In corruption-plagued Latin America, you have to try especially hard to be among the region's three most graft-ridden countries. But that's exactly how Ecuador started the 21st century, according to Transparency International. The nation owed much of that dubious distinction to its Congress, which is legendary in South America not only for financial scandals but for unabashed elitism and a virtually nonexistent legislative output.
Popular disgust with the Congress in Quito was a big reason that a radical leftist, Rafael Correa, won Ecuador's presidency last year in a landslide. Last Sunday, Correa supporters won a large majority of seats for a national assembly that will rewrite the Constitution (it will be the country's 20th in 177 years that is, a constitution every 8.85 years.) And that bloc, when the assembly convenes in November, looks all but certain to carry out Correa's desire to dissolve Ecuador's Congress and replace it with a new and, one hopes, better model of a legislature. "This [current] Congress," Correa said, "must be tossed back into the street."
Still, the move will be as much a cause for lament as celebration. This should have been a golden age for Latin lawmakers. After chafing under dictatorships for much of the 20th century, national legislatures were supposed to have been liberated by the region's return to democracy in the 1990s. But in countries like Ecuador, the only things that seem to have burst forth are scandal and dysfunction, which in many cases have made legislative branches in Latin America even more disgraced than the region's judiciaries and that takes some doing.
Oil-rich Venezuela once fooled the world into labeling it South America's "model" democracy; but all you had to do was visit the National Assembly's parking garage in Caracas and gaze at its rows of Mercedes Benzes, Ferraris and other luxury sports cars to realize why few mourned when left-wing President Hugo Chavez killed the body in 2000 and replaced it with a unicameral legislature. Argentines certainly recall how the corruption and complacency of their Congress helped bring on the disastrous financial crisis of 2001-02, which almost wrecked the nation. Nowadays, few in Argentina complain that it has been relegated to virtual bystander status in the government today. It is no surprise that many Argentines write in the names of popular cartoon characters on ballots during legislative elections.
Perhaps the most glaring example is Brazil, where Deputies and Senators seem to spend more time debating internal corruption cases instead of bills. In fact, in the Brazilian Congress that ended last year, a fifth of the members were under investigation for malfeasance (which didn't stop them from voting to raise salaries by 91% for the next Congress). Not that anyone is getting punished. Last month the Brazilian Senate absolved its President, Renan Calheiros, of tax evasion and government contract kickback charges, including allegations of payments to his mistress. (Calheiros denied any wrongdoing and insisted the money in question was his own, though federal police investigations found discrepancies in his claim.) In a display of what many Brazilians considered political cowardice, the Senators voted by secret ballot.
The larger problem is that the lawmaking institutions that were expected to be the linchpins of Latin America's democratic revival have all too often ended up discrediting it handing the executive branch a convenient excuse for accumulating more populist power. In theory, dissolving feckless Congresses in countries like Venezuela and Ecuador is meant to be "a prelude to getting around the vested interests of those corrupt legislatures, getting needed reforms to the people and then creating new, more accountable legislatures," says Susan Kaufman Purcell, director of the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami. The risk, however, "is a movement toward authoritarian rule," especially if rotten legislatures are simply replaced by rubber stamps. Because many of Venezuela's poor have been politically and economically enfranchised for the first time ever, Chavez supporters insist the country is more genuinely democratic. But, thanks in part to the fact that the opposition unwisely boycotted the last legislative elections, the National Assembly now consists entirely of Chavez allies who last month approved an upcoming referendum that may nix term limits and allow Chavez to run for reelection indefinitely.
The dissolution or disrepute of Latin legislatures is a symptom of what analysts like Purcell call the region's chronic failure to build democratic institutions beyond ballot booths. "Latin democracies are more truly honest today at the level of election systems," says Purcell, "but unfortunately only at that level." If and when Ecuador dissolves its Congress this year so Correa can "reinvent" his country, as he declared Sunday, it will be another reminder that democracy isn't just elections that democracy is what happens after elections. Even after the dictatorships fell, too many Latin American legislators were clueless about that particular axiom.