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Term Limits and Constitutional Tinkering in Latin America

By Scott Wilson
There is a pressing topic President Obama may nonetheless avoid in his meeting today with his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, for fear of seeming to meddle in another country's domestic affair. But Obama might think about risking the topic of presidential term limits given the current climate in Latin America, where public sentiment is running strong against tinkering with constitutions to give presidents more time in office.

The coup in Honduras is the most recent example of the trouble that arises from moves toward change on this front. President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was to oversee a non-binding referendum Sunday on his effort to alter the nation's constitution to allow him to seek a second term in office. Instead, he was roused from bed by his own military, escorted to the airport, and put on a plane to Costa Rica.

Very old school.

Uribe, too, is stirring up his country's politics by trying to change the constitution -- again -- to extend his time on office.

For the second time in four years, Uribe is encouraging Colombia's Congress to pass an amendment that would allow him to run for a third term. Highly popular among Colombians, Uribe has said little publicly in support of the effort, hoping it will look like a popular movement to keep him in office. But his administration is pushing it hard behind the scenes.

Will Obama point to Honduras today -- a country with a much weaker economy and much weaker political institutions than Colombia's -- to encourage Uribe to leave the Colombian constitution alone?

The one-term limit is commonplace in Latin America. It is meant as a legal check to ensure that the region's rich tradition of public corruption and political patronage could only last so long in some of these nations.

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez was among the first to challenge the limit, which, in his oil-rich country, was the linchpin to a decades-long agreement between a pair of parties to alternate power without competition. In the late 1990s, he campaigned successfully for a new constitution that allowed for a second six-year presidential term. The sweeping document even renamed the country the Bolivarian Republican of Venezuela, and smashed the two-party monopoly that endured for generations.

In February, Venezuelan voters passed a referendum lifting any limit on presidential terms (after rejecting Chavez's first attempt to do so in 2007.) His Bolivarian revolution -- a statist consolidation of Venezuela's political and economic institutions -- rolls on.

Meanwhile, the leftist presidents of Bolivia and Ecuador have followed Chavez's lead in broad reform through constitutional change. Zelaya, another Chavez ally, hoped to do so as well.

Uribe, who sits on the far side of the political spectrum from Chavez, began what was then a single four-year term in 2002. He made strides against Colombia's Marxist insurgency, winning broad public support for the effort.

The Bush administration supported him warmly, pushing hard for a free-trade agreement. But Obama, as a candidate, opposed the free-trade deal, taking into account the loud complaints of labor and human-rights groups that Uribe's government is not doing enough to protect the left from paramilitary death squads.

Two years into his term, Uribe pushed Congress to alter the constitution to allow for a single re-election. It did so in December 2004. Now his administration is lobbying for a third, even though some business groups, political allies, and friends are encouraging him to step down when his term expires next year.

Why? Because in Latin America third terms often turn heroes into villains.

The most vivid example is Alberto Fujimori, who as Peru's president in the 1990s used an iron fist and little regard for human rights to batter the Shining Path insurgency that had threatened to take over the country. His popularity soared.

Peru's constitution allowed a president two terms, which the Fujimori-dominated electoral commission interpreted somehow to allow for a third. Fujimori's April 2000 election to a third term was rife with irregularities, protests ensued, and he fled the country for Japan a few months later amid allegations of corruption and human-rights abuses. He is now serving a 25-year prison term after a court convicted him in April of human-rights violations.

So much for the statue of Fujimori on horseback.

Will Obama offer a tough love message to Uribe today? Or will he remain silent and perhaps miss an opportunity to convince a highly popular president and U.S. ally to risk everything on a third term?

Posted at 12:07 PM ET on Jun 29, 2009  | Category:  Foggy Bottom
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Hondurans prevented a coup. They quite rightly ousted a man who was unlawfully preparing for a power grab which would have resulted in disaster for Hondurans.

I think Obama might like the idea of three term presidencies. He might very well seek one himself. In any event, he will do nothing about anything. Except read pretty speeches from two telepromters.

Posted by: mirabeaulamarr | June 30, 2009 12:19 PM

You are right, argie. This article is simplistic and presents the wrong idea. Or is it just intentional propaganda? The "referendum to alter the nation's constitution" is part of the strategy devised by Castro and implemented by Chavez and the rest of the Marxist thugs who are destroying Latin America.

I know because I LIVED it in another Latin American country. The referendum is a complete SHAM. People are supposed to be rewriting the constitution, but the final constitution is almost identical to Chavez's. Spaniards are hired to camouflage it slightly giving it a local flavor. The new constitution gives the Marxist thug the "right" (under the constitution) to use enslave his people and to do as he pleases. Just like Castro in Cuba!

And one of the main missions of those Marxist thugs is to harm the U.S. That's why they are working with drug lords and Islamic terrorists.

Posted by: AntonioSosa | June 30, 2009 10:26 AM

What happened in Honduras is NOT a military coup! The sitting president behaved illegally (like Obama) and the Honduras military acted under the orders of the country's Supreme Court to remove that president, and to elevate the person next in line under the Honduras Constitution. This is Constitutional Democracy in action combating illegal behavior by a sitting President.

Posted by: AntonioSosa | June 30, 2009 10:12 AM

Obama's true colors are showing more than ever. He questions Uribe, the most honest and democratic president in Latin America, the only friend of the U.S. in the region, and defends Zelaya, a megalomaniac following Castro's strategy to enslave people.

