Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Colombia's Uribe to skirt term limit -- again

Here we go again: Latin American leader loves power, won’t respect Constitutional term limit. The latest in this growing queue of dishonor is Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Of course, he's been on this ride before.

Uribe goaded the lower House yesterday into approving a referendum to relax the country’s constitutional term limit and continue to hold office for a third term. The vote was 85-5 with 76 abstentions. The bill has already passed the Colombian Senate. Keep in mind this is the second time the term limit – originally one four-year term – has been relaxed for Uribe. The first time was in 2005.

Uribe's 2005 victory over term limits emboldened Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who famously announced, bluntly and accurately, that “Chavez is not leaving, Chavez stays…” It took Chavez two referenda to get the job done. In the first in 2007 he had not used sufficient bribery or intimidation to get it through, but by the second in early 2009 he had got the recipe right. Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Bolivia's Evo Morales changed their constitutions -- and term limits -- shortly thereafter.

President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras was less fortunate. It turns out Honduras is not constitutionally permitted to have a referendum to relax term limits. His illegal insistence on doing so got him kicked out of his country in a bloodless coup.

Clearly, there is a good reason for this extra constitutional precaution in Honduras. Latin America has a history of caudillos who will not relinquish power, ever. As a result, Constitutional reforms were made across the region to protect nations from presidents consolidating sufficient power to organize mass constituencies, bribe legislators and steal elections, establishing permanent Castro-like (or U.S. Congressman-like!) incumbency.

In the United States, we view term limits as a good government reform that empowers citizens relative to public officials. To view term limits so casually is a luxury of our stable democracy. In Latin America and many other parts of the world, term limits are one of the last safeguards against tyranny.

Next in line: Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, who is currently promoting a referendum for a new constitution that ditches term limits.

In light of this this continent-wide attack on democracy and rotation in office, one has to respect Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva who has announced numerous times that he would respect his nation’s constitution and will not seek a third term. “I think that the transfer of power is essential for democracy,” he said.

Lula’s right. And it takes a term limit with teeth to ensure a transfer of power.