Latin American Leaders Move to Extend Their Rule

By: Alexandra Olson - AP Writer
By: Alexandra Olson - AP Writer

Horrified by the excesses of dictatorship, Latin Americans discarded the strongman model at the end of the 20th century and limited politicians' time in power.

Now a new wave of populist presidents is trying to do away with those limits, arguing they impede real change. As leaders in country after country move to extend their rule, opponents fearing a return to the "caudillo" era of authoritarian power have done everything to stop them - from throwing eggs to staging coups.

"It's a new political model of what I call low-intensity dictatorships," said Manuel Orozco, a Central America analyst at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

Term limits were the backdrop for a June coup in Honduras, where proponents said they were trying to prevent an illegal attempt by President Manuel Zelaya to extend his time in office. Zelaya denies
any such intention.

Nicaragua joined the fray with a Supreme Court ruling giving President Daniel Ortega the right to seek re-election as many times as he wants. Opponents calling it an illegal power grab threw eggs at the judge in charge.

Similar scenarios have played out in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, where leaders have made noticeable progress on entrenched issues such as poverty or violence, but are accused of
quashing dissent.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has spent his country's oil wealth liberally on education, health care and food subsidies for the poor. He also has closed critical media outlets and used a majority in Congress to vastly diminish the powers of opposition mayors and governors.

Chavez was overwhelmingly elected president six years later. In December, Venezuelans voted to allow "el Comandante" to seek indefinite re-election.

Chavez first gained prominence for staging a failed coup in 1992. Far from being appalled at the assault on a 30-year-old democracy, many poor Venezuelans considered the young army lieutenant colonel a hero for trying to overthrow a president accused of stealing millions in public funds.

In decades past, Latin Americans once feared strongmen who emerged from military coups and curtailed human rights and crushed all dissent. Many were from the right. But some leftists also managed to amass great power or ruled for decades, such as Cuba's Fidel Castro, Peru's Gen. Juan Velasco and Argentina's populist Gen. Juan Peron.

After years of peaceful, democratic transfers of power in most countries, some of that fear has faded. Instead, there is anger over the corruption scandals and ineffectiveness that have marred many fledgling democracies.

Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa - like Chavez, leftists popular for their efforts to redistribute wealth and give a voice to the poor - have won referendums to change their constitutions to allow them to seek second terms.

In Colombia, Alvaro Uribe's supporters don't want to let go of
the conservative president, who is hugely popular for reducing
murder and kidnapping rates and crippling leftist rebels. Uribe won
a constitutional change to secure his second term, and now
lawmakers have called a referendum asking voters to let him seek a
third.

The rise of the "new caudillos" is testament to the failure of
some countries to establish strong branches of government that can
check executive power, despite decades of democratic rule, Orozco
said.

Ortega, who doesn't have support to overturn term limits in the
Nicaraguan Congress, took the issue to the constitutional chamber
of the Supreme Court, where the majority of judges are from his
ruling Sandinista party.

While the opposition Liberal Party complained, Orozco noted it
was the Liberals who made a pact with the Sandinistas to split
influence over such institutions so they could freeze out other
political parties.

Ortega himself played a central role in Nicaragua's long
struggle to shake off autocratic rule, first coming to power after
Sandinista rebels toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He
ruled in a guerrilla-dominated junta before winning a presidential
election in 1984 and fought U.S.-backed Contra rebels for a decade
until losing his bid for a second term.

By the time Ortega won 2006 elections, Nicaragua had banned
presidents from seeking consecutive presidential terms.

"Daniel Ortega has come full circle, pulling stunts that
Anastasio Somoza used to do, to stay in power," said Robert
Pastor, a professor of international relations at American
University. "In his case, Ortega stacks the Supreme Court, which
then obliges him by interpreting the constitution to say the
opposite of what it actually says about re-election."

Meanwhile, the region's stronger democracies have avoided such
turmoil.

Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has overseen
economic prosperity and secured South America's first Olympic
Games, has served the maximum two terms and will step down after
next year's election even though he is wildly popular.

In Mexico, the single-term presidency has been the third rail of
politics since it was implemented after the 1910 revolution
overthrew dictator Porfirio Diaz.

Chile's Michelle Bachelet, a popular successor to a popular
president, will leave office next year after one term in a country
with one of Latin America's lowest poverty rates.

Uribe hasn't said whether he wants to run for a third term. But
even some supporters are urging him not to, worried he could end up
lumped with Chavez and discredited in the United States, Colombia's
top ally.

President Barack Obama might have been thinking the same in
June, when shortly before a meeting with Uribe he publicly lauded
Silva as an example for other countries, "where the democratic
tradition is not as deeply embedded as we'd like it to be."


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