Why do so many Latin American countries overhaul their constitutions every few years? At The New Republic, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez points out this odd phenomenon: in Latin America, national constitutions are rewritten with greater frequency than in any other part of the world. Lansberg-Rodriguez is careful to note that these aren't just amendments, but full-body refittings that alter the very structures of government. And what's especially odd is that the region's heads of state take such pains to legitimize the new constitutions:
Despite their authoritarian intentions, modern-day caudillos approach the process of constitutional revision with a certain delicacy. Constitutions rarely include provisions for their own destruction, so replacing them in the absence of a massive social upheaval can be tricky. There was a time when the Trujillos, Gómezes, and Somozas of this world could create constitutions through sheer force of personality, but, nowadays, leaders generally attempt to legitimize them through plebiscites.
Lansberg-Rodriguez goes on to explain that while "authoritarian leaders in Africa, Europe, and Asia have long been content to suspend their constitutions by declaring states of emergency, or just ignore them outright," Latin American rulers tend to go through the proper, state-sanctioned channels, even though such efforts usually "expend large chunks of both political and financial capital."
So what accounts for this pattern? No one is sure--Lansberg-Rodriguez cites "a confluence of factors, from geography to constitutional traditions to Latin America's legacy of instability and even the region's culture"--but the article coins a catchy name for the practice: "Wiki-constitutionalism," named for the ever-morphing articles on the open-source database Wikipedia. And far from harmless, Lansberg-Rodriguez says, Wiki-constitutionalism is a "quixotic and fruitless" habit that stands in the way of regional advancement.
Evo Morales and his supporters will someday find that the recently passed Bolivian constitution will not, in fact, solve “all the problems of Bolivia,” because no constitution ever could. And when the perfect country outlined by their constitution invariably fails to materialize, the impulse will be there to blame the design. There will be calls to change the system, and the precedent set by this constitution (and all the others) will make adopting yet another one feasible. Yet doing so will only extend a dynamic that has undermined stability in the region for generations. If Latin American institutions are ever to become strong enough that they can keep powerful, popular presidents from doing whatever they want, Wiki-constitutionalism must end.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.