In 2010, Alvaro Uribe’s two terms as president of Colombia were drawing to a close. Uribe had won two decisive presidential contests, without the backing of a major political party. Rather than running with the Liberal or Conservative parties, he formed his own party, and promised to restore law and order to the restless Andean nation, and aggressively pursue the FARC Marxist guerrilla group, which had terrorized the country for decades, and at one point controlled more than 30% of Colombian territory.
After eight years in office, Uribe’s popularity was sky high. It was so sky high, in fact, that he was considering running for a third term. There was only one problem: Colombia’s Constitution, which limited the president to two terms. Colombia, which had avoided the dictatorial governments and economic meltdowns which had so often characterized the region, prioritized the rule of law and limited government in its legal system. To that end, they took strong measures to ensure that a “caudillo-style” government would not take hold in the country.
So Alvaro Uribe proposed a remedy: circumvent the Constitution by proposing a referendum to the Colombian people, whereby he would be allowed to run for a third term.
In February of 2010, however, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled against the referendum, tabling the idea. Uribe, a democrat at heart, accepted the court’s ruling, while the US State Department tacitly supported the decision, referencing democratic continuity and the rule of law.
Fastforward six years, and leftist populist Evo Morales in Bolivia had a similar idea: in 2016 he had already served three terms as president, and wanted to run for an unprecedented fourth, in clear contradiction to the Constitution. He proposed a referendum to the Bolivian people which would allow him to run for a fourth term.
The Bolivian people, by narrow margins, rejected the ploy 51% to 49%. Evo Morales, taking a typical page out of the authoritarian playbook, blamed the oligarchs, business interests, the media, and their “dirty tricks”, with urban voters taking a particularly dismal view of the fourth term. Evo’s power base, indigenous mountain-dwelling Quechua and Aymara speakers, on the other hand, remained relatively supportive of the longevity of his political project.
Now, as it appears that Evo plans to run roughshod over the will of the people, a group of young activists is issuing a clarion call against Morales’ presidential bid. To that end, they started a hunger strike, noting that if Morales is successful, it will give him more than two decades in power.
Colombia and Bolivia are not the only nations where leaders have sought to extend their power indefinitely. Indeed, it is a scourge of Latin America.
In Ecuador, Rafael Correa maintained a stranglehold on power, and plotted to return to run again, until his former ally, Lenin Moreno, spearheaded a referendum introducing term limits.
In Brazil, jailed president Lula da Silva, who has already served two terms, is now seeking to return to power, despite a twelve year prison sentence for corruption. Fortunately for the Brazilian people, the Supreme Court upheld his conviction and shot down his candidacy in 2018.
In Argentina, disgraced former president Cristina Kirchner is awaiting numerous corruption charges, amid signs that she is also preparing to run for president in 2019.
And in Venezuela, there is no doubt that Hugo Chavez planned to be “president” for life…had it not been for his untimely cancer-related death. Maduro, no doubt, will remain in office unless he leaves in handcuffs or in a bodybag.
Never has it been more apparent that the region has urgent need for term limits.
When George Washington stepped down after two terms (from 1792-1800) he set a great precedent. It was only after Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke with convention, and ran for four terms, that the US government responded by passing the XXII Amendment, which limits presidents to two four year terms.
The amendment was proposed in 1947, and ratified in short order, by 1951, once 36 of the then 48 state legislatures had approved it. (Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states).
While most of the contemporary “clingers-to-power” are leftists, the need for term limits stands apart from political ideology. The longer a politician serves in office, the longer he controls government ministries, and cultivates relationships with political and economic power players…the greater the potential for corruption, and the greater the threat to democracy.
Latin America has a long history of “caudillos” spearheading “political dynasties” where power is passed from husband to wife to son to daughter…influence peddling runs rampant, bribery and self-dealing become second nature, and the public resources are squandered in the process.
Politicians, across the political spectrum, should process sensible term limits now…immediately! This is the best way to prevent entrenched corruption and ensure that politicians are truly accountable to the people.
Then we will not have to worry about a Lula or Cristina or Correa serving as “president” for life, as they erode democratic traditions and institutions.