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Scholar analyzes Latin American constitutions

| Thursday, September 4, 2014

Debates regarding the Constitution are commonplace in America, and not just in the United States. In a lecture Thursday titled “The Politics of Constitutional Change in Latin America,” Gabriel L. Negretto, associate professor of political studies at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica (CIDE) in Mexico City, said constitutional discussions occupy a central place in Latin American politics.

Whereas constitutional disputes in the United States typically concern interpretation, debates in Latin America have largely focused on substantive reform and in some cases, on complete replacement of the constitution in question. Negretto said he developed a two-level theory that attributes constitutional reforms both to ‘efficiency considerations,’ which legitimize the call for reform, and ‘partisan considerations,’ which influence the shape of a specific reform.

“I argue … that the relative impact of partisan interests and power resources varies across cases, across individual cases, according to two factors,” Negretto said. “One is the triggering event, and the other is the level of electoral uncertainty.”

Negretto said any explanation of reform necessitates an understanding of both problems inciting reform and short-term interests of actors in a setting of limited power resources.

Negretto drew original inspiration to explore constitutional changes in Latin America from the rate at which these changes occurred, he said.

“I realized that constitutional change [in Latin America] was much more frequent than you would expect based on the idea of the constitutional moment being an extraordinary political event,” he said. “Since Independence up to 2009, there have been 194 constitutions in Latin America.”

Negretto said these observations led him to question the common assertion that constitutions are made infrequently and only in very particular circumstances.  He said he was “increasingly skeptical” of this idea, and his dissatisfaction prompted him to write his recent book, Making Constitutions: Presidents, Parties, and Institutional Choice in Latin America.

Negretto said he tested the theory behind his book through the use of statistical analysis to examine 67 instances of constitutional reform.  He said he also conducted four case studies — two of reforms in Argentina, and reforms in Columbia and Ecuador.

He said he found a significant difference in conditions of reform in which the reform coalition comprised only those of the president’s party, as opposed to coalitions that represented cross-party interests.  An analysis of party interests and power resources insufficiently explains reform during moments of high levels of electoral uncertainty as well as in instances of institutional crisis.

Negretto concluded the lecture with a reflection on the advantages and disadvantages of Latin American government and addressed a question regarding the noteworthy differences between constitutional politics in the United States, where lawmakers have made relatively few changes to the Constitution, and in Latin America, where changes come every few years.

“When you have a mature constitutional system, formal rules do not matter much,” he said. “Ironically, formal institutions become more important in unstable constitutional countries.”

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