Carlos Alberto Montaner: What’s a president good for?

Let’s face it: The greatest political problem in Latin America is the ever widening divorce between society and the state.

Societies don’t feel that the governments really represent their interests and values. They think that the politicians are gangs of corrupt leaders who achieve power only to enrich themselves illegally. They do not perceive public institutions as entities that are freely segregated to obey and enforce the laws but as dens utilized to preserve the privileges of those who rule.

In almost all countries, people have the worst possible opinion of the parliaments, the judicial systems and the forces of public order. In almost all countries, people have a deathly distrust of the presidency — probably with reason.

This situation is most serious and explains why democratic stability hangs by a thread in our countries. When we stop believing in the political model in which we live, we open the door to the absurd belief that a group of well-intentioned revolutionaries, generally led by a charismatic strongman, will bring order and impose justice in our failed societies.

That’s how we Cubans welcomed Fidel Castro in 1959 and how Venezuelans did something similar to Hugo Chávez in 1999. It’s the tale of Perón in Argentina, of Fujimori in Peru after the self-coup of 1992, and all the other strongmen who were received with waves of applause in our battered countries.

Can this mismatch between society and the state be fixed?

Actually, this devastating problem could begin to be eased if the functions of the presidency are changed and the head of state is assigned the responsibility of representing society vis-à-vis the government’s behavior.

In other words, our presidents should become true and dedicated ombudsmen devoted to the task of defending the citizens from the abuses and violations of the law committed by public officials, be they elected or appointed.

“Ombudsman” is a Scandinavian word that approximately describes those who defend the people from the actions of the government. The Chinese had officials of that type hundreds of years before Christ and today almost every country has some bureaucrats who perform that role, but they generally lack a budget and weight to enforce their resolutions. They are paper tigers.

In a way, that was the traditional function of the medieval kings, and that task gave them the legitimacy they required so their subjects would accept their leadership. It was exemplary, for instance, for the Castilian kings to tour the kingdom imparting justice with the legal codes carried in ox-driven carts, while they punished the functionaries who exceeded their authority.

The kings legitimized themselves by “dictating the law” within the borders of their territory. Therefrom comes the word “jurisdiction.”

That task was complemented by a legal institution that came from the Greek wing of the Roman empire, the Byzantine law called “Judgment of Residence,” which already existed in the Latin world. When the officials ended their terms of duty, they had to undergo judicial processes where they had to account for their performance. Sometimes, they were severely punished as a result.

If in Latin America, the ordinary citizens were able to communicate their vicissitudes directly to the chief of state, and if the office of the president became the true public defender, empowered to correct misdoings, denounce violations of the law and survey the actions of the state, we would see how the necessary reconciliation between society and state would gradually occur.

Naturally, that president-ombudsman would have to be nonpartisan, neutral and elected in a separate election, thus conciliating a model between a presidentialist republic and a parliamentarian government where the prime minister would manage the available resources, i.e., serving as the head of government, while the president would serve as the head of state and represent society.

At any rate, something must be done. It is not possible to live in stable nations with that level of disconformity with the public sector. It’s like being seated on a powder keg.

© Firmas Press

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