Now that Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has succeeded in passing a constitutional amendment that will allow him to run for office indefinitely, watch the contagion effect _ several Latin American leaders may follow his steps and become presidents for life.
While Venezuela is the only Latin American country _ not counting Cuba _ that will allow indefinite re-elections following last Sunday's referendum, at least 13 other countries in the region have changed their constitutions in recent years to either allow a one-time consecutive re-election, or to allow former presidents to return to power after at least one period out of office.
"There is a re-electionist wave in Latin America," says Daniel Zovatto, a regional director of the Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. "Several countries have moved from allowing alternate re-elections to permitting consecutive re-elections, and there is a clear possibility that more will move to allow indefinite re-elections."
Chavez's narcissist-Leninist political model is gaining ground. As crazy as it may seem at a time when the world economic crisis is driving up poverty, the leaders of Bolivia and Ecuador have recently turned their own re-election drives into a central issue of their countries' political agenda.
Both have held referendums in recent months to pass constitutional amendments that will allow them to run for one consecutive term. If they win coming elections later this year, they are widely expected to follow Chavez's lead and seek new constitutional changes to run indefinitely.
Only hours after Chavez's victory, Bolivia's second-highest-ranking ruling party legislator, Jorge Silva, was quoted by the daily La Razon as saying that Bolivia may need to allow a new constitutional reform. Silva said that President Evo Morales' socialist revolution is "a political project which we have said, and still say, needs 15 or 20 years to be implemented."
Among other countries that have changed their laws in recent years to allow for one-time consecutive re-elections are Colombia and Brazil. Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has already stated that he will not run for a third consecutive term. Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe has yet to announce whether he will seek a third consecutive term.
As of now, Latin America has at least four countries with presidents serving consecutive terms (Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and the Dominican Republic) and two others (Bolivia and Ecuador) whose leaders will run for a consecutive term this year.
In addition, Argentina is ruled by Cristina Fernandez, wife of former President Nestor Kirchner, whom many Argentines believe is still running the country. Several other nations are governed by former presidents who have returned to power after sitting out one or more terms, including Alan Garcia of Peru, Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.
And the list may soon be longer. Former Chilean President Eduardo Frei and former Uruguayan President Luis Alberto Lacalle are among the leading candidates in their countries' next elections.
Why are so many leaders suddenly seeking consecutive re-elections? In many cases, they are benefiting from the last five years of rapid economic growth, often tied to record high commodity prices. This has allowed presidents to pay for new social programs, causing their popularity to increase. Not surprisingly, some are rushing to hold early elections now, before they run out of money.
"This re-electionist fever is bad news for the region," Zovatto said. "Latin America's fragile democracies won't get stronger with charismatic leaders, but with stronger institutions and a solid civic culture."
My opinion: I agree. Latin American countries would do better copying the U.S. example, where former presidents spend a comfortable life on the lecture circuit, or the Mexican model, where re-election is prohibited, and where presidents go into self-imposed or forced exile abroad after their six-year terms.
One of them, Luis Echeverria, was appointed to a job that was officially described as ambassador to Australia "and the Fiji islands," in case he didn't get the point that they wanted him as far away as possible.
Short of that, they should remember the famous words by South America's independence hero Simon Bolivar _ ironically, the man cited by Chavez as his ideological mentor _ who said in a Feb. 15, 1819, speech that, "Nothing is so dangerous as allowing the same citizen to stay in power for too long: The people become used to obeying him, and he becomes used to giving them orders, which are the seeds of usurpation and tyranny."