No Term Limits in Venezuela = Authoritarianism and Personality Cult?

With the removal of Venezuelan term limits we are sure to hear reams of repetitive charges of authoritarianism and a growing cult of personality around President Chávez. Yet a closer look at the results in comparison with those of the November Regional elections of 2008 poses serious questions to those denouncing Venezuelan "personalismo."

With the resounding victory of the
"Yes" campaign in Sunday's referendum on the removal of Venezuelan term limits
we are sure to hear reams of repetitive charges of authoritarianism and a
growing cult of personality around President Chávez. Yet a closer look at the
results in comparison with those of the November Regional elections of 2008
poses serious questions to those denouncing Venezuelan "personalismo."
Indeed the results suggest the establishment of a durable ideological cleavage
that can prove dominant over personalities in Venezuelan electoral contests.[1]
Furthermore, posing the removal of term limits as the first step down a
slippery authoritarian road is easily shown misconceived in light of recent
Latin American history.

The Guardian
has already posed the question "Now that the constitution is no longer a
constraint, will elections be enough to defend against despotism in Venezuela?"
The removal of term limits is somehow posited as a major slide
to authoritarianism while for certain correspondents the mere chanting of "Uh!
Ah! Chávez won't go!" is sufficient proof of a strident cult of personality.

The aforementioned Guardian
piece situates the removal of term limits in Venezuela, which will allow
President Chávez to run for re-election again in 2012, in the broader
authoritarian tradition of Latin America. Its author Cameron writes, "Latin
American presidents often act like dictators while in power, riding roughshod
over congresses, courts, and their political opponents. Presidential power is
limited only by rules that define their terms in office – how many years
until the next election, and how many times they can run – and by their
ability to win elections." In removing these last constraints Chávez is likened
to Peru's brutal autocrat Fujimori.

Yet in Latin America,
that presidents are legally too strong has rarely been a cause for
collapse into authoritarianism. That this strength is illiberal rather than
anti-democratic is a vital distinction that eludes most mainstream

A system of checks and
balances, though important, does not seem implicit to the logic of "rule of the
people, by the people, and for the people." Such systems are indeed drawn from
a liberal tradition with its concerns for a potential within democratic
systems, the "tyranny
of the majority".

Such a potential is
clearly latent in the British system, where the sovereignty of parliament
leaves its majorities virtually unchecked were they to begin suppressing the
rights of minorities. Asylum seekers have come to feel the brunt of this
potential as they become the scapegoat for all our society's ills; children are
detained semi-indefinitely and destitution
is used as a weapon

Cameron cites
Fujimori, the brutal Peruvian autocrat to contextualize Venezuela's supposed
slide into authoritarianism, though he concedes, "The last defense against
despotism is, of course, elections. Perhaps that is enough." Yet Fujimori's
Peru's descent began with a "self-coup"
in 1992, where Fujimori illegally shut down Congress, suspended the
Constitution, and purged the judiciary. This coup was a product of Fujimori's
legal impotence, not his strength. With a Congress dominated by opposition
parties Fujimori resorted to illegal means to overcome the ensuing legislative

This is a common story
in Latin America. Such deadlocks precipitated Allende's fall, and the
Uruguayan descent into authoritarianism, among others. Cameron is right to
observe that the removal of term limits represents a diminution of checks and balances,
and as such it is illiberal.

But in so far as it
empowers the president it is not anti-democratic. There is no
contradiction between "rule of the people, by the people, for the people" and
allowing the population to vote on whether they would like the chance to vote
Chávez to power again. Likewise, it is not the symptom of a descent into
authoritarianism as Cameron portrays it.

Cults of personality
rightly provoke fear of governmental abuse, as intense personal loyalty does
not lend itself to acceptance of the rules of democratic competition. And
indeed debate in Venezuela is often a debate about one man, the President, Hugo
Chávez. But this is a product of a number of coinciding forces, the most
significant of which has its roots in the experience of Punto

From 1958 to 1998
Venezuelans lived in what is known as a "pacted
democracy," in which the two main parties shared power in an agreement
consecrated by the oil-funded clientelist state.
While this agreement outlived the surge in Latin American authoritarian regimes
in the 70s, it then saw its middle classes gradually slide into poverty with
the decline of oil rents. It is into this climate of exclusion and dissatisfaction
with established political parties that Chávez emerged, talking of returning
power to the people.

With the establishment
of the Missions the realization of greater socio-economic inclusion leapt
forward in parallel with advances in citizen participation in the foundation of
the 5th Republic via a new constitution, the creation of the community councils, and the
recall referendum of 2004. This enfranchising of the marginalized in Venezuela
is the main reason for the intense political loyalty held by many Venezuelan
leftists to their president.

Chávez's rhetorical
style certainly intensifies this dynamic: "Chávez is the people," he is heard
boldly shouting. Likewise, his bombastic personality sees him sing, dance, and
joke in front of huge gatherings in Venezuela, and smell whiffs of sulfur at
the UN, further bringing him to the domestic and international centre of

As leftists focus on
Chávez, so too does the opposition. The visceral fixation held by large sectors
of the opposition is tangible in all walks of Venezuelan life. One of my
Venezuelan flat mates routinely shouts from her room to mine, "Chávez is scum!"
while Julio Andre Borges, leader of the foremost opposition party, "Justice
first," used his last words in the campaign to attack Chávez, "The President
tries to blackmail every Venezuelan by claiming that he is the only guarantee
of peace in the country, but the truth is that in these ten years all we've
heard are insults, threats, and words of war."

Yet, although
understanding the personalistic loyalty to the
President is an important part of understanding the psychology of conflict in
Venezuela, yesterday's results should give pause to those denouncing the "cult
of personality."

In a referendum that directly
determines to possibility of the continued governance of President Chávez, the
"Yes" campaign won with 54.4% of the vote in a turnout of around 70%. Were
Chávez truly a demagogue, and were there truly a strident personality cult, we would
expect the results and turnout of such a referendum to differ dramatically to
elections not directly concerned with Chávez the man. Yet November's regional
elections saw a turnout of 65%, and as with the referendum, the popular vote
was won by around 10%. The dramatic similarity of the two results, and their
significantly different subjects suggests a common denominator, loyalty or
opposition to the government's project as a whole, rather than to the man in

Extending this test of
the "personalismo" hypothesis is complicated by the
creation of Venezuela's largest and most successful party, the PSUV, in 2007,
and by the immediate fallout of the oil shutdown of 2002-3 and
of the coup
of 2002. Yet the limited material provides food for thought, it
should make those denouncing Venezuelan personalismo
think twice.

[1] This type of cleavage is widely taken by academic theorists as a
sign of a mature and vibrant democracy