Fluid Term Limits in Latin America

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Rafael Correa: “Let’s reform the Constitution and allow indefinite reelection. I do not care about getting myself reelected.”

Reelection is a familiar topic for Latin-Americans, especially in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, where the laws allow presidents to seek two or more terms. Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, El Salvador, Panama, and Uruguay, also allow reelection, although only in a non-consecutive fashion.

Since 1999 and the election of Hugo Chávez, at least eight presidents in Latin America have managed to get themselves reelected, after long periods as their country’s leaders. One of them is Argentinean President Cristina Fernández, who became familiar with the presidency in 2003, when her husband Néstor Kirchner held the position. She then succeeded him in 2007, got reelected on 2011, and has remained in power up until this day.

Similarly, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has been in power since 2006, achieving a third term on February 17 of this year. That will keep him there until 2017, making it 11 years in office.

Correa’s consecutive terms in office point to the troubling fragility of term limits and the rule of law in Latin America, as noted in an earlier PanAm piece on “wiki-constitutionalism.” Correa took advantage of a very loose interpretation of Ecuador’s two-term limit to run for and gain his third term. Since the Ecuadorian Constitution had been rewritten in 2007 and 2008, his 2009 election was his first under the new constitution — or so the argument went.

If that were not bad enough, he is at it again. From ABC News:

Only a few months since the election have passed. But Correa’s political allies are now proposing a law that would eliminate term limits for Ecuador’s president, the same move Chavez took in Venezuela back in 2009. . . . Correa has said on previous occasions that he isn’t even interested in seeking more time in office after his current term ends in 2017. But a new law that wipes out term limits could give him plenty of time to change his mind.

The problem is that Correa is not alone in maneuvering around constitutional constraints on his powers and seemingly amending the nation’s constitution with ease.

Álvaro Uribe managed to get Colombian constitutional law reformed on 2005, to allow for his immediate reelection. He then got his second term in 2006.

In April, facing the end of his second term in 2014, Bolivian President Morales managed to get permission from the Constitutional Court and the Senate of Bolivia to run for the office as the candidate for the Movimiento Al Socialismo party. Like in Ecuador, the Constitutional Court ruled that Morales had only completed one presidential term (2010-2014) under the new Bolivia, because in 2009 the country was refounded as a plurinational state.

An end to term limits appears to be another bonus for rewriting a nation’s constitution, and now Morales seems likely to remain in office through to 2020.

In terms of numbers, though, the ex-Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has the record, being in office 14 years until his death in March. He got to the presidency in 1999, and achieved reelection three times, albeit under disputed circumstances.

An initial referendum he sponsored to do away with term limits met rejection, but that didn’t dissuade el Commandante. Chávez, notes The Economist, was “not a man to take ‘no’ for an answer.”

Describing the opposition victory as “shit,” he vowed to reverse it. On February 15, after a blitzkrieg campaign involving the brazen use of state resources, the president finally got the answer he wanted. Some 55 percent of a high turnout of voters said “yes” to a referendum question so convoluted as to be barely intelligible.

These instances demonstrate the way that constitutions are not self-enforcing documents. They need constituent and institutional defenses. Otherwise, those in power will simply violate or amend them without difficulty — as they seem to do over and over again in Latin America — making their very existence of little value.

Mercedes Azurdia coauthored and provided research assistance with this article.

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