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. …