Nicaragua Is Latest in Latin America to Reject Term Limits

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Modern Latin American history books have thick chapters on dictators and strongmen (caudillos) who pillaged government coffers, ruled for their own gain, and ruthlessly stamped out all opposition.

When countries moved away from military dictatorship in the 1980s, new constitutions included articles to ban reelection and ensure that such leaders never again returned to power.

But now, the caudillo may be making a comeback.

In recent years - and weeks - presidents around the region have been attempting to repeal those prohibitions and extend their time in power. They say that their countries need more political continuity and that they need more time to enact reforms. Many of their citizens support the idea. But critics warn of a dangerous antidemocratic slide that could take the region back to the bad old days when caudillos ruled the land.

"There are good and bad reasons for having term limits," says Julio Rios-Figueroa, a constitutional expert at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. "Countries tried to put a stop to potential presidents who wanted to attempt to become like dictators. And in some cases, there are very good reasons to get rid of them." But in too many cases today, he adds, presidents are using the repeal to carry out personal projects. "They are trying to change constitutions so they can stay longer," he says

The days of the outright military dictators are long gone, but some fear that a modern version of caudillismo has emerged in the region, and most fingers point first to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for starting the trend.

After 10 years in power, the controversial leftist leader won a referendum in February that abolished term limits for presidents - a move he says is critical to carrying out his "Bolivarian Revolution," which distributes wealth more equitably among the poor.

His allies in Bolivia and Ecuador have followed suit, each winning the right to consecutive reelection through constitutional reform. It was the fear that now-ousted Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya was attempting to repeat the maneuver in Honduras - an accusation he denies - that led to his ouster in June, which has since sparked Latin America's worst political crisis in decades.

Now Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, another Chavez ally, is trying the same thing. After failing to get Nicaragua's National Assembly to consider dropping the constitutional two-term presidential limit and the ban on consecutive terms, Mr. Ortega, whose first five-year term began in 1985, won a Supreme Court ruling last month that paves the way for his reelection in 2011.

Yet analysts note that abandoning term limits is not just a left- wing movement. In Colombia, conservative President Alvaro Uribe is considering a move to allow third terms, after a 1991 ban on reelection was altered in 2005 to allow Mr. Uribe his second bid. From the Dominican Republic to Costa Rica, reelection reform has been carried out by right-of-center and moderate leaders.

Is four years not enough?

The trend has many defenders. Relaxing presidential term limits is mostly justified, says Peter Kornbluh, an expert on dictators at the National Security Archive in Washington. …