History in the (re)Making: Chavez and the End to Term Limits

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It was announced today in the news that Hugo Chavez is requesting an end to term limits, and eliminating central bank autonomy in Venezuela. I'm sure the US Government is already labeling this move as a precursor to dictatorship, which it is in essence, but let's look at it again. Here is a man who is trying to make serious change in his country, and finds the constitutional limits on his power to be a problem. So, he asks the checks and balances in his way to grant him the right to ignore those limits in order to achieve his goal.

What his real goals are is completely immaterial for the discussion that I want to bring up, it's the fact that he is asking for these powers outside of a critical national crisis, i.e. a war. We are seeing, my friends, is the rise of a dictator due to social considerations.

First, I want to dispel the stigma that surrounds the idea of a dictatorship. Not all dictators are evil, as many throughout history were placed in order to achieve their ends, and most have . For those of you who would argue that point, I would like to point out that Abraham Lincoln was effectively a dictator during the Civil War (along with just about every other president during a war). Dictators, as defined by the Romans, had unlimited power (as in extent of exercise) for a limited space of time (usually a year). Exceptions would be Sulla, Marius, and Caesar who all managed to become dictators for as long as they wished, finally ending in the Empire when Augustus passed it on to his heir.

So my fundamental question is, why would the people want to have a dictator in place, and lose their voice in the government? There are a couple reasons that I can think of, and would appreciate any feedback from those that have additional perspectives.

Social Trust in the Dictator
Believe it or not, people can trust a dictator if they trust that he will act in their interest. Generally this is achieved when a high majority of the people governed desire the policies of the potential dictator. In Chavez's case, it is his popular socialist movement that appeals to the people who are essentially poor and need some way out of their poverty. One such way is by allowing the government to help them through given social reforms and programs.

Another is through religious devotion to the leader. Many leaders of religious states instill trust based on the leader's devotion to their religion. This can be dangerous, because if the leader deviates from the perceived "righteous" course, he can and will be quickly replaced. Unfortunately, politics doesn't mix well with religion, and many leaders of religious states quickly find their end.

Economic Need for Quick Action
As was quoted in Men In Black, "A person is smart, people are dumb stupid panicky animals..." As such, a person will realize that the economy is so badly run by "people" (i.e., generally committees and officials) that a serious change needs to be taken immediately before complete collapse and chaos reigns. At that point, usually the Executive will try to assume, whether legally or illegally, powers that will allow them to act. Generally these periods of dictatorship need only be fleeting, and the executive should generally step down once the goal is met.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Once someone gets the taste of power, they begin to feel entitled to it. One such example was the economic need that drove Adolf Hitler into dictatorship to save Germany from bankruptcy, but ended in the effective end of Germany (being divided between four countries). Once they feel it is their right to rule over people, they do not relinquish their power without a show of force by another powerful entity that is not loyal to the executive (usually through the Military). Hence, military coups.

Basic Needs are Not Met
The most serious, and often most compelling, reason for a dictatorship is the lack of basic needs for the people. This goes far beyond the economic need, because people are not getting a specific need, whether it be food, water, shelter, warmth, or safety. At these periods, people are quick to relinquish their sovereign rights over themselves to another person in order to acquire that right.

Such conditions are the aims of terrorists seeking power over the majority. They try to instill that basic need for safety in order to bend the will of the people in their direction. In some cases it can work and has been very effective. The problem is once the terrorists are in power, the safety is not given but rather becomes a part of life. That may keep the people in line for a small period, but there will always be a plot to oust such a government.

The Security of the Community is in Peril
Slightly different is the need of the security of the community. This is when legitimately selected executives are generally granted dictatorial powers during their term in office to direct the military forces in the best direction possible to protect the nation. Abraham Lincoln had such powers while during the Civil War. James Madison had the same during the War of 1812, though ousted from Washington D.C. at the time.

This is generally rare, and only placed when there is a constant, direct threat against the community to the point that people feel there is no other option but to give up their sovereign powers to a single authority.

So, why is Chavez trying to gain these powers? From what is reported, it's because of economic needs within his country, and he is counting on the popularity of his social reforms to achieve his goal of dictatorship. This is because he feels that the period of his legitimate term is unable to generate enough of a change in the direction he wishes to take the country.

Now the right will be issued based on the sovereign will of Venezuela, but I would like to point out the process that is being taken to reach the dictatorship, and how it is possible for a people in a republic to allow their say in the government to be voided. It's a fascinating process for those who study history, because it tells us how dictators can even be considered within a political environment that gives people the right to participate in their government.

It will be interesting to see how Chavez acts in the next couple of days.