ratings. They are also often criticised as reflecting the legalistic (and allegedly anachronistic) mentality of Catholic Latin Americans, enamoured of the notion that their countries' endemic problems of poverty and underdevelopment will be solved, as if by a magic wand, by the enactment of new Constitutions, instead of doing so through the Protestant virtues of thrift, austerity and hard work.
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" - in a country like Peru, as recently as the 1950s taxes were collected by a private firm, and one reason the Colombian guerrillas are still holding out is there are vast areas of the Colombian territory where the state has never held sway. 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. 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 U.S. 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 organize 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 (Mr. 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 and discrimination against large sections of the population.
In 2005, Mr. Morales became the first Bolivian President to be elected with a majority of the vote in many decades - candidates elected with 22 or 25 per cent of the vote had become the norm, leading to weak, short-lived governments. Mr. Correa, on the other hand, who came in second with a mere 26 per cent of the vote in the October 2006 elections, to everybody's surprise, defeated Ecuador's richest man, Alvaro Noboa, in the second round. He has since won vast majorities in four national elections, and enjoys approval ratings of 60 to 70 per cent. This is unheard of in Ecuador, a fragmented polity known more for its fissiparous tendencies and divisions between the coast and the sierra; its main port, Guayaquil, and the capital, Quito; and the white and mestizo population and the indigenous one - let alone those of myriad political parties - than for its sense of national identity. In fact, since 1995 some 10 per cent of the population has emigrated, largely to Spain, as the economy tanked.
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 Mr. 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 ... lying around on the floor of the capitol or the presidential palace ..." Before dividingpower has to be created in the first place. power (between the Presidency and the Congress, between the Central government and the provinces) in developing societies such as these,
A recurrent argument against Mr. Correa's new Constitution is that it makes him the most powerful head of state Ecuador has ever had. If done through the ballot box and fully respecting civil liberties, as Mr. Correa has, is this a bad thing, particularly considering the weakness of his predecessors? Is the fact that it would allow him to run for two additional four-year terms such an unmitigated disaster? In North America and Western Europe, heads of state and/or government often serve for eight, ten or twelve years, providing policy continuity. Yet, in South America, any effort at generating some government stability and continuity through the ballot box is denounced as undemocratic.
It also happens that both Bolivia and Ecuador are rich in oil and gas, at a time when the push for energy sources has replaced globalisation as the main driver of the international agenda. This is even more so for Venezuela, whose vast reserves put it among the world's leading oil producers. These governments, then, try to make the most of their valuable natural resources. Yet, for doing so, they are accused of "resource nationalism," as if, if they were to turn over their oil wells and gas deposits to foreign companies with little or no benefit for themselves, they would somehow be doing their fair share for world prosperity and Northern consumers.
Actually, as energy sources occupy centre stage, the balance of power between the nation state and TNCs has shifted in favour of the former. By definition, energy resources are located within the boundaries of a territorial nation state, which thus have some leeway as to what to do with them, as opposed to what takes place in the international trade of goods and services, where the role of the state is more limited.
Leaders of oil and gas-rich nations have thus been able to allocate a bigger share of these rents to their state coffers and their populations, strengthening their hand at home and abroad. Presidents Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mr. Chavez are products of this new environment. Once again, the notion that the political use of economic resources is something untoward is quite extraordinary (what is the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba if not precisely that?). If such rents are not used for state building, in developing societies where power itself is a scarce commodity, what should they be allocated to?
Ecuador is a fascinating case because of the weakness President Correa started from in 2006 - a young leader with little government experience (a short stint as Finance Minister), no parliamentarians (he made it a point not to run candidates for Congress, being bent on producing a new Constitution, and his sight was set on a Constitutional Assembly), no traditional party support, and in charge of a country with limited oil and gas reserves. Yet, in a scarce two years, he played that weak hand so deftly that he now has a new, custom-made Constitution, high approval ratings and a respected international standing.
The real test, of course, will come now, and we shall see whether he is able to deploy this new constitutional framework into policies that will lift the Ecuadorean economy from the doldrums it finds itself in despite the high price of oil. Having written his doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois on the impact of globalisation on Latin America, President Correa should know which levers to pull. But there is little doubt that Ecuador is today already a very different country from what it was in 2006.