Cautious congratulations are due to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Elected president ten years ago and enjoying thirteen major electoral victories since, he has once again gained popular support this time to remove the two-term constitutional limit on all elected positions. Now, Chavez and others can run indefinitely for presidential, gubernatorial, and municipal office, and aim to run again in 2012 to carry forward the "Bolivarian Revolution" and "21st Century Socialism."
However, optimism about new openings for the Bolivarian Revolution should be tempered with concern about how this new path was opened and potential pitfalls it may contain. Does the "Yes" vote imply that Chavez is the only person able to advance the Bolivarian Revolution as most advocates argued? Mightn’t removing term limits even increase dependency on him as the central person capable of carrying forward the Bolivarian project? If so, isn’t this dependency a serious problem for the process?
Of course, had a "No" vote triumphed it would have called into question the future of the Bolivarian Revolution. On the other hand, if momentum could have been regained, one wonders if a successful "No" vote would have lit a fire under the Chavez administration to promote new candidates for potential re-election in 2012? Would any Bolivarian advocate disagree that new faces carrying forward the hoped for transformations would be a healthy, although uncertain, gain?
Seen this way, the outcome of the recent referendum was reason to celebrate, yes, but carries a burden as well as benefits. On the one hand, controversy around removing electoral term limits is not Venezuela’s alone and is commonly associated with abuse of power, as has been noted by others who have highlighted President Uribe’s efforts to do the same in Columbia, and also Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s in New York, both in contrast to Chavez. Such observations fueled the anti-Chavez opposition nationally and internationally, but that doesn’t mean they are entirely false. Imagine a campaign to remove term limits in the U.S. Every progressive would be opposed.
Further, there should be concern over continuing reliance on a single leader. Why is no one learned enough and popular enough to be capable of taking Chavez’s place? In the ten years that Chavez has been president why hasn’t a new generation been prepared and become sufficiently popular to carry forward the Bolivarian agenda with as much approval as Chavez has? Wouldn’t that be positive? Isn’t its absence reason for concern?
More broadly, shouldn’t Chavez be taking steps to ultimately organize himself out of his position of power, and likewise for ministers and mayors, so that one day the communal councils could surpass individual officials in decision-making power to carry out the social and material objectives of the Venezuelan people?
It is easy to see the great difficulty in achieving such a vision, however, long-term goals like these could be lost or sent off trajectory not only by short-term errors such as over dependency on Chavez, but also due to losing Chavez, and both dangers could snowball if he gets re-elected in 2012, while if he runs, and he loses, that would be even worse.
History presents numerous "20th Century Socialist" countries where leaders rationalized their self-importance over the led, and the led rationalized their allegiance as followers who didn’t administer themselves, and the whole endeavor suffered disastrously.
Inspiration against these fears can be found in the effort to re-organize social and material life to empower the communal councils and carry out the various Bolivarian Missions on health, education, and social services as well as the efforts at regional integration and solidarity. It is clear that to date and possibly for many years to come Chavez will play an indispensable part of making the revolution happen, because of his historical ties, his connection to the population, and his political savvy. But he cannot and should not go it alone, without emergence of other prominent actors, without checks and accountability, no matter how much people believe in him and he believes in himself. Others must come up on all levels of government while steps are also taken to empower those below so that all can eventually help manage the transition to "21st Century Socialism."
Now that Chavez has once again won the confidence of the majority of voters, one can envision an amazing step he might take. Imagine, now that term limits have been removed, if Chavez announced a new challenge — to prepare others to run in his place for the next election in 2012, so that he won’t have to be president, again, but could instead be a minister, or an activist, or whatever else — certainly not disappearing, however.
In such a scenario Chavez could dedicate his tirelessness and charisma to the revolution, just as now, but in this new situation he would work with others who have taken his current office and by doing so send a powerful message that he not only has the best interests of Venezuelans at heart, but more, he understands that to combat the dangers of centralization of power, goodwill alone is not enough, and there needs to be a strategy of diversification and participation. Even if Chavez did meet this hypothetical challenge and eventually changed his role in 2012, if needed it would be possible for him to run again as president, later, to help carry forward the Bolivarian Revolution to its sought for ultimate conclusion. But even in such a case, he alone would still not suffice at such a task.