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Simon Bolivar on "Indefinite Reelection" Printer friendly page Print This
By Arthur Shaw*. Axis of Logic.
Axis of Logic
Wednesday, Feb 18, 2009

"The continuity of authority in the same individual frequently brings end to democratic governments. Frequent elections are essential in popular systems, for there is nothing more dangerous than allowing one citizen to be in power for a long time. The people get used to obeying him. And he becomes used to ruling the people; that's where usurpation and tyranny originate. A fair distrust is the guarantee of republican freedom and our citizens must fear, rationally, that the same personality who have ruled them for long, will rule them perpetually."

The quote above is an excerpt from a 1819 address of Simon Bolivar at the Second Constitutional Congress at Angostura.  [The town was later renamed and is now known as Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela.]

Since before the 2007 vote on constitutional reform vote, narrowly lost by Chavez, the opposition have been using Bolivar's statement in the following way:

"There is nothing more dangerous than allowing one citizen to be in power for a long time. The people get used to obeying him. And he becomes used to ruling the people; that's where usurpation and tyranny originate. A fair distrust is the guarantee of republican freedom and our citizens must fear, rationally, that the same personality who have ruled them for long, will rule them perpetually."

In their written propaganda and in television interviews in Venezuela, the counter-revolutionaries routinely omit the first sentence and part of the second (i.e. "The continuity of authority in the same individual frequently brings end to democratic governments. Frequent elections are essential in popular systems, for") - thus manipulating the whole meaning of what Bolivar said. Their misuse of Bolivar's statement demonstrates their intent and purpose to deceive.
 
Now, in the first sentence, Bolivar says "The continuity of authority in the same individual frequently brings end to democratic governments."
 
The unwarranted implication drawn from this by reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries is that Hugo Chavez may bring an end to democracy in Venezuela now that this amendment passed. This implication abuses both Bolivar and Chavez. They are trying to fool people by hinting that the situation in Venezuela today resembles in some significant way, Bolivar’s situation in 1819. In reality conditions in 2009 and 1819 are diametrically opposed.

Does this "same individual", mentioned by Bolivar resemble President Chavez in any way? Has President Chavez used frequent elections or suppress elections and thereby “continue in authority”? Under President Chavez, the people have had more elections than any time in Venezuelan history. Now, incomprehensibly, the opposition complains about having too many elections despite the guarantees those elections give them!

Respecting elections and suppressing elections differ fundamentally in principle as far as democratic government is concerned.
 
In the second sentence, Bolivar fills in some gaps left in the first sentence when he states: "Frequent elections are essential in popular systems." So, here, he makes it clear that he is talking about the "same individual" who continues in power because of the absence of frequent elections.
 
When the amendment to end term limits passed on Feb. 15, did it signal an end to frequent elections in Venezuela? If it did, then the reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries are right and Feb. 2009 resembles Bolivar’s situation in 1819. On the other hand, if frequent elections continue, now that the amendment has passed, the reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries are wrong and they are simply trying to deceive. Respecting elections and suppressing elections are significantly different things and therefore the two situations -- 2009 and 1819 -- have little to do, one with the other. 

Observing the differences in these two historical settings shows that reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries today are using Bolivar's 1819 speech at Second Constitutional Congress at Angostura to brainwash, trick, and warp people into submitting to bourgeois rule.
 
How can we know that there will still be frequent elections, now that the amendment has passed?
 
Let's look at Article 230 and Article 72 of the Venezuelan Constitution. 

This is how Article 230 reads now:

"The presidential term is six years. The President of the Republic may be re-elected, immediately and once only, to an additional term."

This is how Article 230 will read if the amendment passes.

"The presidential term is six years. The President of the Republic may be re-elected."

So, the amendment chops off the last eight words from the current Article 230.
 
This being the case, there will be "frequent elections" at least every six years under the amended Article 230
 
Chavez is not going to "bring an end" to democracy.

According to the constitution, elections may take place even more frequently (but not less frequently) than every six years. This is possible because another provision of the constitution, Article 72, has remained untouched by the February 15 amendment:

"All magistrates and other offices filled by popular vote are subject to revocation. Once half of the term of office to which an official* has been elected has elapsed, a number of voters constituting at least 20% of the voters registered in the pertinent circumscription may extend a petition for the calling of a referendum to revoke such official's mandate."

