Courts and Presidents Matter Everywhere

Asuncion    Reading the headlines on-line as the Organizers’ Forum convened in Asuncion, Paraguay, it was hard to miss the chaos and clamor of the hearings in Congress on the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanagh for the US Supreme Court.  President Trump, never happy if the lead headlines don’t mention him, managed to insert himself into the proceedings by seeming to advocate an end of free speech and the right to assembly with his advocacy that protest should be outlawed at such events or whenever it suits his whim.  Sigh.

I thought of this as we sat in the library of Carlos Mateo Balmelli with our delegation.  As part of our regular order of Forum business, we always try to arrange for a local academic or journalist to give an overview and current context for a new country.  Mateo Balmelli’s name was given to us by some of our contacts, and we were lucky to be able to schedule him on our first afternoon in Asuncion, so there we were.

His first question to us, after our introductions, was to ask if we knew who he was.  I answered that we were told that he was a lawyer and journalist who had once had a radio show that was well-known in the country.  He laughed, and then added meat to that thin soup.  He was a writer indeed with many books to his credit, largely nonfiction, on public and constitutional law, a long interest not only from his background as a lawyer but also from six years studying in Germany where he received his Ph.D.  More to the point, he had a long career as a politician having convened the last Constitutional Convention in 1992 that helped draft the current Paraguayan constitution, and having been President of the Senate and the Congress until 2004.  It also became clear that he had also been a presidential candidate from an alliance that included the Radical Liberal Party only in the last year, losing to the winning candidate from the long ruling Colorado Party.  Suddenly, we had moved from the top row in the bleachers to the major leagues!

We talked about economic development, the role of agriculture, the need for energy subsidies for low income families, and better educational opportunity.  We heard about the relative positions of the parties and the alliances established and disbanded.  Questions arose about media concentration and comparisons with other countries in Latin America, especially Peru where there was a lot of experience in the delegation.

Not surprisingly, given Mateo Balmelli’s history, much of our briefing focused on his concern about the pervasiveness of corruption in politics, where he alleged that politicians were regularly directly bribed by lobbyists and special interests with impunity.  His solution was, not surprisingly, that it was time to update and write a new constitution.  The critical element would be redrafting the relationship between the executive branch and the Supreme Court in the country.  It was harder for us to understand precisely what he would change, since he still advocated their appointments, but the purpose was to provide more legal assurance of checks and balances from the court without executive control.

It was hard not to merge the conversation with the US headlines, where President Trump and the parties seem to want to dilute the checks and balances that come with a more independent judiciary in creating an increasingly partisan court from the George W. Bush election through the current date.

Increasingly it is becoming one world, though not necessarily a good one.

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