We should expect to hear soon about Colombian President (and U.S. ally) Alvaro Uribe “doing the same thing” that Honduras’s Zelaya was attempting in June: to change his country’s constitution so that he can be re-elected. The political and constitutional circumstances are somewhat different in the two cases, but the American media may not help greatly in sorting that out.
On September 1, Colombia’s Congress voted 85 to 5 to hold a popular referendum in 2010 on the question of amending the Constitution. Uribe’s election to a second term in 2006 required a similar amendment, since the Colombian Constitution of 1991 originally limited presidents to single terms. Uribe has been a very popular president, with approval ratings between 60 and 80 percent throughout his tenure, due to voters’ perception that he has stabilized the country against cartel-funded terrorists. Neither the Congress nor the nation’s Supreme Court has opposed the recurring constitutional-amendment process on procedural grounds. These aspects of Uribe’s situation distinguish it from Zelaya’s in Honduras, where the unpopular ex-president intended to have the military distribute ballots for a referendum that was disapproved by a substantial majority in the Honduran Congress and had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Observers raise a valid question about the antidemocratic tendency of a pattern in which any president, even a popular one, gets the Constitution changed to remain in office. We need not ignore that question to recognize that Colombia is proceeding constitutionally, whereas Zelaya was defying his Constitution. What we may anticipate, however, is seeing Colombia’s serial constitutional amendments held up as damning evidence in the campaign led by Hugo Chavez to organize Latin America against the U.S. agreement with Bogota to use Colombian military bases for our drug-interdiction forces.
Latin American leaders meeting in Argentina last week were united in expressing displeasure with this agreement, and Western news outlets are faithfully repeating the “analysis” that it could fuel an arms race in the region. Some writers acknowledge that all the arms contracts typically cited were inked before the U.S.-Colombia agreement was concluded. Few, however, trouble to point out that the U.S. is not introducing new forces to the region but re-basing forces that have operated from Ecuador since 1999, and operated from Panama before that. Political factions in Latin America have routinely opposed a U.S. military presence there, but the presence itself is nothing new.
Nor, regrettably, is the perception that Latin American stability depends on individual statesmen. Neither U.S tolerance of Uribe’s bid for another term nor U.S. intransigence on reseating Zelaya, who was ousted for circumventing the Honduran Constitution in a similar quest, is likely to appease Chavez or help stabilize the region. Both policies end up endorsing a “presidency for life” caudillo leadership pattern, but by antithetical mechanisms. This is a supremely cynical signal, whether it is sent intentionally or not—and one guaranteed to fuel Chavez’s rhetoric rather than dampen it.
There is reason to hope Colombia will not become the “new Nicaragua” for left-wing pundits and politicians. Uribe bears no resemblance to Anastasio Somoza, after all. But it will almost certainly not be any principled diplomatic consistency on the part of the Obama administration that averts such an outcome.