As Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez campaigns for his third term, he falls in the category of Latin American leaders who want to remain in power– known as continuismo.
Venezuela will hold presidential elections this coming October 7, with the primary contenders being incumbentPresident Hugo ChavezandHenrique Capriles Radonski,leader of a coalition of several opposition political parties known as theMesa de la Unidad Democrática. Chavez is running for his third re-election, and, should he win, will govern until 2018. Such an outcome would result in a full two decades in power for the Venezuelan leader after first gaining the presidency in 1998. GivenVenezuela’s problematic relationship with the United Statesduring Chavez’s time in power so far, Washington has a strong interest in the outcome of the elections.
There have been a string ofconferencesin Washington, D.C. and numerous analyses regarding the possible outcomes of the Venezuelan elections. One major concern that constantly receives discussion is the possibility of voter fraud on behalf of the government. Other analyses on Chavez’s already long tenure in power discusses whether his initiatives, such as social programs aimed at the country’s poor (known in Venezuela asmisiones), have been beneficial to the population. Moreover, a critical issue that is continuously raised is what the country’s foreign policy will be like if Chavez remains in power, particularly regarding Caracas’ relations with states like Iran and Syria. Finally, as a nation blessed with vast natural resources, there is also the question of which companies and nations will benefit from Venezuela’s vast natural resources, such as oil fields (in spite of recent accidents) and gold deposits.
Outside of the international media’s chatter on the aforementioned topics, an important issue is whether Chavez’s remaining in power for a long period of time is healthy for Venezuelan democracy, in spite of the leader’s popularity. Should we label the Venezuelan leader as a member of the new wave of Latin American heads of state who have maintained themselves in power, commonly known asContinuismo?
The new wave ofcontinuismo
Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa. More modern members of this Continuismo trend include Ecuador’s Rafael Correa. (Photo/ InfoSur)
Continuismois a phrase that refers to heads of state who hold a vicegrip on their power, often through efficiently changing national laws. The first wave of such heads of state occurred in the first decades of the 20thcentury, including Augusto Leguía, who ruled Peru from 1919-1930. Leguía’s period in power is commonly referred to as “el oncenio de Leguía,” which literally refers to the eleven years that he was in power. During this time the Peruvian dictator dissolved Congress, changed the constitution and created a cult of personality around his image.
Latin American analysts in the past years have raised the issue of a new wave ofContinuismoamong modern-day heads of state. Recent embodiments of continuismoare Peru’s Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), Argentina’s Carlos Menem (1989-1999) and Brazil’s Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003). More modern members of thisContinuismotrend include Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, and Venezuela’s Chavez. Furthermore, there is the issue ofContinuismorunning along family lines. In Argentina, President Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007) was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who was elected in 2007 and reelected in 2011. Meanwhile, a September poll in Peru showed that 33 percent of Peruvians would vote for Nadine Heredia, President Humala’s wife, if she ran for the presidency in 2016.
Without taking into account political ideologies,Hugo Chavez can be placed among a growing number of Latin American heads of state that have sought to continue being in power, oftentimes by changing their national constitutions. Leaders like Chavez, Uribe, andCorrea enjoyed enough popularityamong their respective citizenry that allowed for constitutional changes to be put forward—all enacted so that they could remain in office. Whether this trend has been beneficial or not should be analyzed on a country by country basis.
Chavez’s history in power
After ascending to the presidency,Chavez managed to install a new constitution in 1999, replacing the 1961 constitution of the Punto Fijo regime. This constitution called for new presidential elections, which Chavez won in July 2000. He maintained his popularity throughout a second term that stretched from 2000 to 2006, when he was re-elected again with more than 60 percent of the vote. Yet, in 2009, Chavez lost a national referendum which was meant to amend certain aspects of the 1999 Constitution. This embarrassment did not prevent him from calling for a second referendum in 2010, which did in fact pass. This measure allowed the confirmation of a number of amendments, including one that allowed for infinite reelections to government positions ranging from governor to president. Due to this success, and thanks to his ongoing popularity among the masses (particularly the lower classes), President Chavez is constitutionally allowed to run again for a new presidential term in 2012 and continues to be regarded as a major contender to win (though in some polls Capriles is not far away from the incumbent leader).
How the Western hemisphere avoids continuismo
Governments have long created different types of laws that address presidential re-elections. Some relevant examples include in the U.S., for example, where a president can run for only one direct re-election. The last two American presidents (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) managed to secure re-election, and incumbentPresident Barack Obama is himself competing for a second presidencyin the upcoming November elections. Nevertheless, a May report inThe Daily Beastmentions that, “of the 42 men who served as president before the current incumbent, only 15 won two consecutive elections.” Then again this figure includes popular leaders like John F. Kennedy, who, had he not been assassinated, likely would have been re-elected if he had run again.
In Latin America, there are also various examples of presidential election laws. In Peru, a president cannot run for direct re-election: for example, Alan Garcia Perez has been president on two occasions (1985-1990 and 2006-2011), but is constitutionally barred from running until the 2016 elections. An exception to this trend was Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who changed the country’s constitution to allow for direct re-election. Nevertheless, Fujimori was overthrown, and the law was again reversed.
As for other countries, the popularity of certain heads of state has allowed them to push for similar attempts to change their constitutions and allow for re-elections. Alvaro Uribe’s (2002-2010) popularity allowed his supporters to change the Colombian constitution in 2004. His supporters largely rallied around his tough stance regarding the country’s narco-guerrillas. He was easily re-elected in the 2006 elections. Moreover, there was momentum among Uribe’s supporters to amend the constitution again so he could run for a second re-election, but Colombia’s Constitutional Court voided it. Meanwhile,Ecuador’s Rafael Correa(first elected in 2007) has changed his country’s constitution, which called for elections in 2009. Here, the head of state won. Thanks to the new constitution, Correa is eligible to run in the 2013 presidential elections and could govern until 2017. An August 2009 Mercopress analysis highlights how 13 of 18 Latin American democracies allow some kind of presidential re-election, while only three nations fully ban it (Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico).
Popularity and democratic health
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez remain popular leading many to belive he may win his third term, further instilling continuismo in Latin America . (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos,File)
Daniel Zovatto, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean of the International Institute for the Democracy and the Electoral Assistance, wrote an essay in September 2011 on presidential re-elections in Latin America. Zovatto argues in his analysis that “immediate re-election but with limits seems appropriate for countries with strong institutions, but instead may be counterproductive in countries with weak institutions.”
Regarding Chavez’scontinuismo, the head of state remains vastly popular but the question remains whether it is time for a new leader to emerge.For a country to maintain the same leader generally signifies a perpetuation of the same type of initiatives and ideologies and does not necessarily give space for new ideas and leaders.In addition, a head of state that remains in power tends to create a court of allies around him (for example, individuals loyal to Chavez himself control the military, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the elections commission, among others), hurting the independency of governmental institutions.
Latin America has been historically known for its weak governmental institutions, and, while the region as a whole has generally enjoyed significant economic growth over the past decade, it is doubtful whether governmental institutions and civil society have been strengthened at the same pace in order to withstand the potential negative effects a new wave ofContinuismowould most likely bring.