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A Response to Cameron’s Coming to Terms with Chávez


 

In “Coming to Terms with Chávez” Cameron 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. 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.
 
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 societies ills, children are detained semi indefinitely and destitution is used as a weapon.
 
Cameron cites Fujimori, the brutal Peruvian autocrat to contextualise Venezuela’s supposed slide into authoritarianism, though he cedes “the last defence against despotism is, of course, elections. Perhaps that is enough.” Yet Fujimori’s Peru’s decent began with a “self-coup” in 1992, where Fujimori illegally shut down Congress, suspended the Constitution and purged the Judiciary. Yet 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 deadlock.
 
This is a common story in Latin America, such deadlocks precipitated Allende’s fall, and the Uruguayan decent into authoritarianism among others. Cameron is right to observe that the removal of term limits represents a diminuation of checks and balances, 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 in authoritarianism Cameron portrays it as.
 

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