Monday, November 3, 2014

Ecuador’s Top Court Backs Constitutional Reforms

Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa’s Alianza Pais political movement scored an important victory late last week. On Friday, the country’s Constitutional Court ruled that 16 of the party’s 17 proposals to reform the constitution can be passed via legislative vote rather than a popular referendum.  

According to La Hora, the only measure that the court claimed required a popular vote to change was a proposal to limit the ability of individuals to claim that their personal constitutional rights are being violated by invoking the writ of “amparo” in court. President Correa has in the past railed against what he claims is the rampant abuse of this measure by individuals seeking to get out of prosecution.

As El Universo reports, the 16 court-approved reforms include a number of minor tweaks to the 2008 constitution like lowering required minimum presidential age from 35 to 30, and giving municipal governments a greater role in education and health infrastructure. But the biggest and most controversial provisions include expanding the role of the military in domestic security, scrapping term limits for all elected officials, and recognizing communications as a “public service.”   Some international outlets -- see the Wall Street Journal -- have characterized the latter point as an expansion of the government's media oversight, but it is more accurately an attempt to solidify the aims of the country’s controversial 2013 media law, which contains similar language.

Ecuadorean lawyer Ricardo Flores, who has written an extensive three-part critique (see parts I, II and III) of the juridical arguments behind the reforms for news site Gkillcity.com, offers yet another critical take on the political ramifications of Friday’s decision. In Flores’ estimation, the Constitutional Court ruling is hardly surprising given that its judges are mostly aligned with Correa’s political movement. As he and El Universo point out, the ruling allows the Alianza Pais to allow indefinite reelection just in time for the 2017 general election.

Allegations of an assault on judicial independence against a leftist leader in Latin America are nothing new, of course, but in this case there is ample evidence to support them. As an excellent report published in August by the Due Process of Law Foundation, Colombia’s Dejusticia, and the Legal Defense Institute of Peru demonstrated, the Correa administration has exerted undue influence over courts since 2011 by sacking judges who do not conform to its political preferences.

Because the president’s Alianza Pais controls 100 of 137 seats in the National Assembly, the reforms are almost sure to pass a congressional vote. Thus, the opposition’s only hope of challenging the constitutional changes lies in presenting electoral officials with a petition with roughly 600,000 signatures in support of a referendum. On Saturday, opposition figure (and 2013 presidential candidate) Guillermo Lasso said he would support such a signature drive.

If Lasso follows through on his promise, he may have better luck than the failed Yasunidos environmental movement, which saw more than half of its gathered signatures invalidated by the National Electoral Council in May. Fortunately for the opposition, it appears to have public opinion largely on its side. According to a Cedatos poll released last month, 73 percent of the country is in favor of voting on a proposal to allow indefinite reelection.

News Briefs
  • On Sunday, Mexico’s Federal Judiciary Council issued a statement detailing the charges brought against those responsible for the June 30 execution of 22 individuals in Tlatlaya by members of the army.  A total of seven soldiers have been arrested and charged with “actions improper to the public service,” while three of these have been accused of killing eight of the victims, Animal Politico and the AP report.
  • The New York Times has a profile of the teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa attended by the 43 students who went missing in Iguala in September, noting its proud history of radical activism.
  • International media -- see Forbes and the AP -- have picked up on a protest in São Paulo on Sunday in which some 2,500 protesters came together to call for the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in the wake of allegations against the president stemming from the deepening Petrobras scandal.  Local press like O Estado and Folha also highlighted remarks by a minority of protesters who called for a military coup to overthrow the president.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is seemingly considering revising his predecessor Hugo Chavez’s decision to place the country on its own time zone, which makes it a half-hour out of synch with the rest of the continent.
  • A judge in Argentina has invoked the principle of universal jurisdiction to order the arrest of 20 former Spanish officials accused of torturing dissidents under Spain’s Franco dictatorship, as the New York Times reports.
  • Argentine President Cristina Fernandez’s health is in the news yet again today, as yesterday her administration announced that she had been hospitalized for an “infectious fever,” according to La Nacion. The AP notes that this is at least the fourth health problem that the president has suffered in the past year.
  • Over the weekend the Associated Press ran a profile of El Salvador’s Israel Ticas, one of the few forensic scientists in the country. Though he works for the Attorney General as its only criminologist, Ticas’ forensic expertise is actually self-taught.  
  • More than a week after Uruguay’s general election, electoral officials have released the final results. The vote count confirms that the ballot lists of the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) coalition were supported by 47.8 percent by voters, four points more than those received by the opposition National and Colorado Parties combined (30.88 percent and 12.89 percent, repectively). As El Pais reports, this ensures that the FA will control the lower house with 50 seats, and will hold 15 seats in the Senate. If FA candidate Tabare Vazquez wins the runoff -- as he seems poised to -- his vice president Raul Sendic will win a Senate seat, continuing the coalition’s majority control over both legislative houses.
  • Spanish news agency EFE has an update on the peace process in Havana and the arrival of the latest delegation of conflict victims to the talks. According to UN facilitators of the victims’ participation, there have been at least three cases of armed groups issuing death threats to victims who have testified in Havana since the current stage of talks began.