Venezuela’s Term Limits

The story is a familiar one. Amid the collapse of two-party dominance, an independent leader rises to power. In an effort to calm frazzled nerves, he insists he will respect the rule of law and the will of the voters by maintaining the peaceful transfer of power at the end of his legally-established term. “There’s no organization that I know that would put somebody in charge for a long period of time,” he insists, “you always want turnover and change.” But in power for nearly eight years, having established a fervent support base and concentrated power in his own hands, our fair leader no longer feels the need to comfort his opponents, and his discourse radicalizes as his view of term limits shifts. Dismissing his opposition as rigid “dogmatists,” the leader now insists on the need to change course flexibly to meet circumstances. True and sustained change, he argues, requires the continuity of his successful leadership.

Unsurprisingly, his opponents fiercely oppose the move as dangerous: “It shows a fundamental contempt for the democratic process,” one maintains, “and it’s changing the rules to benefit yourself directly.” Ironically, it was this very same argument that the leader himself had made five years prior, when vetoing efforts to loosen term limits. Not without controversy, then, was the decision of the region’s largest newspaper–aligned politically with the leader–to wade into these conflictive waters with the following declaration:

The bedrock of… democracy is the voters’ right to choose. Though well intentioned… the term limits law severely limits that right, which is why this page has opposed term limits from the outset… Term limits are seductive, promising relief from mediocre, self-perpetuating incumbents and gridlocked legislatures. They are also profoundly undemocratic, arbitrarily denying voters the ability to choose between good politicians and bad.

While the paper had previously insisted that any change to term limits come through popular referendum, it now reverses this view, taking the position that for reasons of political expediency, a simple vote in the small executive council will do.

Of which banana republic are we speaking, where thinly-veiled authoritarianism threatens democratic checks and balances, and weak-kneed apologists parade about under the banner of free press? Why, the place is none other than New York City, the leader none other than Michael Bloomberg, and the newspaper none other than the New York Times. Patience: we haven’t even gotten to the hypocrisy part yet.

“Hugo Chávez’s Choice”

Term limits have a long history, dating from ancient Greece and Rome and Aristotle’s concept of “ruling and being ruled in turn.” With a trademark selectiveness (see, e.g., Senate Report 104-158), those upholding the sanctity of this standard in U.S. politics do so with no mention of the other elements Aristotle would associate with democracy, most obviously the filling of all positions by random lot (except for generals, or strategoi, who in an intriguing inversion of our own system, were to be elected). And nor is there much mention of those countries in the wealthy world which see no need for such limitations, or those celebrated leaders who have accomplished purportedly historic tasks without such fetters: Tony Blair served for 10 years, Margaret Thatcher for 11. Franklin D. Roosevelt, consistently ranked among the greatest U.S. presidents served for 12, and would have served for 16 had he survived. And this is not to mention the unlimited terms available to U.S. senators and representatives.

In fact, the North American obsession with term limits as political cure-all is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating largely to the 1990s and the cynical populism of House Republicans, who raised the mantle of term limits as a silver bullet against corruption. Some even seem impervious to this fervent faith: most notably, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), who recently proposed lifting presidential term limits in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election. Obama himself would add, “I’m generally not in favor of term limits… I believe in one form of term limits. They’re called elections.” Given all this, then, we might expect Obama, but also Mayor Bloomberg and the editorial team at the New York Times to wholeheartedly embrace efforts at rolling back such undemocratic limitations worldwide. And who knows? Were it possible to exclude the most popular democratically-elected leader in the Western Hemisphere, they might.

But for anyone familiar with past Times coverage of Venezuela (including the paper’s now-notorious celebration of Chávez’s 2002 overthrow at the hands of an authoritarian group of right-wing leaders), it would be of little surprise to know that the paper breathed a sigh of relief when “Venezuela’s voters wisely blocked his plans for indefinite re-election” in 2007. And facing what the Times incorrectly considered a defeat in recent local elections, the paper’s tone turned simultaneously celebratory and stern:

The lesson from Sunday’s defeat — less than a year after voters rejected his plan for a power-grabbing constitutional reform — is that Venezuelans don’t want to give Mr. Chávez even more power. He should heed the message… He should abandon for good his push to change the Constitution so that he can run for a third term in 2013. Venezuelans deserve the chance to choose a competent government.

But this is where it gets interesting for the elephant in the room named Colombia.

“Mr. Uribe’s Choice”

Now the New York Times has never been bashful about the crush it has on this tale of hypocrisy’s third character: the narco-terrorist president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe. Uribe is currently engaged in an effort to change the Colombian constitution for a second time to allow his own re-election, doing so not through popular plebiscite, but rather indirect legislative vote. But not that you would know this from reading the press: a recent report by FAIR shows that press coverage of Colombia and Venezuela represent an inverted mirror-image of reality, exaggerating abuses in the latter while downplaying them in the former and condemning re-election in one while ignoring it in the other. And so one might expect the paper to champion the diminutive Colombian strongman’s own efforts to eliminate term limits for himself, doing so, as in New York, through indirect vote in the legislature rather than the popular referendum Chávez has pursued. But rather than take the more openly-hypocritical route of supporting Uribe’s bid for unlimited re-election, the Times has elected a more subtle, if no less hypocritical path.

