Colombian President Petro’s dangerous constitutional plans 

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Halfway through his four year term, Colombian President Gustavo Petro wants to replace Colombia’s constitution, possibly using some legally dubious methods to make this happen.   Should he continue on this path, not only his own country’s stability but also relations with the U.S., a longstanding provider of assistance to Colombia, could be endangered.   

Despite occasional frictions, the U.S. has stayed the course with him, as the democratically elected leader of a country with which it has enjoyed close ties. But if he insists on rewriting Colombia’s constitution against the will of Colombia’s Congress and courts, fracturing the country in the process, the U.S. may have no choice but to part ways with him. 

Petro is vague regarding what he would like to see in a new document, but he has made clear his frustration with the slow pace of his efforts to gain passage of leftist-oriented economic and social reforms by Colombia’s Congress.   

Constitutional change had not been on Colombia’s political agenda until recently. Indeed, during his earlier failed effort to run for president in 2018, Petro had specifically pledged to avoid such a move. 

Colombians, after all, remember well that in Venezuela, after Hugo Chavez came to office in 1999, a constitutional convention dominated by his supporters became the vehicle for eliminating any checks and balances on his power, leading to the authoritarian government which under his successor remains in power. 

Ironically, Colombia’s current constitution is only 33 years old.  Drafted in 1991, it included expansive definitions of economic and social rights. However, subsequent changes conditioning the implementation of these rights on their fiscal sustainability, have been used by Petro to argue that the promise of the 1991 constitution has not been fulfilled and a new one is needed. He first raised this issue in March, and then at a rally on May 1 and again in June. 

Initially, his proposal for a new “constituent assembly” was met with relative indifference, as the current constitution only allows for such a body to be created after approval by Congress and then by one third of all enrolled voters in a nationwide referendum, something he is unlikely to obtain.

However, he has since argued that there is an inherent “constituent power” residing in the people independent of existing requirements that would allow him to go forward. 

He has also suggested that a recently signed preliminary accord with the National Liberation Army guerrilla group entails economic and social commitments, as authorized under previous legislation providing for such peace agreements, and that as these commitments can only be met through a new constitution, he can unilaterally call a constituent assembly into being. 

Although all five of Colombia’s living former presidents have denounced this proposal as illegal, Petro remains interested in a new constitution and has suggested that the first step would be to hold “cabildos” or town hall meetings throughout the country.  He has been silent as to what would happen if Colombia’s courts insist that there can be no shortcuts to authorizing a new constitution. But he stresses that his government reflects the will of the people which cannot be denied. However, with his popularity at only 38 percent, such claims will not go uncontested. 

Also, the idea that he can accomplish nothing through existing legal processes does not seem borne out by the facts. Early in his term, he achieved a significant revenue-enhancing tax reform, and to the surprise of many, after modifications, a long sought pension reform has just been passed as well. 

But if Petro presses for a new constitution without congressional authorization, he will put stress on Colombia’s always-fragile cohesion. And such action on his part, even as we have already seen authoritarians on the left such as Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and on the right such as El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele display utter indifference to basic democratic norms, would be a real step backwards for Latin America. 

Richard M. Sanders is a senior fellow for the Western Hemisphere at the Center for the National Interest. A senior foreign service officer, he served at embassies throughout Latin America, including two assignments in Colombia. 

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