The meaning of Article 72 is that Venezuela today has two (2) kinds of elections:

  1. The first allows the people to put somebody in office (Article 230, above) and

  2. second, another kind of election which allows the people to remove someone from office. Article 72 says the people can remove any elected official, including the president, from office at or after the middle of his or her term. With presidential terms of six years, Article 72 says that the people can remove President Chavez after his third year in any of his elected terms.

Therefore, there MUST be "frequent elections" every six years and there MAY be more "frequent elections" every three years even after the February 15 amendment has passed.

Is this enough "frequency" to satisfy Bolivar? If so, why isn't it enough to satisfy reactionaries and counter revolutionaries?
 
Venezuela was first country in the western hemisphere to vest in the people the power to recall the president in its rewriting of the constitution in 1999 under the Chavez government. It is still the only country on this side of the globe that confers this much power on its people. This fundamentally distinguishes the situation of Venezuela today from that of Venezuela in Bolivar’s time. So the Venezuelan people have an unusual check on the exercise of presidential power which is currently lacking in every other country on this side of the world and for most people in the rest of the world.

To sum up the initial part of our analysis, the reactionaries and counter revolutionaries imply a similarity in the situations in Venezuela in 1819 and 2009 that makes indefinite re-election undesirable. By quoting Bolivar, they suggest that there will be an absence of frequent elections if the amendment passes. But under Article 230 and 72 there will still be frequent elections and the reactionaries and counter revolutionaries, contrary to their comments, clearly know this to be true. Moreover, the people now have an added freedom enscribed in their constitution - that of re-electing a president for additional terms if they choose to do so.
 
This raises another troubling question about someone remaining in power for a long time, even if there are frequent elections.
 
Bolivar’s entire second sentence states:
"Frequent elections are essential in popular systems, for there is nothing more dangerous than allowing one citizen to be in power for a long time."
 
The word "allowing" is a bit disturbing to us because the people could "allow" a person to remain in power, either through re-elections or due to a lack of elections. But strictly speaking, where there are no elections, frequent or otherwise, the people don't really "allow" someone to be in power for a long time.
 
Before this amendment passed, the people of Venezuela had the right to remove a president from office but they didn’t have the right to keep him there. Since the amendment passed, they have the right to do both.

In his third and fourth sentences, Bolivar states:

"The people get used to obeying him. And he becomes used to ruling the people; that's where usurpation and tyranny originate”.

Here Bolivar argues that the people should not allow “one citizen to be in power for a long time.” But if the people are denied the choice to “allow or disallow”, hasn't the usurpation and tyranny already originated, regardless? Once again, this must be viewed in two different historical political contexts as Venezuela was fighting for its newly wrought independence and liberty.
 
Finally, Bolivar states: "A fair distrust is the guarantee of republican freedom and our citizens must fear, rationally, that the same personality who has ruled them for long, will rule them perpetually."
 
Here, Bolivar implies that there is a need to "distrust" politicians because they are either corrupted by power or they were already corrupt before they got power. In either case, the people should welcome brevity in the amount of time they have power.
 
With rare exceptions, nobody should doubt the truth and wisdom of Bolivar's observation about the proper length of a politician’s tenure. But there is a necessary inference that follows from Bolivar's observation: once the people have finally found that rare, good politician, they better keep him or her as long as they can because it is most unlikely that the people will find an acceptable replacement from the rotten majority of politicians whom the people justifiably distrust.
 
Again, the people want to right to both, allow or disallow a given politician to stay.
 
When the "people" let Bolivar, a gloriously good politician, get away from them, he and the people both suffered terribly at the hands of Bolivar's worthless replacements.
 
Clearly, when Bolivar mentions a "guarantee of republican freedom," he talking about conditions where there are frequent elections.
 
To sum up what we found in the second part of our analysis, in the great majority of cases, power corrupts politicians. One of the reflections of that power can be seen in their desire to remain corrupt and in power. But this lamentable circumstance commands and compels the people to keep a good politician if they are blessed with the most rare of good fortunes – finding one.

© Copyright 2009 by AxisofLogic.com

This material is available for republication as long as reprints include verbatim copy of the article its entirety, respecting its integrity. Reprints must cite the author and Axis of Logic as the original source including a "live link" to the article. Thank you!


READ HIS BIO AND MORE ARTICLES BY ARTHUR SHAW

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