Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez won a national referendum Sunday to abolish term limits—a pillar of presidential democracy and a key to institutional checks and balances. With 54 percent of the vote, Chávez acquired a mandate through democratic means to possibly become president for life. Even though this constitutes a novel development in Latin America’s modern democratic history, Venezuela’s referendum results cannot be viewed in isolation.
What occurred in Venezuela on Sunday is representative of a wider contradiction unfolding in several Latin America countries. Democracy defined by the mere process of holding elections is clashing with democracy defined by a democratically elected president’s ability to respect a system of checks and balances.
Several other democratically elected Latin American leaders are also considering abolishing presidential term limits and consolidating power in the office of the president. Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador show signs of moving in said direction. Each argues that more time is needed to complete their socialist-inspired “revolutions”—an argument Chávez used endlessly in his referendum campaign.
The argument, however, is not particular to those of the ideological left. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has been flirting for more than a year with changing the country’s constitution for a second time to allow him to run for re-election to his third term. Uribe argues his re-election is necessary for the continuation of his policy of “democratic security,” the same call for political continuity that Chávez used in Venezuela to end term limits.
The result of these executed or contemplated changes is ironic: They are obscuring democracy through democratic mechanisms. Each of the referendums held in the past year in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, as well as the term modifications under consideration in Colombia and Nicaragua, implicitly and sometimes explicitly strengthens the presidency at the expense of other institutions that are key to ensuring the quality of democratic governance in each of these countries.
It is easy to speculate that these developments underscore Latin America’s historic penchant for the presidential, or autocratic, “strong man” and a discounting of the importance of democracy. Perhaps after several decades of living through Latin America’s process of democratic consolidation, some of the region’s populations question the ability of democratic systems to deliver their basic needs.
The latest Latinobarometro 2008 poll results, however, suggest a very different conclusion. The very countries undergoing the most tumult with regard to respect for presidential term limits and institutional capacity are the ones whose populations express the lowest tolerance for autocracy. According to the report, 53 percent of the region’s population would accept a return to some form of autocratic rule if that meant basic economic needs would be met. In Ecuador and Colombia acceptance levels are 50 and 49 respectively, while in Bolivia and Venezuela levels stand at only 39 percent, the second to lowest acceptance level of autocracy in the region. Only Nicaraguans show a level of acceptance higher than the regional level at 62 percent.
These countries—the ones who on average are the least satisfied with autocratic alternatives to democracy—are the very ones whose current political establishments are either winning electoral referendums that bend constitutional rules or wiping them out completely. They are also the countries whose political establishments are pursuing electoral referendums that will strengthen the presidency at the expense of institutional check and balances.
It is thus imperative that those studying the implications of Venezuela’s referendum results do not oversimplify the analysis of how and why Venezuelans have arrived at this juncture in their democracy. There appears to be much more nuance and complexity to a majority of Venezuelans’ motivations for endorsing reforms that hinder the strengthening of democratic governance through institutional checks and balances.
Presidential term limits have long been considered the best way to ensure that institutional checks and balances allow for democratic renewal. It appears the Venezuelan people, as well as several other Latin American populations, may disagree.
Stephanie Miller is a Research Associate for the Americas Project at the Center for American Progress.