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Latin Imperial presidencies: a questionable stability

Even though he was clearly democratically elected by a majority of Venezuelans last week, President-elect Hugo Chvez is a former coup leader of questionable democratic character. And his victory over mainstream politicians came in a dangerously uncertain campaign atmosphere of threats and accusations of fraud. It's a firm reminder that a stable form of democracy is far from consolidated in many parts of Latin America.

Paradoxically, while it's too soon to know if Venezuela under Mr. Chvez will fall into this category, in other Latin countries the continued reelection of presidents is inhibiting stronger, more permanent democratic roots from taking hold in the region.

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Most US historians justify Franklin Roosevelt's record four terms - often referred to as an "imperial presidency" - by arguing that strong presidential leadership, continuity, and consensus were vital during a critical era.

In the past decade, a number of democratically elected Latin American presidents have made a similar case that presidential reelection - theirs - was necessary to consolidate fragile economic reforms. Indeed, several overcame the long-held Latin preference for only one term and had themselves reelected, often by overwhelming majorities.

But this trend is changing. In August, Panamanian voters rejected - 2 to 1 - a proposed constitutional amendment to allow consecutive presidential terms. Argentina, Peru, and Brazil are among other countries in the region where presidential reelection also has been hotly debated.

President Alberto Fujimori justified his first reelection attempt by claiming he needed a second term to prevent chaos in Peru, which faced unconsolidated economic reforms, a legacy of ineffective political parties, and a Maoist insurgency. And it can be reasonably argued that Mr. Fujimori's reelection ensured the continuity of essential economic reforms and guerrilla defeat.

This argument can also be made in the case of Brazil, where most observers feel that President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's reelection in October was essential in order to secure Brazil's arduous but admirable economic consolidation process.

Yet there are limits. A second term can do much to establish continuity and credibility for a country trying to implement painful economic reform. But lengthy tenure tends to create a cult of personality in which a president as an individual, not the institution, becomes the focus of political activity.

It is the democratic transition process that ultimately deepens democratic roots.

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In the Peruvian case, Fujimori - whose democratic credentials were tarnished by his summary closing of Congress in 1992 - has worked furiously behind the scenes to ensure he'll be allowed to run for a third term in 2000. But, because peaceful transfer of power is an essential process for any burgeoning democracy, another Fujimori term would do much to retard the already troubled Peruvian political system. His uninterrupted personalist brand of presidentialism, while good at delivering badly needed services to the poor in return for votes, is forestalling the consolidation of Peru's incipient political institutions.

Recently, however, most Peruvians have begun to tire of their imperial president's tenure. The opposition-backed Democratic Forum was able to obtain more than 1.4 million signatures for a petition demanding a referendum on Fujimori's reelection. (Though it was ultimately doomed by pro-Fujimori forces in Congress.) So while it looks as though Fujimori has opened the way for yet another electoral campaign, popular opposition to his reelection has dramatically increased, with many who supported him for a second term now opposed to a third.

In Panama, where the next president will oversee the handover of the Panama Canal by the US, President Ernesto ("El Toro," or "the bull") Perez Balladares recently tried to seek another five-year term. He used the campaign slogan "Work to be done" to convince voters that, like the case of Brazil's Cardoso, the continuity ensured by a reelection is just what Panama needs in its recovery from the destruction left by strongman Manuel Noriega and the subsequent US invasion in 1989.

As the former campaign manager for Noriega, Mr. Perez Balladares lacks the reformist credentials of Cardoso and thus had a much more difficult time convincing the populace a second term is in its best interest. Moreover, the fact that canal-lock modernization will bring $5 billion worth of contracts through government hands made many Panamanians wonder whether his motives might be as much economic as political. An Aug. 30 referendum on the reelection resulted in a resounding "No" vote, ensuring he won't be in the presidential palace when Panama takes control of the canal.

Argentine President Carlos Menem's announcement in July that he would not attempt to seek an unprecedented third presidential term was met with relief by most Argentines. They supported him overwhelmingly for a second term in 1994 but were quick to realize that Mr. Menem's quest to remain in power was beginning to seem more for his ego than for Argentine prosperity.

If recent events in Peru, Argentina, and Panama are any indication, Latin American voters have tired of their imperial presidents and are instead opting for something new, an opportunity that can only bolster the democratic process in these nations. Now let's just hope that Mr. Chvez is listening.

* Riordan Roett is professor of Latin American studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. Russell Crandall, a PhD candidate there, is a former human rights worker for Catholic Relief Services in Colombia.

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