Despite Chavez’s national popularity, voters should respect term limits

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is pushing for constitutional reforms that would allow him to remain in office indefinitely.

Voters in Venezuela voted yesterday in a referendum on proposals that would eliminate presidential term limits, BBC News reported. The current Venezuelan constitution has a limit of two six-year terms for presidents.

While Chavez has had some success in office, Venezuelans should be wary of what this constitutional change implies.

Chavez is clearly hoping to make himself the life-term president, and he is announcing this desire to the public without inhibition.

According to BBC News, Chavez said Friday: “If God gives me life and help, I will be at the head of the government until 2050.” He would be 95 years old and would have remained in office for 52 years.

To put that into perspective, Fidel Castro is currently 81 and has ceded his presidential duties to his younger brother since 2006. Apparently, Chavez’s ambition is calling on him to “out-Castro” Castro.

With his newest constitutional reform proposals, Chavez is exposing himself to critics who have long labeled him a tyrant and a dictator.

Even if the changes were passed, Chavez would have to keep getting elected by his people to remain in office.

However, judging from his election record, it appears he would have a good chance of winning at least another term or two.

According to Venezuelan National Electoral Council data, Chavez won presidential elections in 1998 (an irregular election due to political turmoil), 2000 and 2006, beating his closest opponents by 16, 22 and 25 percent, respectively.

While the legitimacy of these elections is debated by some, these victories strongly suggest that Chavez is popular among his people, certainly more so than his favorite target of verbal assault, U.S. President George W. Bush.

As president, Chavez has implemented a number of social programs to battle poverty, including education and health services for all. Economically, he has nationalized key industries and curbed inflation by maintaining strict prices on basic foods. Political supporters say he has given a voice to millions of poor Venezuelans who were disregarded by the “traditional” political parties.

The above reasons, as well as Chavez’s distinct personality, are largely responsible for his cult-like following.

So if the voters want to keep Chavez in office, what is wrong with changing the constitution to accommodate their wishes?

When a politician remains in office for a prolonged period of time, he or she inevitably builds up a power base that is often insurmountable. That is the reason incumbents of the U.S. Congress are often a lock to be reelected.

Such a regime, if it becomes corrupt and subsequently unpopular among its people, will be hard to topple because of the firm grip it has in the government and the country.

In addition to election fraud, Chavez has been accused of controlling and censoring the media. His campaign tactics have increasingly included propaganda that builds on the raw emotions of the people and that flames their anger against the Bush administration.

While Chavez’s claim to power is based on popular support of the Venezuelan voters, his populist approach reeks of demagoguery, and his ambition to remain in power for life resembles the likes of Castro, Mao Zedong and Saddam Hussein.

Regardless of how popular Chavez is or how great he has been as president, the Venezuelan people should never allow a constitutional change that opens the door for lifetime dictatorship.

Venezuela has had a respectable history of democracy since the 1950s, and its citizens should not give up their rights so easily.

Linsen Li is a history and journalism junior. E-mail [email protected].