President Chavez’s referendum and after

President Hugo Chavez has won the February 15 referendum on term limits with a comfortable 55% victory. In making a second attempt on this issue, following the December 2007 referendum in which he failed to get the required majority, the President extended the term limits issue to included the positions of governor and mayor in addition to that of president. In that way he gave a larger number of political operatives in the country a direct and personal interest in actively supporting his original proposition.

The concept of term limits for office holders is not one which most of the people of Caricom have any experience of, or we suspect, would be willing to give much support to. The exception is Guyana.  But generally, we have inherited the British tradition which gives unlimited rights to rule to either party or individual as long as the people bestow their favour in democratically organized  elections, fairly conducted. The republican tradition, on the other hand, as for instance in the early example of the United States, has tended to favour term limits for those elected to leadership posts in the system, leaving unlimited terms for those elected to parliamentary or congressional offices.

There is, to our knowledge, a recent case of an attempt, apart from that of Guyana, to introduce the notion of term limits in the British oriented systems in our Caricom region, though not directly. In this case, the St Lucia Labour Party, feeling disadvantaged by the long period of rule of Sir John Compton as leader of his United Workers Party, and therefore natural prime minister in the event of his party’s electoral victory, introduced into its own party constitution a provision that would inhibit the party leader for having more than two terms as leader. One assumption underlying this was that if he/she were not party leader, it would be the accepted rule that a claim could not be made by that person to be reappointed prime minister. A second assumption would have been that the party’s constitution would, de facto, take precedence over the country’s British-type constitution which gives the power of selection of a prime minister to the members of the elected House of Parliament. And a third assumption was, of course, that the elected members would take as their first responsibility observance of the party’s constitution, over any personal desires, whims or enticements that might affect, or afflict them after an election.

Suffice it to say, however, that as the period of two terms of rule by the Labour Party between 1997 and 2007 came to an end, the party constitution was amended to permit a special vote of party delegates, requiring a two-thirds majority, that would permit a subsequent third term for the political leader. The inference, in terms of the office of prime minister, is clear. In general, however, the British tradition of unlimited terms remains the accepted norm in our part of the world.

From a British, and British-inherited, perspective then, there can be no real, or principled, complaint against  Chavez’s attempt to select a system in which he can be elected for as many terms as the electorate will support him. As in other cases, the burden of responsibility on those conducting such elections comes to rest on their approach to the conduct of the electoral process – that is for ensuring proper procedural rules and rules of engagement; and ensuring equal and unprejudiced chances of participation for those involved in the process. It is with the non-observance of such rules that opposition parties and individuals tend to take issue, and this has certainly been the gravamen of the charge that President Chavez’s opponents have tended to lay against him. In sum he is charged with using both the material resources and the institutional machinery of the state to give his, and his side’s, chances an unfair advantage.

Of course, there are limits, even in Venezuela, to which this can be done effectively as long as the government feels the necessity to maintain some aura of equality of campaigning opportunity, particularly in the face of outside observers sympathetic to them. In that context the Venezuelan opposition could claim, in respect of the defeat of Chavez’s last term limits plebiscite of December 2007, and the regional and local elections of 2006, that in substantial measure the will of the people prevailed, in spite of the President’s domination of the state machinery. In the regional elections in particular, the opposition won the governorships of the important states of Caracas and Maracaibo, and a number of positions of  mayor. But what qualifies the opposition’s sense of significant strength as the country becomes increasingly polarized, is the increasing domination of significant parts of the national economy by the state, and therefore de facto by President Chavez.

For there is a general presumption in the liberal, multi-party tradition, that it is the liberal market economy, with its multi-person and multi-private institution, ownership of the various components of the national economy, which permits the possibility of establishment, and effective maintenance, of competing political groups and institutions, and therefore for meaningful multi-party competition. It is this condition that they see being whittled away by President Chavez, and for which they wish to appeal to other parties and governments adhering to liberal principles to support. This raises the question of external influence and support for particular political entities, to which the President is virulently opposed; his support for his antagonism being strongly strengthened by the incompetent American attempt at interference in the Venezuelan system on the occasion of the attempted coup against Chavez to which the private sector itself gave strong verbal support.

The position of the governments of the Caricom states seems to be somewhat ambivalent on this situation. The general tradition of these states is one of “non-intervention in the internal affairs” of other countries, particular in respect of the forms of government which such countries maintain. President Jagan was known to be somewhat disappointed by some Caricom states’ attitudes to the Burnham regime, particularly in its latter years. And it will be recalled that Dr Eric Williams was adamant that, while not approving the political position and stances during the Cold War of the Grenada People’s Revolutionary Government (he is reputed not to have opened letters from that government), his government would be rigidly against external interference/intervention against that regime. This tradition was maintained by his successor, Mr George Chambers, after the murderous events that brought to power the so-called Revolutionary Military Council of General Austin.

In recent times, of course, the generosity of President Chavez in selling oil at concessionary prices and terms to Caribbean and Latin American governments, and in respect of other assistance, induces them to be more resistant to any calls to be partisan in favour of opposition forces in Venezuela. Even the Jamaica Labour Party, long known to be publicly opposed to regimes that it considered to be outside the liberal democratic tradition, has now taken a much more relaxed attitude to the regimes of both Venezuela and Cuba.

This, in part, reflects the changing realities of global geopolitics and economics as they impinge on the Caribbean. Venezuela under Chavez (though also under previous governments like that of former President Carlos Andres Perez whom Chavez sought to overthrow) has strongly supported the call for a reorganization of the international economic order which it perceives as disadvantageous to developing countries. His Bolivarian Alternative (ALBA) reflects this, and many Caricom governments have taken a positive attitude towards it even where, as in the case of both Guyana and some of the OECS countries, there are outstanding Venezuelan territorial controversies.

So the general stance of our governments is that of a disinclination to join any clamour, especially from within the United States, to join any ideological crusade against Venezuela; to partly rely on the larger states of the hemisphere, with whom we are increasingly involved, in taking initiatives that can lead to the evolution of democratic principles in a context of non-intervention; and to seek to ensure that given the proximity of Venezuela to us, we can influence the discourse and policy-making that is evolving in the wider hemisphere in which we are now recognized as full actors.

Both the December 2008 meeting between Caricom and Cuba in Santiago de Cuba, and the meeting of Latin American and Caribbean states in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil, at which Caricom states were participants, emphasise this approach. Our governments’ responsibility is to have a technically and diplomatically sophisticated approach to this environment, while ensuring that with respect to our own states, and our natural and normal desire to influence our environment, the principles of non-interference and non-intervention are rigidly observed by all, irrespective of political regime.