Caudillos and Constitutions

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The Bane of Latin American Democracy

Caudilloism has been the bane of Latin American democracy for almost 200 years. After Simón Bolívar succeeded in liberating most of the region from Spanish rule, most of the nations proved unable to maintain democracy, even though they virtually replicated the United States’ successful constitution. Why did the same constitution that has served as the backbone for US democracy fail to do so for Latin America? If constitutions are the incarnation of a country’s political aspirations, they must be regarded in relation to their interactions with political actors. The historical reality of the time was that Bolívar systematically drafted constitutions for the liberated countries, while the political leaders who were supposed to implement them failed to do so. Although Bolívar himself tried to institutionalize constitutions by avoiding the use of patronage and following the rules himself, his lax attitude toward the conduct of his own generals undermined his political project.

The repeated reliance on Caudilloism during both wartime and peacetime to maintain control over remote regions weakened the legitimacy of constitutions and undermined the authority of central governments that were supposed to enforce them. Latin America then fell into a condition analogous to Europe’s Middle Ages, with generals carving out their own “fiefdoms” and overthrowing regional and national governments to secure access to scarce resources. Under Caudillo rule, constitutions thus lose their legitimacy as the whims of political entrepreneurs become the sole governing authority.

In spite of a changing international context that frowns on authoritarianism, Caudilloism has managed to evolve and embed itself into an ostensibly democratic framework, primarily by exploiting popular sector grievances against governments that seem unrepresentative. Modern Caudillos, or populists, as their more “democratic” incarnations have been deemed, are no longer simply warlords trying to establish control over their own “fiefdoms”; instead they have transformed themselves into political leaders who in some cases truly wish to implement programmatic reforms. In many cases these reforms are progressive and necessary. But inevitably, as some attempt to dislodge the power of deeply entrenched elites or to employ social programs to lessen the gravity of inequality in the region, they achieve limited success at best without a democratic framework that will make them long-lasting.

Eventually, leaders use such reforms to abuse executive power and in so doing they undermine the legitimacy of their democratic institutions. Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina is a prototype of the modern Caudillo. His reforms empowered the Argentine working classes, yet his inability to compromise and channel reform through democratic channels led to extreme levels of polarization that eventually caused a democratic breakdown and a fall into military authoritarianism.

The danger of 20th century Caudilloism lies in the fact that “strongman rule” undermines the strongest virtues of a democratic system. Caudillos try to perpetuate their rule because they see themselves as the only individuals capable of maintaining order in a divided society; they consequently exclude capable individuals from assuming positions of political power and leadership and see all others as potential rivals to their ability to rule in an uncontested manner. Caudillos thus eliminate the essential elements for a functioning democracy, including regular alternations of power and legislative oversight. Such features are meant to ensure that leaders adapt to a changing political framework and do not abuse the powers of their office, regularly bringing new politicians to replace older leaders. By destroying these mechanisms, Caudillos impede a country from having a regular supply of capable leaders. In Latin America, the old tactic of changing constitutions to perpetuate a popular leader’s rule has recently been revived, complicating the possibility of democratic compromises. The region’s democratic future will be greatly undermined if these constitutional changes are continually implemented.

Writing a New Chapter for an Old Story

Chávez’s constitutional reform in Venezuela and the 2009 coup in Honduras represent new incarnations of a centuries-old pattern. In the case of Venezuela, after initially governing in a rather moderate fashion, Chávez has moved to follow the traditional pattern of Caudillo-style rule. Instead of enacting reforms through democratic channels, he has relied on populist appeals to push a reform agenda that is sustainable as long as oil prices remain high. Chávez views himself as the only standard bearer for his programmatic reform agenda, 21st Century Socialism, and as such sought to extend his rule (by eliminating the presidential term limit) in order to oversee the implementation of his agenda. Even though Chávez initially failed to eliminate the presidential term limit in a 2007 referendum, he was able to push the issue through again and garner enough support to pass a similar referendum in 2009, by simply adding provisions to eliminate term limits for mayors and governors. Although Chávez has noble intentions to aid the Venezuelan poor and use state resources to promote the country’s modernization, his Caudillo-style rule in fact jeopardizes the future of his dream. In the case that Venezuela runs into a major fiscal crisis due to Chávez’s heavy spending, he may be voted out of office. If this occurs, there is a high probability that most of his reform program would be dismantled.

The case of Honduras, on the other hand, presents a potential challenge to this thesis: constitutional reform was averted, yet democratic principles were still undermined. But this happened because reform was blocked by bypassing and violating legal processes set in place by the constitution itself. Instead of simply declaring the constitutional reform referendum unconstitutional and applying the due process of law, a coalition of military forces and political elites illegally ousted President Manuel Zelaya. According to Article 239 of the Honduran Constitution, any individual who has held the office of the presidency cannot hold it again. Moreover, “whoever violates this law or proposes its reform, as well as those that support such violation directly or indirectly, will immediately cease in their functions and will be unable to hold any public office for a period of 10 years.” Given this clause, Zelaya’s desire to amend the term limit was unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the opposition’s response was an equally illegal and unconstitutional act. They held Zelaya guilty before any type of trial and violated Article 102 of the constitution, which states that “no Honduran may be expatriated or handed by the state to a foreign nation,” by deporting him to Costa Rica. The role of the armed and the unconstitutional manner in which Honduran political elites ousted Zelaya led South American nations to brand the act a coup.