The Fate of Latin American Democracy

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Many Colombians were surprised recently when a leading business magnate broached the idea of amending the constitution so conservative President Alvaro Uribe may run for a third consecutive term in 2010. After all, Uribe’s supporters already amended the constitution once to permit him to succeed himself, which he did by handily winning elections last May.

Two successive terms for a president is generally accepted international practice, but three is not, and in the eyes of many, it would constitute a blow to democracy. Yet, the idea could be politically viable because the Colombian president’s popularity is above 60 percent.

However, early indications are that Uribe himself is not so warm to the idea — on Tuesday (Jan. 30) he declared he would not support any initiative to permit another reelection. This comes as little surprise since, despite his popularity, his administration is marked by a less-than-successful effort to squash narcotrafficking and leftist guerrillas, and scandals over politicians’ relationships with right-wing death squads. Most of those implicated are Uribe allies.

Felipe Cardona, a Political Science professor at the private University of the Andes here, says a third term for Uribe would signify a “terrible blow to democracy,” and likely run into opposition in Colombia’s congress because many congressmen have their own political ambitions.

But, he says, it could fly nevertheless.

“Uribe says what people want to hear,” Cardona said. “In the end, the people are inclined to ignore those problems, as long as Uribe continues being Uribe. [He] has promised them peace – peace through war. . . . It’s more proof that the Colombian people are willing to give up democracy if they believe that this will fulfill their immediate interests. A charismatic figure is capable of that.”

Uribe is the United States’ closest ally in South America, and Washington seems likely to go on backing him, if only to prevent yet another leftist from taking charge on the continent. What’s ironic is that a third term for Uribe may secure Colombia’s own position in the region’s shift toward authoritarianism.

To the east, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who was just reelected for another six year term, has sent his nation’s Supreme Court packing, is in the process of attempting to nationalize much of its economy, and appears eager to rewrite its constitution to permit unlimited reelection. The presidents of Ecuador and Bolivia, both Chavez allies, also want to rewrite their nations’ constitutions, and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, less than a month after taking office, has gotten his nation’s parliament to vote him new decree powers.

Just a few decades ago, human rights advocates were popping champagne as the region’s dictators gave way to democratically elected leaders. Today it looks as though authoritarian rule may be sneaking back in — through democratic elections. Mexico’s conservative President Felipe Calderón seemed to put it most succinctly recently when he told Mexico’s El Universal newspaper that “the appearance of new signs of lifetime governments or non-democratic regimes is a reason for worry.”

Mike Ceaser is a freelance writer based in Bogota, Colombia.