In a turbulent constitutional referendum on September 28, “socialism for the 21st century” emerged triumphant in the South American country of Ecuador. It joins Bolivia and Venezuela in repudiating not only neo-liberal economics but traditional social values.
The architect of Ecuador’s 20th constitution in 140 years is Rafael Correa, its eighth president in 10 years. Unlike his counterparts in Venezuela and Bolivia, he is well-educated and cosmopolitan. An economist, he has a Master’s from the Catholic University of Louvain and a PhD from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Politically, he is a left of centre populist, although how “left” is still unfolding.
One of his first projects was a new constitution. This, he promised, would eliminate corruption, introduce economic and political stability and ensure social equality. But the haste with which it was written makes it a perplexing document open to many interpretations. According to Guy Hedgecoe, editor of the English-language edition of the El Pais newspaper, “the document’s 440 articles are a labyrinth of idealistic generalisation, nebulous ambiguity and outright contradiction.” “Would you sign a contract containing over 400 articles without having even read it?” was the comment of one popular bumper sticker.
Ecuadorians are used to populism and power-hungry politicians. But Correa’s constitution, which was approved by 64 percent of voters, introduces something new into Ecuadorian legal system – political correctness on steroids. His critics, including the Catholic bishops of this largely Catholic country, say that it has opened the door to the liberal abortion law, legalised euthanasia, the abolition of private education and the introduction of same-sex marriage.
This is vehemently repudiated by Correa. He claims to be a practising Catholic and says that the bishops have misrepresented his views. In any case, a vigorous campaign against the new constitution failed. About 64 percent of voters supported it.
However, despite Correa’s protestations, there are some very worrying features in the new constitution.
Abortion. Article 67, section 9, grants the right “to make free, informed, voluntary and responsible decisions about sexuality and one’s life and sexual orientation. The State must promote access to the necessary means for these decisions to be made safely.” And section 10 grants the right to decide on one’s “health and reproductive life and to decide when and how many children one will have.” All this seems to be coded language for abortion rights. However, Correa denies this. In a radio broadcast he said that accusations that the Constitution promoted abortion was a “lie”. He told his listeners to tell their priests, “Father, you are a liar and don’t start playing politics in this church.” A petition signed by 700,000 people to change the wording of this article was ignored.
Families. The constitution acknowledges that “marriage is the union of a man and a woman”. So far, so good — or at least better than California and Massachusetts, which recognise gay marriages. But it also “recognises the family in its different forms” and says that “the stable and monogamous union of two persons without matrimonial bonds” will be given the same rights and responsibilities as families created through a marriage. Adoption is only for heterosexual couples. The implication is clearly that Ecuador has given same-sex unions the same rights as de facto couples.
Education. Ecuadorian parents have a right to be concerned now about who will be responsible for the education of their children. The constitution does not guarantee private education and seems to imply that the State has full responsibility for the curriculum and education in primary and secondary education. Even more ominously, the state is supposed to ensure that schools teach children about “citizenship, sexuality and the environment” from a “[human] rights point of view”.
Environment. Ecuador has become a world pioneer in constitutional law by granting banana trees, swamps and Galapagos tortoises rights — apparently the same rights as human beings. “Persons and people have the fundamental rights guaranteed in this Constitution and in the international human rights instruments,” says one section. “Nature is subject to those rights given by this Constitution and Law.” Even more curiously, perhaps to the delight of the Darwinist Richard Dawkins, the constitution confers a right to evolution: “Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” Of course, Nature is mute, so individuals and communities can demand recognition of its rights on its behalf.
This is a radical step. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, “Ecuador is engaged in nothing less than an effort to redefine the relationship between human beings and the natural world.”
Concentration of power. Correa intends to say good-bye to “the long night of the neo-liberal model”. The new constitution strengthens his role in every area of the government. By allowing consecutive four-year terms, instead of only one, it will allow him to stay in power until 2017. It promotes “people power” by creating an appointed citizens’ council which will oversee the other branches of government.
Ecuador is now firmly aligned with the “Bolivarian” regimes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Ivo Morales in Bolivia, despite some clear differences. There is a danger that the country could plunge into the populism that failed all across Latin America in the 60s and 70s. The President has now taken over many of the functions of the Central Bank, can rule by emergency decree and can dissolve the Parliament if it “obstructs the execution of the Development National Plan”.
Nonetheless, the government has moved to reassure private enterprise that Correa does not intend to follow in the footsteps of Chavez and nationalise the telecommunications and electrical utility industries. The security minister has even said that Ecuador should be a country of entrepreneurs.
Correa clearly has popular support and his defeated opponents are ready to cooperate with him. The mayor of Guayaquil, Jaime Nebot – a bastion of the opposition where the constitution was defeated – has held out an olive branch for talks. Indigenous opponents have greeted the result with a “critical yes” and say that they are open to dialogue. Even the Catholic bishops say that they are open to a dialogue, even though they still oppose the Constitution’s provisions for abortion.
What is most worrying for sceptics is the uncertainty of the future. Ecuador’s economy is not diverse – half of its export earnings come from petroleum – and is unlikely to withstand the shock of world recession or a collapse in oil prices. Business confidence is low. With a vague constitution and an autocratic president, almost anything could happen.
Pedro Dutour writes from the capital of Uruguay, Montevideo.