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Latin America: Coups and constitutions

There has been a flurry of new constitutions passed in Latin America in recent years.

But the proposals by the Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to consider rewriting his nation's constitution are the first to result in a coup.

BBC Mundo has taken an overview of what constitutional changes have been adopted or considered in the region and why.

ECUADOR

On September 28, 2008, 80% of Ecuadoreans voted to amend the country's constitution.

No voter in Ecuador
Investors worried about the impact of the new constitution on business

The new constitution is the country's 20th and was one of the main political projects of the President Rafael Correa.

The new constitution replaced one dating from 1998, adopted after the downfall of President Abdala Bucaram.

Broadly speaking, the 2008 constitution improves the rights of minority groups and immigrants as well as seeking to give more protection to the natural environment.

Moreover, the text gives the president the power to dissolve the National Assembly. But he can do this only once, and only if a presidential election is called immediately afterwards.

Some opposition parties say it gives too much power to the president and worry that it will lead to the nationalisation of the Ecuadorean economy.

BOLIVIA

On January 25, 2009, Bolivians voted in a referendum with about 60% of the population saying "yes" to a new constitution.

After his election in August 2006, President Evo Morales convened a Constituent Assembly; something indigenous groups had been calling for since the 1990s to press for changes.

Morales refrendum flag
Mr Morales enjoyed strong support in some but not all parts of Bolivia

The drawing up and passing of the text was preceded by violent protests, and the project was on the point of collapsing on several occasions.

The constituent assembly approved the draft text at a session boycotted by the main opposition parties.

Regional leaders opposed to Mr Morales launched an offensive against the government to demand autonomy.

The bloodiest events occurred in Pando, where at least 20 people died.

In response, Congress made changes to the draft text but it remained controversial.

The government and opposition agreed that in future any president could only be re-elected once and that more power would be give to the regions.

The crux of the new Bolivian Constitution is that indigenous people and the rural poor should be included in the power structures of the country and the national leadership of the state should be free to intervene in the running of the national economy.

In a referendum on the new constitutions, voters also decided that the maximum amount of land anyone in Ecuador can now own is 5000 hectares.

But the opposition is still not happy.

They want autonomy for the regions and reject what they see as excessive state interference in the economy.

VENEZUELA

On February 15, 2009, 54% of Venezuelans approved a constitutional amendment which removes the limits on terms in office for elected officials - a move that allows President Hugo Chavez to stand for re-election.

Hugo Chavez
Mr Chavez, whose current term ends in 2012, suffered a short-lived 2002 coup

This was the second time such a referendum was held.

The first, in 2007, was part of a broader constitutional reform, and on that occasion the government lost with 49% of the vote, against 51% against reforming the constitution.

That result indicated the degree to which Venezuela is polarised politically. It was also significant that more than half the electorate abstained.

"The country remains split in two," Angel Alvarez, of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), Angel Alvarez, told BBC Mundo.

This constitution of the Fifth Republic of Venezuela increases presidential power and sets out ways to increase popular participation in politics.

It created the post of vice-president, increased the presidential term of office from five to six years, and abolished the Senate so that now there is a unicameral legislature (National Assembly).

It also ruled that the state oil company (PDVSA) can not be privatised and established new public posts such as the Ombudsman and the National Electoral Council, which now have independent powers.

COLOMBIA

On 19 May, 2009, the Colombian Senate passed a bill that calls for a referendum to decide whether a president can be elected for a third time.

The final version of the Act, which was passed in the Senate, will have to be negotiated with the House of Representatives, who initially endorsed another text.

After this step, the law must be reviewed by the Constitutional Court. If it passes this test, then the people will be called to the polls.

That should happen next November or December.

President Urib
President Uribe has not indicated publicly what his future plans are

The possible referendum on constitutional reform sowed uncertainty in the country, especially because President Alvaro Uribe has still not said if he wants to run again for what would be an unprecedented third term in 2010.

In Colombia, the current constitution dates from 1991.

The text originally prohibited the immediate re-election of the president, and the extradition of Colombian nationals.

In 1996, Congress amended the constitution to allow extradition.

And in 2004, the constitution was changed again to allow presidential re-election. This allowed to stand President Uribe to stand for a second term in office, a vote he won two years later.



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