South America: the return of constitutional politics

Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile: the exception and the rule

Chile, Bolivia and Uruguay have recently given a breath of revitalizing air to Latin American democracies. Beset by the global health crisis and its tremendous impact on economies and societies, in all three cases, the Chilean constitutional plebiscite, the presidential elections in Bolivia, and the message of former Uruguayan presidents José “Pepe” Mujica and Julio María Sanguinetti who left their active political lives in a joint manner, all offer a framework for analysis and a roadmap to what we can define as a changing era or a turning point.

From this vantage point, we can look back at the 40-year historical cycle, which began in the early 1980s together with the final gasps of the authoritarian military cycle -the Constitution imposed by General Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile and the bloody coup d’etat of General García Meza in Bolivia- ending with the Argentine defeat in the South Atlantic war, precipitating the end of the last dictatorship and the beginning of the transitions towards democracy, in what Samuel Huntington would define years later as "the third wave" of democratization (1991). These processes were characterized by a return to the constitutional validity that had been interrupted by the dictatorial regimes and by the restoration of the pre-existing Magna Cartas.

Over the years, all South American countries promoted and carried out constitutional reforms, but the greatest emphasis was placed on the consolidation of democratic regimes with alternation in power and the electoral replacement of governments. The case of Bolivia, with the Constitution of its new Plurinational State, is emblematic: irreproachable in its preparation and approval in 2009 and endorsed by a referendum, it ended up being forced to enable the indefinite re-election of the president who promoted it, Evo Morales. There was also a "backlash, with the rise of different forms of populism. In its 2018 report, Freedom House reported a "decline in democracy" in all regions of the planet, including countries with democratic systems until then considered stable and consolidated. Some authors, such as Larry Diamond, even considered the beginning of a stage of "democratic recession".

After four decades, and a year after massive protests demanding radical changes, Chile submitted to a plebiscite the development of a new Constitution to replace the one in force since 1980. It was a new and unprecedented constituent process both in procedure and implementation, which rose from the streets and from the commitment made by the leaders of the ruling party and the opposition. At the same time, Bolivia recovered its sovereign right to vote, after the fracture of the political regime that occurred last year.

Is the region experiencing a new moment of constitutional politics? Gabriel Negretto explains in his book “Making Constitutions: Presidents, Parties, and Institutional Choice in Latin America” (Cambridge University Press, 2013) that the moments of constitutional creation evoke the irruption of the constituent power of the people, which occurs when nations experience radical political changes, such as the founding of a new State or a revolution. And it is for this reason that philosophers and political theorists, from Hannah Arendt (“On the Revolution”, 1963) to Bruce Ackerman (“The Future of the Liberal Revolution”, 1992), consider constitutional moments as exceptional political events, both because they rarely occur and because their participants hold higher and more peremptory motivations than those that characterize political action in normal times.

Democratic legitimacy had been broken a year ago in Bolivia, with the intention of Evo Morales to perpetuate himself in power, a questioned electoral process and his forced displacement by a coalition of opposition forces with a strong authoritarian and reactionary component. The elections on Sunday October 18th restored the democratic legitimacy of the Bolivian vote, with all guarantees, after a drawn-out electoral process that finally took place in an exemplary manner. The MAS returned to the government, with the consecration of Luis Arce as President. Contender Carlos Mesa was quick in acknowledging the results. The temporary President Jeanine Añez had the good sense to accept the pronouncement of the polls and found a way out of the impasse into which she had entered when she took office after the forced resignation of Evo.

What happened in Bolivia and Chile shows a fundamental dimension of democracy, which transcends the governments that circumstantially embody it and not only has an instrumental value as a mechanism to elect and change governments and representatives, which we accept and like when our side wins, and despise and dislike when the others win. It is the founding principle of our societies, the way to resolve conflicts peacefully and effectively, avoid violence, build a legitimate order and carry out transformations that improve the situation of the popular sectors. Two conditions that we take for granted -as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt pointed out in "How Democracies Die"- permitted, in this case, a rescue from the morass: mutual tolerance and institutional containment. That is, commitments between leaders and recognized authorities, and institutions that support these commitments and allow them to be translated into concrete and effective actions.

In this regional context, two old gladiators and statesmen of Latin American politics, former Uruguayan presidents Julio Sanguinetti and José “Pepe” Mujica, set another example by saying goodbye to their seats in the Senate together and retiring from active political life with messages that embody a special significance: “Hatred ends in stupidity because it makes us lose objectivity in the face of things; hatred is blind like love, but love is creative and hatred destroys us", said Mujica, patriarch of the Latin American left, followed by the words of Sanguinetti, politician and intellectual inscribed in the liberal tradition: "Having been as confronted as we could have been at a certain point, today we can say, like Octavio Paz, that 'intelligence is finally incarnated, the two enemy halves are reconciled and the mirror consciousness is liquefied, becoming a source, a source of fables: man, tree of images, words that are flowers, that are fruits, and that are acts'…".

There are few political leaders left alive from the first democratic transition of the 1980s: Ricardo Lagos, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Those who receive the baton should look there for sources of inspiration to weather these hard times of emergency and exceptionality, which require a renewed impulse of constitutional politics and that can perhaps be the framework for the second democratic transition, overcoming the fissure between neoliberalism and populism; already blurred by the other events.

These are lessons of democratic civility that are left as the legacy of a historical stage that is ending and another that may already be awakening. It is a welcome and necessary legacy in these times of crisis; which consists precisely in the fact that the old does not entirely die and the new cannot be born, without forgetting what Antonio Gramsci wrote: “In this interregnum the most varied morbid phenomena are verified”.


Fabián Bosoer is a political scientist and journalist. Master in International Relations. Professor and researcher at UNTREF/IDEIA, editor in chief of the Opinion section of Clarín. Author, among other books, of Generals and Ambassadors (Ediciones B, 2005), Malvinas, final chapter (Intellectual Capital, 2007), Braden or Perón, the hidden history (El Ateneo, 2012).

Other reviews