The political crisis that engulfed the landlocked South American country of Paraguay for the last few weeks appears to be over. It began in late March when, during a closed session of Congress, allies of president Horacio Cartes approved a proposal to amend Paraguay’s constitution in order to allow for presidential reelection. Immediately, opposition parties and thousands of citizens took to the street in protest. On the night of March 31, about 1,000 protesters, mostly young men, many of them wearing masks and hoods, irrupted into the Congress building and attempted to set it on fire. Security forces responded strongly, firing rubber bullets that killed one protester and injured several others.

The attempt to change the constitution was seen by many in Paraguay as a bid by Cartes to consolidate his power and, ultimately, establish himself in the presidency indefinitely, following the example of other Latin American leaders such as the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. This impression was reinforced by the support for the change from Fernando Lugo, Paraguay’s former president who was removed from power in 2012 through a controversial impeachment proceeding. Lugo, protesters fear, is likewise looking to take advantage of the constitutional amendment to return to power. Street demonstrations, which routinely carried signs saying “We don’t want dictators!” and other similar messages, continued until Cartes announced publicly that he will not run for reelection in 2018 under any circumstances.

To an outsider, it may seem strange that the prospect of presidential reelection would arouse such passion, but for Paraguayans, the memory of El Stronato, the thirty-five-year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner which ended in 1989, is still fresh. The 1992 constitution, which became the fundamental law of the current democratic era, limits the presidential period to one five-year term. In this, Paraguay followed the pattern of the rest of the countries in the region, which following periods of dictatorship or political unrest established stringent limits on presidential terms. In its founding constitution of 1853, Argentina forbid presidential reelection, and its example was consistently followed by other countries for over a century. Until recently, reelection was banned in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru. In Bolivia, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela presidents were allowed to run for reelection only after they had stepped down from their posts and one whole presidential term held by someone else had elapsed. Cuba, the only non-democratic country in the region, allows for indefinite reelection (although few observers consider Cuban elections to be free or fair). Fidel Castro held power there for just under fifty years until he was succeeded by his brother Raúl in 2008.

The argument against reelection is twofold. First, reelection can potentially be used by sitting presidents to concentrate power around themselves, weaken the opposition (other political parties, the press, civil society), and eventually to establish themselves in power permanently. Latin America has a history of strongmen (and an occasional strongwoman) lifting themselves to the position of saviors of the people through charisma or populist rhetoric. Students of Latin American politics call this phenomenon “caudillismo,” and many scholars believe that the influence of caudillos in the region’s history is so entrenched that Latin America can never be truly democratic. Second, no reelection increases the possibility that rival political groups will rise to power, creating a political system in which compromise and consensus are the norm.

Since the 1990s however, there has been a turn across the region on this issue, as popular presidents have capitalized on their support to change the rules of the game and remain in power for longer periods. In 1994, Argentine president Carlos Menem was successful in changing his country’s constitution and won reelection soon after. His example was followed by Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso a year later. Today, both Argentina and Brazil allow their presidents to sit for two consecutive terms and then run again for reelection after one presidential term in which they have been out of power. Most other countries in the region followed suit, most radically in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, where left-leaning presidents have been able to establish indefinite reelection in their respective countries. Today, only Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Paraguay forbid reelection.

  No reelection Non-consecutive

reelection

One-time consecutive reelection Indefinite reelection Current length of presidential term
Argentina 1853-1994 [except 1949-1955] Since 1994, two consecutive terms then allowed to run again then run again after full presidential period 4 years
Bolivia From 1967 until 2009 Constitution of 2009 Failed attempt in 2016 5 years
Brazil From 1988 until 1995 Since 1995, two consecutive terms then allowed to run again following a full presidential period 4 years
Chile Since 1994 4 years

(was 8 years, then 6 years)

Colombia Constitution of 1991 until 2004; and since 2015 From 2004

until 2015

Failed attempt in 2010 4 years
Costa Rica From 1953 until 2006 Since 2006 4 years
Cuba Constitution of 1976 Indefinite
Dominican Republic From 1992 until 2002 From 2002 until 2009 Since 2009 4 years
Ecuador From 1967 until 1998 From 1998 until 2008 From 2008 until 2015 Since 2015 4 years
El Salvador Since 1983 5 years

 

Guatemala Since 1985 Failed attempt in 2012 4 years
Honduras From 1982 until 2015 Failed attempt in 2009 Since 2015 4 years
Mexico Since 1917

 

6 years
Nicaragua From 1995 until 2010 Since 2010 5 years
Paraguay Since 1992 Failed attempt in 2017 5 years
Peru From 1979 until 1992 Since 2000 From 1992 until 2000 5 years
Uruguay Since 1967

 

5 years
Venezuela From 1961 until 2000 From 2000 until 2009 Since 2009 6 years

(was 5 years)

 

There are, to be sure, powerful arguments in favor of reelection. To begin with, in a democracy the citizenry is supposed to choose its representatives. If the majority wants a particular person to stay in power, then it seems anti-democratic to remove that option from the table. Alexander Hamilton, these days everyone’s favorite Founding Father of the United States, argued strongly for indefinite presidential reelection, and urged George Washington to stay in office after he finished his second term. Washington, however, famously declined, citing the dangerous lure of power and prestige and the thin line between legitimate and illegitimate power. Unfortunately Latin America, like the United States, has been a little short of George Washingtons for some time now. Some argue that a presidential term of only four or five years makes it impossible for a president to establish a coherent political program. Furthermore, no reelection means that a president has little incentive to keep campaign promises, since there is no way for voters to punish him or her in the next electoral period.

And so, popular presidents across Latin America have sought, and won, reelection when once this was impossible. These include not only leftists like Chávez, Ortega, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Evo Morales in Bolivia, but also right-wing politicians like Álvaro Uribe in Colombia, and centrists like Oscar Arias in Costa Rica. Most recently, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was able to establish indefinite reelection in his country.

The results have been troubling. Certainly some politicians have found responsive electorates to keep them in office, but there are signs that many of them are willing to go to great lengths to remain in power, even if that means bending the constitutional rules. One favorite method for presidents who can no longer run for reelection is to put a family member at the top of the ticket, in order to remain close to the circles of power. The most prominent example is that of Kirchner in Argentina, who ceded power to his wife Cristina Fernández, who in turn stayed in office for two full terms. In other cases the gambit has not worked. Guatemalan president Álvaro Colom, after unsuccessfully trying to change the constitution of his country so he could run again, named his wife Sandra Torres as his successor, but the Guatemalan constitutional court did not allow Torres’ candidacy to go forward. In Costa Rica, Oscar Arias’ brother Rodrigo ran a failed campaign in 2012. When this option is not available, sitting presidents often choose sycophantic followers to carry on their legacy. The disastrous tenure of Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela, and chosen successor of Hugo Chávez, demonstrates the dangers of valuing loyalty and continuity over basic competency.

Since 2015, as the example of Paraguay shows, the tide seems to be turning again, and resistance to reelection seems to be rising. The current president of Colombia and Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos led a push to eliminate reelection in his country in 2015. Soon after, Evo Morales failed to win a national referendum that would have allowed him to be reelected indefinitely as president of Bolivia. It’s too early to tell whether we will see a return to the restrictive limitations on reelection in the region as a whole. In the meantime, passionate debate will continue, though hopefully not too many houses of government will be burned to the ground in the process.

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