- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2009

MEXICO CITY

Horrified by the excesses of dictatorship, Latin Americans discarded the strongman model at the end of the 20th century and limited politicians’ time in power.

Now a new wave of populist presidents is trying to do away with those limits, arguing that they impede real change. As leaders in country after country move to extend their rule, opponents fearing a return to the “caudillo” era of authoritarian power have done everything to stop them - from throwing eggs to staging coups.

“It’s a new political model of what I call low-intensity dictatorships,” said Manuel Orozco, a Central America analyst at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.

Term limits were the backdrop for a June coup in Honduras, where proponents said they were trying to prevent an illegal attempt by President Manuel Zelaya to extend his time in office. Mr. Zelaya denies any such intention.

Nicaragua joined the fray with a Supreme Court ruling giving President Daniel Ortega the right to seek re-election as many times as he wants. Opponents, calling it an illegal power grab, threw eggs at the judge in charge.

Similar scenarios have played out in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, where some leaders have made progress on entrenched issues such as poverty or violence but are accused of quashing dissent.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has spent his country’s oil wealth liberally on education, health care and food subsidies for the poor. He also has closed critical media outlets and used a majority in Congress to vastly diminish the powers of opposition mayors and governors.

In December, Venezuelans voted to allow Mr. Chavez, known as “el Comandante,” to seek indefinite re-election.

Mr. Chavez first gained prominence for staging a failed coup in 1992. Far from being appalled at the assault on a 30-year-old democracy, many poor Venezuelans considered the young army lieutenant colonel a hero for trying to overthrow a president accused of stealing millions in public funds.

In decades past, Latin Americans once feared strongmen who emerged from military coups and curtailed human rights and crushed all dissent. Many were from the right. But some leftists also managed to amass great power or ruled for decades, such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Peru’s Gen. Juan Velasco and Argentina’s populist general, Juan Peron.

After years of peaceful, democratic transfers of power in most countries, some of that fear has faded. Instead, there is anger over the corruption scandals and ineffectiveness that have marred many fledgling democracies.

Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa - like Mr. Chavez, leftists popular for their efforts to redistribute wealth and give a voice to the poor - have won referendums to change their constitutions to allow them to seek second terms.

In Colombia, Alvaro Uribe’s supporters don’t want to let go of the conservative president, who is hugely popular for reducing murder and kidnapping rates and crippling leftist rebels. Mr. Uribe won a constitutional change to secure his second term, and now lawmakers have called a referendum asking voters to let him seek a third.

The rise of the “new caudillos” is testament to the failure of some countries to establish strong branches of government that can check executive power, despite decades of democratic rule, Mr. Orozco said.

Mr. Ortega, who doesn’t have support to overturn term limits in the Nicaraguan Assembly, took the issue to the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court, where the majority of judges are from his ruling Sandinista party.

While the opposition Liberal Constitutionalist Party complained, Mr. Orozco noted it was the Liberals who made a pact with the Sandinistas to split influence over such institutions so they could freeze out other political parties.

Mr. Ortega played a central role in Nicaragua’s long struggle to shake off autocratic rule, first coming to power after Sandinista rebels toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He ruled in a guerrilla-dominated junta before winning a presidential election in 1984 and fought U.S.-backed Contra rebels for a decade until losing his bid for a second term.

By the time Mr. Ortega won 2006 elections, Nicaragua had banned presidents from seeking consecutive presidential terms.

“Daniel Ortega has come full circle, pulling stunts that Anastasio Somoza used to do, to stay in power,” said Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University. “In his case, Ortega stacks the Supreme Court, which then obliges him by interpreting the constitution to say the opposite of what it actually says about re-election.”

Meanwhile, the region’s stronger democracies have avoided such turmoil.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has overseen economic prosperity and secured South America’s first Olympic Games, has served the maximum two terms and will step down after next year’s election even though he is wildly popular.

In Mexico, the single-term presidency has been the third rail of politics since it was implemented after the 1910 revolution that overthrew dictator Porfirio Diaz.

Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, a popular successor to a popular president, will leave office next year after one term in a country with one of Latin America’s lowest poverty rates.

Mr. Uribe hasn’t said whether he wants to run for a third term. But even some supporters are urging him not to, worried he could end up lumped with Mr. Chavez and discredited in the United States, Colombia’s top ally.

President Obama might have been thinking the same in June, when shortly before a meeting with Mr. Uribe he publicly lauded Mr. Lula da Silva as an example for other countries, “where the democratic tradition is not as deeply embedded as we’d like it to be.”

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