Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hugo a-go-go

Hugo Chavez, who is routinely denounced as a "strongman" or a "would-be dictator" (and sometimes without the modifier) not only in the press but in the hallowed halls of the ostensibly progressive blogosphere, which apparently regards him as the safe way to show they really are "serious" and not "anti-American," had gotten some more attention because of his proposal, as part of a much larger package of Constitutional reforms, to eliminate term limits for the president - that is, himself.

The accusation, of course, is that Chavez wants to be president for life, indeed has already "anointed himself" as such; that he wants to game the system so that his position becomes essentially unassailable. For too many among us, he is South America's boogeyman, the continent's Karl Rove, the man whose every move must be part of some deep political machination.

So it came as something of a surprise to find a reasonable approach taken by Tim Padgett in Time, of all places. After quoting Chavez as saying in response to criticism of the proposal "I recommend that they take a Valium," Padgett says
[i]n other words, Chill out. If French Presidents can seek re-election indefinitely, say the chavistas, why can't Venezuela's? If Americans could re-elect Franklin Roosevelt four times, they ask, why can't we re-elect Chavez as many times?
Well, one point worth mentioning is that it was precisely because FDR was elected four times that the sentiment arose that that was too long a time for one person to be president, leading to the passage in 1951 of the 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms and an actual maximum of 10 years in office (the latter event arising if they had served out no more than two years of a prior president's term). Back to Padgett:
On the one hand, they've got a point. If Chavez had a reputation for winning the presidential palace by trashing the ballot box - like, say, most Mexican Presidents of the 20th century - then the news this week would be genuinely alarming and the Bush Administration's attempts to pair Hugo with his buddy Fidel Castro might be more credible. But respected groups like the Carter Center in Atlanta have deemed his victories fair, the result of a remarkably incompetent Venezuelan opposition rather than rigged voting. And rather than ramrod the constitutional amendments by fiat, he'll put them to a national referendum.
Referring to Chavez's successes as the result of a "remarkably incompetent opposition," thus seriously downplaying his genuine and very strong support among the working class and the poor, markedly distorts the political landscape of the nation. Still, credit Padgett with specifically disavowing the common claims that Chavez was not elected fair and square.

However, after noting that several South American countries have moved away from the single-term presidential limit, Padgett says
[s]till, unlimited re-election is another matter. More of a concern, says [Bart] Jones[, author of a new Chavez biography], is the reason that Chavez's measure will probably pass.
That reason being that Chavez's revolution has a weakness:
"its inordinate dependence on Chavez, its one-man-show aspect. If he were to leave the scene, there's a feeling the whole revolution would unravel tomorrow." That's why Chavez supporters, especially the majority poor who feel politically and economically enfranchised for perhaps the first time in the nation's history, may be more prone to give him the presidential multi-ride ticket - and just as willing to tolerate what many Venezuela observers call an erosion of governmental checks and balances.
Again, Padgett overstates the case with his reference to "an erosion of governmental checks and balances" - and just are these "many Venezuela observers?" - but in a longer view, that is not an irrelevant concern. Rather, it is a risk run with any movement, with any attempt at dramatic change: the possibility of its turning, however unintentionally, into a personality cult that can't survive the symbol. The result is that both leader and supporters come to equate the benefit of the leader with that of the movement as a whole, and the leader who starts saying "they need me" more often and with more emphasis than "I need them" is starting down a road that may in the longer term undermine what they set out to achieve.

Venezuela is not at that point and is not close to that point - but it is not so distant from it that it can't be made out on the horizon. The result is that even some Chavez supporters are made a little itchy by the latest proposals. For example, OW at Oil Wars says
I personally don't have any problem with eliminating term limits. Let Venezuelans elect who they want - and in particular whatever president they want. But extending the presidential term to 7 years[, which is another part of the proposal]?!?!?! That at the very least is just plain bizarre.

At 6 years Venezuelan presidential terms are already very long. In fact, the only real justification for having that long is if you don't allow re-election. But they do; hence Venezuelan presidential terms are already aguably too long. Yet they now want to increase them further?!?! ...

I really would have thought that in proposing unlimited re-election that Chavez would have decided to make terms shorter, say four or five years. Instead he went in the wrong direction.
I think OW has it right on that last point: If you're going to increase the number of times a chief executive can be elected, you should shorten the length of the terms so that they are subject to a public judgment more often. Personally, I'm not at all crazy about unlimited re-election for a president (anywhere), but at the very least if you're going to have the one you also need to have the other.

OW, who knows a hell of a lot more about Venezuela than I do, says the reform package should be rejected so the planing for the changes can start from scratch. (Remember, the package covers a lot more than this one issue; I won't comment on the rest because I don't know enough to reasonably argue whether they're good ideas or not.) Assuming, as I believe to be true, that it's an all or nothing deal, I, too, hope that it's rejected - and that Hugo Chavez responds by setting about building a movement for change, for empowering the poor, for improvement in the lives of the Venezuelan people, for (even if a limited version of) democratic socialism, that can survive his departure from public life, something that, I fear, at the present moment he does not have.

Footnote: One other, sort of technical, correction to Padgett's article: The license of RCTV was not "revoked." Rather, Chavez let it continue to broadcast until its license came up for renewal, at which time that renewal was denied. RCTV continues to operate as a cable TV station.

Another Footnote: Jim Jay at The Daily (Maybe) offers a telling comparison between attitudes expressed toward Venezuela with those toward Colombia, a frequent target of Amnesty International for its human rights abuses. He concludes this way:
Here I have produced a handy formula for any journalists who may be reading this so they know what to say in their next Latin American report;

Death squads + US backing = "friend to democracy"
Political reform + US opposition = "dictatorship"
Thanks to Tim at Green Left Infoasis for the link.

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