Why has the US, the first nation in modern history to adopt a democratic constitution, only ever had one constitution in 226 years but the Dominican Republic run through 32, Venezuela 26 and Haiti 24?
For that matter, how has Canada got by with just two constitutions (or just one complete rewrite in 145 years – the Constitution Act of 1867 being superseded by that of 1982) and India kept its original constitution (the longest written one of any sovereign country in the world) from the day it was adopted in November 1949, just two years after Independence?
José Azel, a senior scholar at Miami University’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, offers some answers in his excellent piece in the Miami Herald (though he doesn’t mention India).
He says that “Latin America’s wiki-constitutionalism is a case where the solution does not match the problem; it perpetuates it” and this “constitutional plasticity” is at least partly a product of the way “linguistic peculiarities influence our perception of the world, and in particular where we place responsibility for good governance.”
Remember, we are talking about more than mere constitutional amendments. As Mr Azel says, this wiki-constitutionalism encompasses “far-reaching rewritings that seek to rework the structures of government, or as Bolivia’s President Evo Morales phrased it in promulgating his country’s 17th constitution: to refound the nation.”
Mr Azel offers an interesting example from a book titled ‘Learning to Die in Miami’ by Professor Carlos Eire. After immigrating to the US, the Professor notes the striking differences that started to emerge in his thinking once he started to learn English in order to integrate with his adopted country. As Mr Azel describes it, the Professor finds that “he is affected by the way in which his new language gives so much more choice and responsibility to the self than his native Spanish.”
So, if one of your books falls to the ground while you’re headed to class, the Spanish phrase would be Se me cayó el libro, which roughly translates as the book dropped itself from me. But in English, we would simply say “I dropped my book”, thereby assuming complete responsibility for the event. We would only say “the book fell” if we had not been responsible for holding it.
It’s an interesting insight into different cultural prisms though I’m leery about over-extrapolating and over-generalizing. But it is true enough, as Mr Azel points out, that there are some deep and very real reasons that some countries use their constitution as a founding code for process rather than blaming “the constitutional design” for problems and simply erasing “institutional memory”.
Even more to the point, as he says, “some very successful societies are doing quite well without bothering with a codified constitution, for example: The United Kingdom in Europe, Hong Kong in Asia, New Zealand in Oceania, and Israel in the Middle East.”