In parallel editorials published three months apart, we needn’t get past the titles to realize where we’re headed: whereas Chávez is diminutively called by his first name, Uribe is “Mr.” But both men have a choice, according to the Times. For Chávez, who has wrought unprecedented destruction, the broadsheet recommends quitting while he’s ahead, and before the people lose patience with his childish, anti-democratic antics. For Uribe, on the other hand, the suggestion is the same, but for very different reasons: to assume his place in the Pantheon of great Latin Americans “the leader who brought Colombia back from the brink and onto a path toward peace.” Chávez must leave because he is evil; Uribe should choose to do so because he is great.

So let us review, briefly, the record of this harbinger of peace that is “Mr. Uribe”:

According to a declassified 1991 report by the U.S. government’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Uribe was described as “a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar… dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín cartel a high government levels.”  His legitimacy is questionable, since in a country as divided as Colombia only 27% of the population voted in the last presidential election (compared to 43% in neighboring Venezuela).  And even among that limited electorate, the “Para-Politics” scandal made clear that Uribe’s election depended on the violent duress provided by paramilitaries who have admitted to forcing local populations to vote for Uribe. By mid-2008, 62 members of Congress, mostly Uribe allies,were considered official suspects.  And from the Times glowing review: “After the Supreme Court started investigating dozens of his Congressional allies for alleged ties to right-wing paramilitaries, he accused the court of being politically motivated. He has now proposed reforms that would remove the investigation of members of Congress from the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction.” All of this is not even to mention the accusations of bribery in Uribe’s prior effort to change the constitution, or his role in the recent pyramid investment scheme controversy.

But if Colombia’s friendliness toward U.S. interests is enough to explain the inverse correlation between Uribe’s reality and Times coverage, this political alliance falls short of the paper’s endorsing his unlimited re-election, as their political principles might suggest. It seems as though the racist assumptions of who is capable of self-government trumps principles, and for the New York Times institutional flexibility is to be determined more by the division of First versus Third world than the simple Manichaeism of friends versus enemies.

Chávez Poised to Win

If the western and opposition media is to be believed, the idea of lifting term limits in Venezuela has already been defeated in an election, namely the constitutional reform effort that was narrowly voted down in December of 2007. But while the U.S press focused on unlimited re-election as the cause of the loss for the Chavistas in that election, this is simply incorrect. Let this be clear: were the 2007 reform solely about Chávez’s re-election, it would have passed. This much is clear to those on the ground, and attested to by both Chavista and opposition strategy during the election, as the Chavistas sought to associate the reform with Chávez, and the opposition sought to oppose it without seeming “anti-Chavista.” Rather than the question of re-election, what sunk the 2007 constitutional reform effort was its complexity (it contained 69 provisions), poor campaigns (by conservative Chavistas who felt threatened by the changes), clear opposition to some elements (i.e. education, etc), and above all a failure to mobilize or even interest the Chavista base.

As Sunday’s referendum vote approaches, all indications are that it enjoys the support of a clear, and increasing, majority of the Venezuelan electorate. This fact is borne out in recent polling data released in Venezuela by polling firm GIS XXI. According to the polling firm, 52.9% of voters currently support the effort to eliminate presidential term limits, with only 40% opposing. Moreover, when faced with the statement, “If the people support him, President Chávez has the right to run in the elections as many times as he likes,” nearly 70% expressed agreement, and almost 75% characterize the President’s leadership as either “very good” or “good.” The more independent Venezuelan Data Analysis Institute (IVAD) has, surprisingly, given a more significant margin of victory to the “yes” vote, which it estimates at 54.6% versus 45.5% against (the margin separating the two having increased a full 3 points in recent weeks).

Even Datanálisis, a notoriously anti-Chavista polling firm whose director once insisted to the Los Angeles Times that Chávez needs to be assassinated, currently gives the referendum a margin of more than 3 points.  While such a margin may seem unsurprising to anyone familiar with the reigning political atmosphere in Venezuela, it comes as somewhat of a surprise from Datanálisis, which just in December had the referendum losing by nearly 15 percentage points. And another opposition pollster, Hinterlaces, shows the election to be a dead heat, but does so only on the basis of misleading, urban-only polling, knowing full well that Chávez regularly outpolls the opposition by more than 20% in rural areas.

But if there is one thing that Chavista and anti-Chavista pollers share, it’s a significant shift in support for the referendum in recent weeks. To fully grasp why this has happened, we need to look more closely at the political dynamics underlying the process, and how these dynamics have come to bear on the impending election.

“Military Targets”

As is by now customary in Venezuelan electoral seasons, the dialectic of conflict and polarization has kicked in full-force, deepening contradictions and clarifying the degree of support that either side can claim. This is a risky business for both sides: heightened tension could well chase away moderate Chavistas, but it can equally well damage the opposition, and if the recent shifts in polling data are of any indication, the effect has been more to Chávez’s benefit. But this was as much through opposition bungling as through Chavista stage-management.

