By Thiago de Aragao.
Latin America is going through a moment of perpetuation of power, but this cannot by any means be seen as something new. We have had examples, such as Pinochet in Chile, Perón in Argentina and Bordaberry in Uruguay, among others. However, these dictators and "eternal presidents" lived in an era when democracy was not developed as it is today. Obviously we cannot consider some Latin-American countries as developed democracies, but we must recognize that they are more advanced that they were in previous years.
Based on a government vision that he ambiguously defines as "Bolivarian Revolution", Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela, implemented a contemporary version of perpetuation of power in Latin America. Advancing a country project with no expiry date and no intensity in actions, Chávez manages to convince a poorly educated population that his perpetuation in power is vital and democratic. Naturally and understandably, with a population who is helped by the government through punctual government actions, coupled to the need many Latin Americans have of a patriarchal figure, Chávez has done pretty well with his perpetuation strategy.
Although many disagree with Chávez's government, which includes countless failures and a few successes, one cannot deny that "El Comandante" really believes the project he follows. It is not about misleading the people. Chávez deeply believes that the "Bolivarian Revolution" or the "21st Century Socialism" is the best way to lead a country. However, this project does not assume leaders are chosen and power alternation after a predetermined time interval. Chávez, who considers himself to be a chosen leader, knows and believes that there is no other leader for the country and, thus, through legal mischief, populism and referenda, manages to remain in power in order to carry out something that will hardly ever bring about lasting benefits.
As in Latin America there is great similarity among peoples of different countries, a leader's deeds easily flow through the borders with other nations in the region. Thus, it is perfectly natural that the neighboring country's success is a good indication that changes will take place in one's own country as well. Another important factor is the pervasive poverty in the continent. Even though the situation has improved considerably compared to the past, most of the continent's countries are still poor and financially unable of performing the necessary reforms.
For such reasons, the perpetuation policy intended by Chávez was easily transferred to other countries in the region – as well as the model to secure perpetuation through democratic ways. The constitutional referendum conceived by the Venezuelan government, which was rejected by a minimum percentage in 2007, served as an example so that Evo Morales, in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa, in Equator, could follow the same path. Legitimization of the process is, for these political leaders, as or more important that the result itself. Legitimization serves as a shield to counter more abrupt and possibly violent actions by an opposition that does not have access to the government machine and consequently to a list of benefits that could be given to the people.
Although Chávez lost the referendum in 2007, because it was a democratic process (in spite of countless suspicions) it prevented more severe actions from the opposition and more negative feedback by the international community.
In fact, this is a major change between the leaders of the past and the leaders today in terms of perpetuation in power. In the past, guns or decrees did what today is done through popular participation. We will not discuss here whether such popular participation is the result of populist manipulation, but it serves as a shield against the arguments of those who accuse the government of being antidemocratic.
Up to now, Evo Morales has been more successful with this strategy than Hugo Chávez. Not because he conceived means to remain in power, but because he managed to approve a deep constitutional reform, which, among other things, included the ability to run for re-election. On the other hand, Chávez managed to remain in power through popular approvals of his administration. His most daring attempt to search for unlimited re-election was banned by scarce 1.1% of the Venezuelans. I believe that in his new attempt, the Venezuelan President will be successful, because he will do whatever it takes to pass this particular amendment. In Equator, Rafael Correa took advantage of the situation involving his two counterparts in the continent and obtained an extension of his administration. Historically speaking, politics in Equator has been more complex than Bolivian or Venezuelan politics. Right now, however, Correa enjoys a more peaceful political situation than that of the other two South American countries.
It won't be too long until we see something similar in the Paraguay of President Fernando Lugo. Incredibly, Paraguay is more politically disorganized than Equator or Venezuela.
Unfortunately, corruption in this country is so intertwined with the government that one can easily be confused trying to distinguish what is legitimate and what is not. The institutionalization of corruption will make it much easier for re-election amendments to be presented and passed in the country. As this is a political and, most of the times, customized negotiation in Paraguay, once this idea arises soon there will be conditions to approve it. Once again, the low educational level found among the Paraguayan population and the almost absolute lack of an intellectual elite in the political arena of that country will play a vital role so that Lugo, if he wants so, remains in power.
There are other examples in the region. In Argentina, there is a family perpetuation. Nestor Kirchner's two mandates were followed by that of his wife Cristina. Today, it seems really hard that Cristina will manage to get re-elected by 2011. Nevertheless, major changes might happen for those who control the power machine. In the worst case scenario, Nestor may run for presidency again. In the Argentinean case, politics takes place inside the peronist party (Justicialist Party), which hinders the emergence of new scenarios that are not contaminated by the governing practices of the main and largest (and virtually the only one) Argentinean party.
The temptation to remain in power is not a privilege shared only by the current Latin-American "left" wing. Competent Colombian President Álvaro Uribe day after day copes with the temptation of going for another mandate. His approval rate, which is nearly 80%, turned him into a political phenomenon able to promise and deliver results. Under his administration, Colombia has become a safer and more peaceful country, placing Bogotá among the safest capital cities in the continent. With Uribe, Colombia has taken Argentina's historical position as "number two" in South America.
However, are all these positive results enough to blow away the democratic spirit? Based on success and huge popular volition, can a president change laws in order to remain in office for yet another mandate? It is not up to me to comment on that, but for a continent that struggles with great difficulty to become a truly democratic continent, the example must come even from who had absolute success and delivered a good administration to voters.
In Brazil, the possibility of a third mandate has been considered. However, as we are light years ahead of our neighbors when it comes to institutional development (perhaps second to Chile) this idea soon vanished. The mere fact that it has been uttered indicates the true political colors of whoever had such idea. It does not matter whether it came from a right or left party, democracy must always be respected. We should not perpetuate leaders, but the good ideas and concepts these leaders implemented. Concepts are stronger than the people who created them. In Venezuela, Bolivarianism may last a thousand years if this is the will of the people, but Chávez cannot proclaim himself as the father of a country and become its supreme leader if his role model, Simon Bolívar, had hated the idea of perpetuation of power, an example set by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns.