WASHINGTON — In a trend that many view with concern, several Latin American and Caribbean countries are pushing or discussing radical changes to their constitutions, and facing increased tensions as a result.
Sunday's referendum in Venezuela has received the most attention. There, President Hugo Chavez is seeking voters' approval for nearly 70 changes in the constitution, the most significant of which would allow Chavez, currently limited to two terms, to seek re-election indefinitely. Polls show that the country is deeply split on the revisions, though Chavez or his proposals have never lost in 11 separate votes since 1999.
But Venezuela isn't the only Western Hemisphere country that's rethinking how it's governed.
In Bolivia, four people died in violent protests last week over proposals by a constitutional assembly that critics say would concentrate too much power in the hands of the president. A general strike to protest the proposals paralyzed six of the country's nine provinces Wednesday.
Ecuador and Haiti are looking at far-reaching changes, and in Trinidad and Tobago there's talk of changing the presidential system.
Even stable democracies such as Chile and Colombia have made recent changes affecting presidential terms: in Colombia, to allow presidents to succeed themselves, and in Chile, trimming the term from six to four years.
Some of the changes sought are either minor or stay within the bounds of representational democracy. But in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, critics say, the proposed changes would give presidents too much power.
"It is a battle between democracy and authoritarianism,'' said Valeria Merino, who until recently headed the Latin American Corporation for Development, an Ecuadorean democracy watchdog organization. ''This has nothing to do with the left or the right . . . but how you exercise power.''
Merino said that she worried, for example, that Ecuador's institutions were too weak to stop left-wing President Rafael Correa from taking on more powers through a recently elected constitutional assembly that started its work Thursday.
Few Latin American constitutions have endured the test of time. Argentina's underwent six major makeovers from 1860 to 1994. Ecuador's has been revised 18 times since 1830. Venezuela's last major revision came only in 1999, and resulted in significant changes that favored Chavez, who's now seeking 69 major new revisions.
Many Latin American countries wrote new constitutions as they emerged from military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, incorporating more protections for individual and economic freedoms.
Then they got busy making changes.
Brazil already has modified its 1988 constitution 14 times, Chile has changed its 1980 constitution seven times and Colombia has introduced 11 modifications to its 1993 text, according to a database of Latin American constitutions maintained by Georgetown University's Center for Latin American Studies.
In contrast, the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times in 220 years, the last time in 1992 to deal with changes in congressional salaries.
Analysts say that some of the recent pushes to revise constitutions around the hemisphere come from growing impatience with political systems that many of the region's people perceive as failing to deliver a better life.
''People believe more than ever in democracy, but they want a democracy that resolves their problems,'' Jose Miguel Insulza, the head of the Organization of American States, said this week during an OAS-hosted debate on constitutions. ''Behind today's instability lies years of neglect.''
But critics worry that some of the revisions are undermining democratic principles, in the name of stability or social justice.
Bolivia's left-wing president, Evo Morales, is pushing changes that he says will favor the country's indigenous majority. But Jaime Aparicio, the country's former ambassador to Washington, called it ''a good example of how not to do a constitutional reform.''
Aparicio said a preliminary draft that Bolivia's constitutional assembly approved last week — without opposition delegates present — was a ''vague ideological project of state reform that mixes socialism, ethnicity and nationalism'' and allows Morales to be re-elected indefinitely.
Morales supporters deny any anti-democratic intentions.
In Haiti, President Rene Preval argues that the country's constitution, adopted after the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship collapsed in the 1980s, focused too much on checks on power to make sure that no new tyranny would arise, has become too unwieldy and should be updated.
However, some observers say that the hemisphere's poorest nation is in no condition to face a difficult constitutional debate, given other urgent problems such as the lack of security, infrastructure and jobs.
''We are on a kind of slippery slope right now,'' said Jean-Germain Gros, a Haitian exile who's a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. ''Unless we manage things properly, we can be on the verge of another self-inflicted crisis.''
In Trinidad and Tobago, revising the constitution remains a heated issue even after Prime Minister Patrick Manning failed to win the necessary votes in general elections Nov. 5 to change the country's largely ceremonial presidency to an executive position similar to the U.S. model. Opponents argue that the change, outlined in a draft constitution, lacks the necessary checks and balances and could lead to a dictatorship.
The OAS's Insulza worries about the impact of all this on foreign investors, who are already leery of the region's difficult political environment.
''We all know that our democracies are seen as democracies, but unstable ones, precarious ones,'' he said. ''In a globalized world, we do not need just democracy but democracies that guarantee stability.''
(Jacqueline Charles of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.)