In late January, anti-Chávez students led a march against the referendum effort through the streets of Caracas. While the mayor of western Caracas rejected their request to march on the Supreme Court, since a pro-Chávez march would be gathering there and confrontations would be inevitable, the recently-elected metropolitan mayor Antonio Ledezma, a ferocious anti-Chavista, granted a permit. At points, students hurled bottles and rocks at the police, who responded with tear gas (a scenario repeated in various other cities). When a large truck that had been leading the march was detained by police, however, it was found to contain 100 Molotov cocktails, some fully prepared and ready for deployment.

This certainly won the opposition students no sympathy from undecided voters, the so-called “ni-ni’s” (the neither-nors), notwithstanding their efforts (against all video proof) to claim that the Molotovs had been planted. But such a claim would be readily accepted by their far-right base, and seemingly impermeable to hypocrisy, the opposition students continued their efforts to cultivate their image as victims of a tyrannical government by running a half-page ad in El Nacional showing the fierce repression of students by police, under the slogan: “Punish the Criminals, Don’t Repress Our Children – No to Indefinite Re-election.” The problem? The picture was not even taken in Venezuela, but rather at a 2003 march in Greece. Much like the whisky these opposition students sip at luxurious bars on the weekends, it seems even their own repression is in short supply domestically and must be imported.

But it hasn’t been only the opposition who have sought to heighten tensions in the run-up to the February 15th referendum vote. Radical Chavistas, perhaps knowing that the President has tended to gain more than he has lost as a result of conflicts with the opposition, have also sought to raise the electoral temperature. The revolutionary La Piedrita Collective, whose members told me in a recent interview that such heightened tensions have a purgative effect on the revolutionary process, have recently taken the fight to the opposition, declaring various opposition parties, far-right television station Globovisión, and the Vatican offices to be “military targets,” carrying out tear gas attacks against them. But this was merely a warning, according to an interview given by La Piedrita founder Valentín Santana to the newspaper Quinto Día: up to this point, Santana insists, the violence has come from the opposition, and La Piedrita’s targets are precisely those who “call for war, for hatred, for magnicide.” Repeating what he told me earlier, Santana insists that Chávez is the only thing preventing open conflict in Venezuela, and if the referendum doesn’t pass, “we’re headed for a war.”

Initially, the government’s position was subtle. Without endorsing La Piedrita’s actions, Interior and Justice minister Tarek El-Aissami insisted on shifting the discourse of violence back toward those more deserving of it: the students caught with Molotovs and the opposition press that has been calling for violence against a legitimate government for nearly a decade. However, after Santana’s interview in Quinto Día, in which the leader tacitly threatened the lives of opposition leaders, including media magnate Marcel Granier, Chávez himself stepped into the fray, calling for Santana’s arrest. But the effort to appear presidential by opposing the threats issued by his supporters is a double-edged sword, one which threatens to alienate Chávez’s most fiercely devoted base, and it’s unclear if arresting Santana (if this is even possible given the de facto autonomy enjoyed by La Piedrita, would be at all desirable from a political standpoint).

Puerto Rican Vacation

But in this case the strategy of tension encouraged by both far left and far right would have produced little more than a stalemate on its own, with radicalized bases contemplating one another across a chasm populated by undecideds, were it not for the latest in blunders by the anti-Chavista opposition. Returning from a trip to Puerto Rico, representatives of all major opposition parties alongside Globovisión director Federico Ravell were surprised at the airport by a young reporter, Pedro Carvajalino, from the government-sponsored youth-oriented Ávila-TV. When the journalist accused the opposition leaders of meeting with representatives of the United States’ government, and specifically deemed Ravell a palangrista, or a corrupt journalist, the situation became tense, with Ravell spouting offensive slurs and threatening to punch Carvajalino. Luckily for the Chavistas, Ravell displayed a surprising lack of media saavy for a media magnate, and the whole thing played out in front of the cameras.

Things were not going well for the opposition’s electoral strategy. Carvajalino, it seems, had been leaked an email in which Ravell discusses with opposition political leaders a meeting with U.S. embassy officials in Puerto Rico, insinuating that some $3 million would be provided toward defeating the February 15th referendum. On this basis, those involved were subpoenaed to testify before the state Attorney General, where Ravell insisted that, rather than meeting with U.S. government officials, they had instead met with Chilean strategists involved in the unseating of former dictator Augusto Pinochet. As to why a meeting with Chileans took place on
U.S. soil, Ravell provided the rather unconvincing answer that the Chileans, who had braved the Pinochet dictatorship, were deterred from entering Venezuela by the high crime rates.

This is ertainly not the press the Venezuelan opposition needed in the run-up to next week’s vote. But is it surprising? Not particularly, for those who have unashamedly eaten out of the poisoned hand of the North far too many times without learning their lesson. While financial support from the U.S. is probably tempting for a discredited opposition utterly lacking any mass base, it is still worth wondering if the money is worth the risk it entails when the media hypocrisy is free.

George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley. He is currently writing a people’s history of the Bolivarian Revolution entitled We Created Him, and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.

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George Ciccariello-Maher is Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University and the author of We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, also published by Duke University Press.

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