Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
14 September 2021

Changing Characteristics of Constitutional-Making in Latin America

Interview with Yanina Welp on her new publication

Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have all experienced constitutional replacements seeking to give citizens back their voice in public affairs. But did it work ? And is it possible to renovate democracy through the sole majoritarian rule? An article by Yanina Welp, Research Fellow at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, explores these issues.


The constitutional changes that you examine in your article are in line with the current debate that the will of the people should prevail over the established legal order. How do you view this debate?

There is nothing like the will of the people as a Rousseauian homogeneous “volonté générale”. The people are diverse and plural; thus, rules are fundamental to shape and aggregate voices in order to arrive to fair decisions on the common goods. The appeal to the will of the people nowadays hides the strategy to make prevalent the will of the leaders. One of the main challenges posed to democracy when the rule of law is confronted with the popular will was defined by Guillermo O’Donnell around the notion of delegative democracy. Delegative democracy is understood as more democratic but less liberal than representative democracy because it is strongly majoritarian and empowers somebody to become the embodiment and interpreter of the high interests of the nation. But that majority supports the legitimate delegation, which also plays against the empowerment of the people. This tension is translated into a political struggle when a president acts against the law, claiming that he has popular support. But how and when this popular support is expressed is also dependent on his will, producing sooner or later erosion of the whole democratic system.


What is the importance of the major constitutional changes in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador over the last two decades?

Even if the three constitutions recognised second- and third-generation rights, e.g., with new notions of cultural and ethnic recognition, a wide range of participatory institutions and environmental protection, they also granted more powers to the executive and a reduction in the powers of the legislature, diminishing checks and balances. I would take two fundamental learnings from these cases: one related to the problem of keeping the status quo at all costs and the other related to the new emerging factions in power. The result of radical changes in this setting is that once the new coalitions consolidate their power, despite the institutionalisation of a wide range of participation mechanisms, local participation was allowed under governmental control but popular initiatives in hands of the people were blocked or or perverted, showing that the problem of the status quo was replaced with the problem of a faction which appealed to the will of the people when instrumentally useful but ignored or prevented it when not aligned with the government’s options.


To what extent did those constitutional changes improve the voicing of citizens’ rights?

These constitutional replacements led to the inclusion of diverse participatory-democracy mechanisms through votes, the recognition of communitarian spaces and other local institutions, but in practice they did not really allow an autonomous participation, as exemplified by the social protests on environmental issues such as the TIPNIS in Bolivia, the Yasuni national Park in Ecuador or the recall attempt against Maduro in Venezuela. When governments were against the claims of some groups of society, they did prevent the activations of these mechanisms.


What do you think about the future of democracy in these countries?

The three countries are in quite different stages. Venezuela is not a democracy anymore. Ecuador kept the electoral competition as the main procedure to distribute of power. Bolivia reestablished this path. The three countries, as many others in the region, are facing huge challenges increased by the negative consequences of the pandemic. Politics should serve to improve life conditions and build, keep and or reinforce the social agreement for the survival of democracy.


Full citation of the article:

Welp, Yanina. “From the ‛Status Quo’ Problem to the ‛Factional’ Problem: Constitution-Making in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.” Topos no. 1 (2021). 


Interview by Bugra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science.