Latin America’s “Wiki-Constitutionalism”

Latin America has the world’s most tortuous constitutional history. According to a study of constitutions around the world by Jose Luis Cordeiro, 19 of the 21 Latin American nations have had at least five constitutions, 11 have written at least 10, and five countries have adopted 20 or more.

The Dominican Republic leads the world’s constitutions count with 32, followed by Venezuela with 26, Haiti with 24, and Ecuador with 20. To be clear, these are not constitutional amendments, but far-reaching rewritings that seek to rework the structures of government, or as Bolivia’s President Evo Morales phrased it in promulgating his country’s 17th constitution, “to refound the nation.”

In contrast, in North America, Canada has had two constitutions and the United States one. Contrast further the succinctness of the U.S. Constitution with seven original articles (and 27 ratified amendments) with, say, Ecuador’s 444 original articles, Bolivia’s 411 articles, or Honduras’ 375 articles.

Moreover, some very successful societies are doing quite well without bothering with a codified constitution, for example: The United Kingdom in Europe, Hong Kong in Asia, New Zealand in Oceania, and Israel in the Middle East.

“Wiki-constitutionalism” — a reference to the always changing Wikipedia database format — is the apt neologism coined by political analyst Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez to describe the self-perpetuating cycle of Latin American constitutional rewriting. He notes that, almost always, the institution of the presidency emerges significantly strengthened from the rewrites, weakening the other branches of government.

The new constitutions are invariably promoted as necessary for good governance and the previous constitutions blamed for all the nation’s ills, which will now be addressed by the new documents. In a performance of magical misdirection, the new constitution-writing process shifts personal responsibility from the act of governing and effective policymaking to an inanimate object, the old constitution.

So what accounts for this Latin American eccentricity of constitutional plasticity?

A passage in Professor Carlos Eire’s book, Learning to Die in Miami, where he explores his assimilation to American life may give us a starting cultural clue.

As he learns the language, young Carlos notes that his thinking is different in English, and that his new way of thinking alters his perception of the world. He is affected by the way in which his new language gives so much more choice and responsibility to the self than his native Spanish. In Eire’s example, if on the way to class one of your books falls to the ground, you would say in Spanish: “ Se me cayó el libro.” This construction is hard to translate since reflexive verb forms are rare in English. It would be something like: “The book dropped itself from me.”

In essence, the Spanish construction implies a shifting of responsibility and the conception of a victimized self. In contrast, the English composition would be one where responsibility is fully acknowledged as we would simply say: “I dropped my book.” We would say “the book fell” only if we had not been responsible for holding it.

With humor and wit Eire brings home the point: “Oh damn, the book had the nerve to fall from me. Damn book. Damn gravity. Poor me. If only the laws of gravity were different, I would not be having this problem.” What an insightful cultural contrast! In English it is our own fault that we dropped the book. In Spanish, the book dropped itself from our hands.

The social phenomena of wiki-constitutionalism are complex and many variables are at play (e.g., different legal traditions), but I am intrigued by how linguistic peculiarities may influence our perception of the world, and in particular where we place responsibility for good governance. Latin America’s wiki-constitutionalism is a case where the solution does not match the problem; it perpetuates it.

When all the grandiose objectives of the latest constitution do not become reality, as it is sure to happen, the constitutional design will be blamed, and the process will begin all over again. Each time institutional memory and legitimacy are erased and must begin anew.

Memo to Latin American leaders, to paraphrase campaign strategist James Carville: It’s not the constitution, stupid.

This article first appeared in the Miami Herald.

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