As Hugo Chavez was being re-elected to a second six-year term as Venezuela's President last December, I had a long talk with National Assembly Deputy and constitutional lawyer Carlos Escarra inside the legislature's colonial-era chamber in downtown Caracas. Escarra, a close Chavez ally, is a driving force behind the campaign to eliminate presidential term limits in Venezuela a reform that Chavez's critics fear would let him rule for life and create a left-wing dictatorship.
You've got to admit, I said, given Latin America's brutally autocratic history, that whenever an oil-rich, radical populist like Chavez makes it easier for himself to rule indefinitely, it raises more flags than a Caribbean regatta. "But we're not Cuba," Escarra insisted. "How many times do we have to prove that? President Chavez has now won three elections [including his original 1998 victory] and a recall referendum, and all were declared transparent by international observers. So he could still lose the next election [in 2012] because it's still up to a majority of the voters."
Escarra was telling me then what Chavez himself told his critics this week from his lectern at the National Assembly, as he formally proposed the term-limit reform and a host of other constitutional changes: "I recommend," said Chavez, "that they take a Valium." In other words, Chill out. If French Presidents can seek re-election indefinitely, say the chavistas, why can't Venezuela's? If Americans could re-elect Franklin Roosevelt four times, they ask, why can't we re-elect Chavez as many times?
On the one hand, they've got a point. If Chavez had a reputation for winning the presidential palace by trashing the ballot box like, say, most Mexican Presidents of the 20th century then the news this week would be genuinely alarming and the Bush Administration's attempts to pair Hugo with his buddy Fidel Castro might be more credible. But respected groups like the Carter Center in Atlanta have deemed his victories fair, the result of a remarkably incompetent Venezuelan opposition rather than rigged voting. And rather than ramrod the constitutional amendments by fiat, he'll put them to a national referendum. Just as there was a good chance that Chavez could have been ousted by the recall referendum in 2004, there is at least the possibility one that would never exist in Castro's Cuba that voters could reject his term-limit proposal as well. "At the end of the day," says Bart Jones, author of a new Chavez biography, Hugo!, "it's still a democratic process."
Nor does the argument completely hold that unlimited re-election for Hugo would somehow create a destabilizing trend in Latin America. A chronic succession of caudillos, dictators and other strongmen in the region's history did lead it to embrace the one-term presidential limit for much of the latter 20th century. But in the past decade, five major South American countries, including the biggest, Brazil, have changed their constitutions to allow re-election; and one of them, Colombia, may even permit a third term.
Still, unlimited re-election is another matter. More of a concern, says Jones, is the reason that Chavez's measure will probably pass. Jones notes that one of the fundamental weaknesses of Chavez's leftist, anti-U.S. Bolivarian Revolution is "its inordinate dependence on Chavez, its one-man-show aspect. If he were to leave the scene, there's a feeling the whole revolution would unravel tomorrow." That's why Chavez supporters, especially the majority poor who feel politically and economically enfranchised for perhaps the first time in the nation's history, may be more prone to give him the presidential multi-ride ticket and just as willing to tolerate what many Venezuela observers call an erosion of governmental checks and balances.
Already, every member of the National Assembly is a Chavez ally which is largely thanks, however, to the opposition's boneheaded boycott of the last parliamentary elections as is just about every Supreme Court justice. As a result, keeping Chavez in power until 2021 (his stated goal, the 200th anniversary of Venezuelan independence) if not longer could eventually make him, by default, a kind of "democratator," a democratically elected dictator. At the very least, says Jones, "it's bound to set off some alarms about the constructs of democratic government."
Those bells are louder after Chavez recently revoked the license of an opposition television network, RCTV. The problem wasn't that RCTV was pulled off the air it loudly encouraged a coup attempt against Chavez in 2002, something the FCC probably wouldn't condone in the U.S. but that Chavez failed to put the license up for bidding by independent broadcasters. Instead, he used it to create another pro-government network. In an interview with TIME last fall, after he called President Bush "the devil" at the United Nations, Chavez almost gushed about free expression in Venezuela: "My God," he said, "'Devil' is the least of things the opposition is allowed to call me on the air." And he was right. But filling RCTV's air with a chavista mouthpiece wasn't the best way to make the international community feel good about his bid for unlimited re-election.
Critics say other constitutional reform proposals like one that appears to let Caracas suck governing authority from the very states and municipalities Chavez once pledged to empower are part and parcel of the harder left turn he's taken after his re-election, which has seen the nationalization of utility companies and oil ventures. But backers point to his proposals to reduce laborers' working hours and create new grassroots governing councils as proof of his more egalitarian "21st-century socialism."
Either way, Chavez can't yet be fingered as the new Fidel Castro. "For one thing," says Jones, "the Venezuelan people would never accept it. Chavez does want to create a more equitable society, even a socialist society, but I think he can only create a mixed economy. He inherited a very capitalist-minded country that has always aped U.S. culture." But nor can Chavez be stroked for leading, as he claimed this week, "a democracy more alive" than any "on this planet." As Escarra stressed, the democrats of the world shouldn't freak out over Chavez. But, Hugo being Hugo, they're not likely to chill out, either.