Zelaya was implementing Castro’s Marxist strategy to gain absolute power and enslave Hondurans. What happened in Honduras is a message to the Marxist thugs who are destroying Latin America (Castro, Chavez, Ortega, Morales, Correa, etc.) and to would-be Marxist thugs like Obama. That’s why all of them are complaining about it. They would like Zelaya to be reinstated so he can continue with his plans to enslave Honduras while pretending to act democratically. Hondurans have been saved from having their country transformed into another Gulag like Cuba.

Posted by: AntonioSosa | June 30, 2009 10:10 AM

Coup leader General Romeo Orlando Vásquez Velásquez is a two-time graduate of the United States Army School of the Americas, located in Georgia, USA.

In ousting the Honduran president Sunday, Vásquez Velásquez had the help of other SOA graduates, including Gen. Luis Javier Prince Suazo, the head of the
Honduran Air Force.

Records show that Vásquez Velásquez took a basic combat arms course at SOA in 1976 and another course on small unit instruction in 1984, while Prince Suazo took a 1996 course on joint operations.

Retired Gen. Daniel López Carballo, also a two-time SOA grad, told CNN that the coup was justified because Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez would be running Honduras by proxy if the military had not acted.

Posted by: andyk2 | June 29, 2009 10:48 PM

lproyect, do you have any evidence to back up the claim that the coup plotters were trained in the US or do you just reflexively slam this country for everything?

Posted by: RealChoices | June 29, 2009 8:41 PM

What a meretricious opinion piece. By making an amalgam between Zelaya and Fujimori, he deflects attention from the fact that the coup was organized by gorillas who were trained in the USA.

Posted by: lproyect | June 29, 2009 7:49 PM

Obama and the U.S. has no jurisdiction whatsoever in Honduran internal affairs.

Posted by: hz9604 | June 29, 2009 6:13 PM

In response to the comment from DwightCollins: It is not a question of weather is Uribe doing a good job fighting against Fark and other insurgencies. The question is that changing the constitution to allow him to run for a third term will put a full and fair democratic election. While I like and support Uribe's work I would not risk the democracy of country on a single individual. Clear example of this was Fujimory in Peru.

Posted by: frankdunk | June 29, 2009 6:07 PM

DwightCollins: It is very nice that Uribe wants to do a good job. I am sure that Obama wants him to do also. Their constitution says that whether he is good or bad he should not be allowed to run again. Constitutions are set up to deal with situations like this one. It is not a list of temporary rules that popular leaders are allowed to change so they can do what they want.

Folks like yourself who are indifferent to dictators if they are right wing look at it differently when the constitution of Iran is ignored. Those of us that are concerned with justice and not with ideology want the right thing done all the time. That is your beef with Obama. He wants justice and you do not. He is hard to fit in a political box but you rant he is a liberal. He is not even a reliable liberal and that makes it tough on folks with ideological blinders to make your case.

If you think he should continue to fight farc by all means join him after he leaves office and carry on the fight. But leave constitutions alone. Only leaders who want to be dictators mess around with them.

Posted by: Gator-ron | June 29, 2009 4:29 PM

a couple points. #1, obama should stay silent on whether uribe seeks a 3rd term because it is basically none of the business of Uncle Sam to tell Colombia how to run their internal politics; #2, obama and Ms. Clinton seem in very strange company protesting the removal of Honduran president to Costa Rica, when basically the Honduran Congress, the Honduran Supreme court and the Honduran attorney general all gave the leftist prez the bum's rush...odd that in this dispute that obama is on the same side as chavez and castro...now that castro sure is a strong proponent of democratic ideals; tell that to the folks at the other end of his executioneers... so basically, obama should keep his nose out of colombia, and pull his nose out of honduras.,, but if he insists on preaching and moralizing to honduras and colombia on democracy, constitutions, elections and human rights, then he should also preach and moralize to both castro and chavez...otherwise obama just appears to be a hypocrite who is banging on friends of the US,,,and not banging on the enemies of Uncle Sam..

Posted by: RoguesPalace | June 29, 2009 4:09 PM

The article states that: "President Manuel Zelaya ... was to oversee a non-binding referendum Sunday on his effort to alter the nation's constitution to allow him to seek a second term in office. Instead, he was ... put on a plane to Costa Rica."

That is simplistic and presents the wrong idea as to what transpired in the background. The issues in Hinduras go well beyond the referendum and its intent. Zelaya overstepped his boundaries because he had no authority to call for or to conduct the referendum. Only Congress can call such referenda in Honduras and Congress balked at doing so. Zelaya was told by the Supreme Court that the referendum was illegal. The Supreme Court ordered the military not to carry out the referendum. So Zelaya sacked the top military commander for obeying the Supreme Court. In short, Zelaya violated a slew of orders and rules. That is the real story.

Posted by: argie | June 29, 2009 1:33 PM

FDR had more than two terms and we had to change our constitution to prevent it from happening again.

We need term limits for congress, too. Twelve years of elected office and out you go.

The Chavez gang wants life time occupation of the office of president

Posted by: alance | June 29, 2009 12:49 PM

President Uribe wants to finish the job against the farc...
I know the farc are buddies of obama but they are the ones peddling drugs and killing innocent people...
let the finish doing his job...
if Colombians want him...
then he should keep on fighting to be free of killers...

Posted by: DwightCollins | June 29, 2009 12:38 PM

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