Modern Latin American history books have thick chapters on dictators and strongmen (caudillos) who pillaged government coffers, ruled for their own gain, and ruthlessly stamped out all opposition.
When countries moved away from military dictatorship in the 1980s, new constitutions included articles to ban reelection and ensure that such leaders never again returned to power.
But now, the caudillo may be making a comeback.
In recent years – and weeks – presidents around the region have been attempting to repeal those prohibitions and extend their time in power. They say that their countries need more political continuity and that they need more time to enact reforms. Many of their citizens support the idea. But critics warn of a dangerous antidemocratic slide that could take the region back to the bad old days when caudillos ruled the land.
"There are good and bad reasons for having term limits," says Julio Rios-Figueroa, a constitutional expert at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. "Countries tried to put a stop to potential presidents who wanted to attempt to become like dictators. And in some cases, there are very good reasons to get rid of them." But in too many cases today, he adds, presidents are using the repeal to carry out personal projects. "They are trying to change constitutions so they can stay longer," he says
The days of the outright military dictators are long gone, but some fear that a modern version of caudillismo has emerged in the region, and most fingers point first to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for starting the trend.
After 10 years in power, the controversial leftist leader won a referendum in February that abolished term limits for presidents – a move he says is critical to carrying out his "Bolivarian Revolution," which distributes wealth more equitably among the poor.
His allies in Bolivia and Ecuador have followed suit, each winning the right to consecutive reelection through constitutional reform. It was the fear that now-ousted Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya was attempting to repeat the maneuver in Honduras – an accusation he denies – that led to his ouster in June, which has since sparked Latin America's worst political crisis in decades.
Now Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, another Chávez ally, is trying the same thing. After failing to get Nicaragua's National Assembly to consider dropping the constitutional two-term presidential limit and the ban on consecutive terms, Mr. Ortega, whose first five-year term began in 1985, won a Supreme Court ruling last month that paves the way for his reelection in 2011.
Yet analysts note that abandoning term limits is not just a left-wing movement. In Colombia, conservative President Álvaro Uribe is considering a move to allow third terms, after a 1991 ban on reelection was altered in 2005 to allow Mr. Uribe his second bid. From the Dominican Republic to Costa Rica, reelection reform has been carried out by right-of-center and moderate leaders.
Is four years not enough?
The trend has many defenders. Relaxing presidential term limits is mostly justified, says Peter Kornbluh, an expert on dictators at the National Security Archive in Washington. In those countries where leaders are "refounding" nations to give the long-oppressed a voice, single terms have often been restrictive. "The process of expanding term limits derives from pent-up demand for change," he says. "Four-year terms have not proven to be enough [to address] the intractable problems that Latin America faces."
In Mexico, where reelection has been banned since 1917, Mr. Rios-Figueroa says dropping term limits has also been debated as a way to increase accountability, particularly for congressmen who cannot be reelected and thus are often more loyal to their parties than they are to their constituents.
And in Colombia, those who support Uribe's reelection bid say that the president, whose approval rating hovers around 70 percent and who is widely credited for wresting control of wide swaths of the country from guerrilla groups, is key to a successful security strategy.
Mr. Rangel adds, however, that he does see risks to democracy in Venezuela, where Mr. Chávez has closed opposition media stations and today controls almost all the nation's institutions. "Caudillismo signifies the concentration of power in one person above the constitution and laws," he says. "That is what is happening in Venezuela. There is no risk of that happening in Colombia."
Peter DeShazo, the Americas director at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, says that Uribe runs the political risk, as have Chávez and his allies, of being called power-hungry – which could hurt Colombia's relationship with the United States. Leaders who extend term limits face the risk of stagnation, which can sometimes backfire, as in the case of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who won the right to a third term, but had to flee Peru in 2000 amid fraud scandals.
Strongmen rise as institutions weaken
The biggest concern is that too much power for the president is undermining democracy.
That is the fear in Nicaragua, where opponents of Ortega are promising rebellion should he stand for reelection. "If they want to install a dictatorship here, it won't be the first time that the Nicaraguan people will have to overthrow a dictator through armed struggle," says opposition lawmaker Carlos Gadea.
A poll published recently in the opposition daily La Prensa found that 68 percent think an Ortega reelection would weaken democracy and represent a move toward dictatorship.
Term-limit extensions on their own, says Michael Shifter, a Latin America expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, are not a threat to democracy. The problem arises when other institutions are too weak to balance the executive branch – a scenario all too common in the region.
"Institutions are not working as they are supposed to in a democracy. And when that happens, people turn to the leader who is going [to] deliver the magic bullet," he says. In that sense, says Mr. Shifter: "The strongman never left Latin America."