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?
Web Politics Editor
June 29, 2009; 12:07 PM ET
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