Colombia’s New Constitution Tackles Old Corruption


Under Colombia’s new constitution, this nation’s capital suddenly returns to its traditional Spanish name, Santa Fe de Bogota. Election, divorce and extradition procedures are altered too.

With 397 articles, the basic document detailing how Colombia governs itself is one of the world’s longest constitutions--and some say the most unwieldy. But others insist that the constitution makes sense and is a key symbol of Colombia’s push toward greater democracy.

“You can have a thousand objections to the text of the new constitution, but you cannot object to its greater political significance,” said Eduardo Pizarro, a National University political scientist.


That significance, he and others say, lies in the constitution’s elimination of a two-party spoils system that for years has frustrated political participation. A handful of elites from two traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, ended a decade of civil war by agreeing in 1957 to alternate the presidency and divvy up other government posts.

“A great number of Colombians felt that the state belonged not to us but to the elite few,” said Gustavo Gallon, a Bogota human rights lawyer. “Domination by two parties was ensured by legal and constitutional mechanisms that we couldn’t do anything about.”

An elected national Constituent Assembly charged with rewriting the country’s 105-year-old charter began tearing down those political barricades in early February. The first point of attack was the corruption-ridden Congress.

The constitutional reforms include elimination of a system of auxilios, funds allocated to each Congress member and misused to buy reelection votes. Even with private money, such vote purchases will now be more difficult under a constitutional article requiring secret polling with official ballots. Before, each candidate printed and distributed his or her own ballots with payments ensuring their use.

The assembly also: trimmed the Congress (consisting of the Senate and House of Representatives) from 313 to 269 seats, restricted the holding of other posts by Congress members, created public campaign financing and undercut the regional political machinery by establishing national elections for the 102-member Senate. Two Senate seats will be reserved for the country’s indigenous peoples and five House seats for minority parties.

The 1991 constitution, formally put into effect last Friday, allows citizens to interact directly with the new Congress by introducing bills in petitions signed by at least 5% of the electorate. On a regional level, governors will be popularly elected instead of being appointed by the president.


“All of these changes mean the end of the spoils system and equality of all of the country’s political forces,” Pizarro said. Two active guerrilla groups negotiating with the government will find “that much of their justification for fighting has been lost,” he added.

Gallon agreed, saying “the political shake-up of the country has already taken place.”

The constitutional rewrite is just one more jolt in that shake-up, which began when a party of former guerrillas, the April 19 Movement, or M-19, in elections last December won a startling 19 seats to the Constituent Assembly. The party’s leader, Antonio Navarro Wolf, then surprised the country by forming an alliance with Alvaro Gomez Hurtado, an independent conservative, to disband the old Congress and call new elections for October.

Political analysts believe the new Congress will be as diverse as the assembly, which included two Indian leaders, two Protestants and a poet in addition to the former guerrillas. Such pluralism, analysts say, is likely to guarantee a repetition of the assembly’s exercise in coalition building.

“This assembly has been a precedent of immense importance because it is the first body in Colombia that has worked by seeking consensus,” said Gomez, who shared the assembly’s presidency with Navarro and a Liberal, Horacio Serpa Uribe.

Not everyone is content with the assembly’s result, however.

The Roman Catholic Church has criticized the government’s push for a constitutional article, passed overwhelmingly, allowing civil divorce for Catholic marriages. U.S. authorities were just as displeased with the assembly’s prohibition of extradition, saying that a useful tool against international criminals has been casually discarded.

Nobody denies that drug traffickers nearly destroyed the justice system through years of violence against judges who could not be bribed. But assembly delegates and Colombian officials argue that extradition is no longer needed because the constitution will end impunity through a strengthened judicial branch.

One important reform is the switch from an inquisitorial system, in which largely unprotected judges bring charges against criminals, to an accusatory one led by a government prosecutor.

The constitution also left standing a measure for terrorism and drug trafficking cases to be heard by judges whose identities will be kept secret. Though the state of siege used by President Cesar Gaviria to create the “anonymous” system has been lifted, the assembly gave the president the power to turn his decrees into permanent legislation.

“I believe that we can now begin a new, secure life that won’t depend on bodyguards,” Gomez said.

But others worry that the Constituent Assembly failed to touch many sources of violence, including the country’s armed forces, accused of numerous human rights abuses. Critics of the constitution also point out that many rights--such as those for women, Indians and other minorities--will be nullified unless backed up by legislation and new taxes.

“The mechanisms to make these rights effective don’t exist and may never exist if the new Congress doesn’t pass laws guaranteeing them,” said Manuel Barreto, a lawyer specializing in constitutional issues.


Colombia’s constitution has been in effect since 1886 and is one of the oldest in Latin America. In order to end a decade of civil war, known as “La Violencia,” the document was amended in December, 1957, to set up a rotating presidency between the Liberal and Conservative parties. These two parties have dominated Colombia for more than a century. A national Constituent Assembly was set up in 1990 to revise the constitution.