Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

Rules That Bind Us

By Ludovico Feoli

The standoff presently underway in Venezuela regarding the treatment of constitutional precepts in light of President Chavez’ illness poses a larger question for regional democracy and the rule of law: how much do rules bind us? The credibility of our laws hinges on the certainty that they will take precedent over individual whims and that, failing this they will be enforced by third parties. However, events underway suggest that the authorities entrusted with this responsibility may lack the necessary autonomy to carry it through, making the separation and balance of powers questionable. And Venezuela is not the only example. Honduras, El Salvador, and even Costa Rica have had recent constitutional crises that raised similar questions, although their resolutions varied.

Hugo Chávez, democratically elected by a significant majority of Venezuelans, was set to take power on January 10, 2013 but he lies ill in Havana and is unable to appear at his inauguration. While the Constitution establishes that in such circumstances the head of Congress should take over temporarily and, if the absence is permanent, call new elections, the Venezuelan Supreme Court of Justice interpreted that Chavez’ reelection established the “administrative continuity” of the Executive, rendering a new inauguration “unnecessary”. Hence, the Court effectively reinterpreted the election as a renewal of the previous administration, rather than the start of a new constitutional period. This brushes aside the question of whether the president’s absence is temporary or permanent. It also obviates due process, which first calls for the investiture of the president and then for the appointment of the cabinet. Rules do not seem to bind.

Last December, the Honduran Congress fired four of the five magistrates on its Constitutional Court. The proximate cause was a vote by the magistrates, which a congressional investigative commission decided was extemporaneous. However, critics argue that the magistrates were purged for their decisions, which being contrary to the interests of the executive angered the President and generated a reprisal. The removal, en masse, of Supreme Court justices because of the content of their decisions is a gross violation of the principle of separation of powers. Without respect, on the part of the Executive, for the principle of judicial autonomy, there is little hope for the rule of law. Rules do not seem to bind.

El Salvador suffered its own constitutional crisis last summer. Similarly to the Honduran case, Constitutional Court decisions angered political actors due to their effects on their interests. In the case of the Executive, a Court decision limited the use of unsupervised discretionary funds. In the case of political parties, another decision allowed candidates to run independently, weakening the authority of party structures. Political jockeying to control the balance of power in the Court led to a spate of nominations late in the congressional period that ended in April 2012. The Constitutional Court ruled these appointments unconstitutional on the basis that the law only allows each Congress the approval of a single set of justices per term. Rather than accepting the ruling, the majority coalition in Congress challenged it before the Central American Court of Justice, a body whose authority has long been subject to debate. The justices in question also sought to retain their seats, so that two groups of magistrates claimed to be the legitimate representatives of the Court, creating a situation of institutional uncertainty. The crisis was eventually resolved, fortunately, through political means, but not without damaging the credibility of democratic institutions. Neither Congress nor the questioned appointees were bound by the rules that make the Constitutional Court the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution.

A short-lived conflict also took place in Costa Rica during 2012 when legislators voted not to renew a Constitutional Court magistrate in his post. The act was not outside the purview of the legislature’s competence, although some procedural aspects remain open to question. What generated the crisis were remarks by some deputies that starkly showed the political intent of their decision. The legislature was seeking to “discipline” the Court, renowned for its activism, by signaling that it would punish those magistrates that refused to be compliant. Congressional representatives were not bound by the rules of judicial autonomy and the separation of powers. However, the outcry that emerged and the prompt resolution of the crisis drove the heads of the executive, legislative, and judiciary powers to issue a joint proclamation reaffirming the relevance of those very rules, reminding everyone of the principle that rules should bind us.

These examples show that formal rules are not enough in our region’s progress towards democracy. They must be subject to credible enforcement and they must be accepted and internalized by political actors.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Ludovico Feoli

    Executive Director - Center for Inter-American Policy & Research

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Upcoming Events

"Where the River Bends" Photographic Exhibit

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The Consulate of Mexico in New Orleans is pleased to partner with the PhotoNOLA Festival 2014 presenting the photographic exhibition by artist Scott Dalton "Where The River Bends" from December 3rd to December 30th, 2014

Opening reception December 3rd, 2014 at 6:00pm

Scott Dalton is an editorial and corporate photographer living in Houston, Texas. He was based for 14 years throughout Latin America, mainly in Bogotá, Colombia, where he photographed the civil conflict and drug war before returning to his home state of Texas. He now photographs both editorial and corporate assignments while spending his free time working on long-term personal projects. Currently he is working along the troubled border region near Ciudad Juárez, Mexico as well as projects throughout the American South. His photography has appeared in the New York Times, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, Harper’s, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post Magazine, Condé Nast Portfolio, Business Week, and The New Yorker, among other outlets. His documentary film, LA SIERRA, won numerous awards and has been broadcast by PBS, BBC, HBO Latino, and many other international broadcasters.

Congreso internacional de literatura y cultura centroamericanas (CILCA XXIII)

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Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans, y Purdue University Calumet tienen el gusto de invitar al CONGRESO DE LITERATURA y CULTURA CENTROAMERICANAS (CILCA XXIII) que se llevará a cabo en la ciudad de New Orleans, Louisiana, del 11 al 13 de marzo del 2015 en el campus de Tulane University y Loyola University New Orleans.

Desde el primer congreso realizado en Nicaragua 1993, CILCA se ha caracterizado por ser un espacio de intercambio intelectual y de amistad para académicas/os, escritoras/es y lectoras/es. El congreso se ha efectuado en todos los países centroamericanos y por primera vez en su historia, CILCA se realizará en los Estados Unidos. La ciudad escogida es Nueva Orleáns, puerta de entrada hacia el Caribe y los países de América Central. El intercambio cultural entre Nueva Orleáns y América Central ha sido intenso por muchísimos años, y la ciudad alberga una de las comunidades de origen hondureño más grandes de los Estados Unidos. Tulane University tiene estrechos lazos con la región a través del Stone Center for Latin American Studies, the Latin American Library, y the Middle American Research Institute. Loyola University New Orleans se ha distinguido por el trabajo con las comunidades hispanas que realizan varias de sus unidades académicas, incluyendo the Law School y el Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

La organización de CILCA XXIII la realizan la Dra. Maureen Shea y el Dr. Uriel Quesada, expertos en literatura y cultura centroamericanas, con el apoyo del Dr. Jorge Román Lagunas, creador y promotor de CILCA.

Ud. puede ver La convocatoria aquí

Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans, and Purdue University Calumet invite you to the Congress on Literature and Culture of Central America (CILCA XXIII) which will take place in New Orleans, Louisiana March 11-13 2015 on the campuses of Tulane and Loyola New Orleans.

From the first conference, held in Nicaragua in 1993, CILCA has been a space for intellectual exchange and friendship for academics and writers. The conference has been held in all of the Central American countries and for the first time in its history will be held in the United States. New Orleans, the gateway to the Caribbean and Central America, has been chosen as the location. New Orleans and Central America have a longstanding cultural exchange and New Orleans has one of the largest Honduran communities in the United States. Tulane has long connections with the region through the Stone Center for Latin American Studies, the Latin American Library, and the Middle American Research Institute. Loyola New Orleans works closely with hispanic communities particularly through the Law school and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

CILCA XXIII is organized by Drs. Maureen Shea and Uriel Quesada, experts on the literature and culture of Central America, with the support of Dr. Jorge Román Lagunas, creator of CILCA.

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Registration prices are listed below:

Early Registration (BEFORE January 15, 2015):

  • $150.00 U.S. academics
  • $125.00 U.S. Latin American academics traveling from Latin America; graduate students in the U.S.
  • $100.00 Latin American graduate students traveling from Latin America

Late registration (AFTER January 15, 2015):

  • $165.00 U.S. academics
  • $140.00 Latin American academics traveling from Latin America; graduate students in the U.S.
  • $115.00 Latin American graduate students traveling from Latin America

2015 Maya Symposium Teacher Workshop

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The Stone Center for Latin American Studies, in collaboration with the Middle American Research Institute, and the Consulate of Mexico in New Orleans, will present a teacher workshop in conjunction with the 12th Annual Tulane Maya Symposium, Royal Chambers Unsealed: Tombs of the Classic Maya.

This year the workshop will be held at the Consulate of Mexico, in conjunction with an exhibit of the works of Jay A. Frogel entitled “Maya Ruins and the Passage of Time: The Stephens and Catherwood Project.” Frogel mixes Frederick Catherwood drawings of ancient Maya sites with contemporary photographs to show the passage of time in these sites. The workshop will discuss basic information about the Maya, early explorers of the Maya area, and tips for teaching about the Maya in a global classroom.

The workshop will be held on Friday, March 20th, with a reception and viewing of the exhibit “Maya Ruins and the Passage of Time: The Stephens and Catherwood Project” on Thursday evening.

More details on the workshop schedule will follow shortly.

To register for the workshop, please visit the symposium page

12th Annual Tulane Maya Symposium: Royal Chambers Unsealed: Tombs of the Classic Maya

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The Middle American Research Institute and Far Horizons are proud to present the Twelfth Annual Tulane Maya Symposium and Workshop. This year's symposium, titled "Royal Chambers Unsealed: Tombs of the Classic Maya", will explore the significance the ancient Classic Maya placed on the death of their divine rulers, as well as the meaning they invested in their funerary architecture, building decoration, grave goods, burial texts, and mortuary rituals.

This year’s Keynote, hosted at the New Orleans Museum of Art, will be given by Dr. William Fash of Harvard University who will guide us through the rich and impenetrable funerary world of the Classic Maya. The talks, to be held on Saturday March 21st, will discuss tombs and funerary texts from across the Maya area, including examples from Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. The speakers are an equally diverse group, with speakers from Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Spain, and the United States.

To learn more about the program, visit the symposim website.

To register please visit the registration page.

For more information, contact MARI