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Notes on the Revolution / Column #31


Notes on the Revolution

Column #31

November 13, 2019

Representative democracy, popular democracy and term limits

By Charles McKelvey


One of the ideological challenges that the Movement toward Socialism in Bolivia confronted during the last few years was the issue of term limits.  During the November 11 broadcast of the Cuban evening news television program La Mesa Redonda, which was dedicated to the coup d’état in Bolivia, Jorge Legañoa, Vice-President of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC), observed that the opposition to Evo Morales reached a new stage when the Bolivian constitutional assembly ruled that he could stand for a third term under the constitution, in spite of the fact that a popular referendum had narrowly defeated an amendment that would have clearly established the possibility of a third term.  

Looking at the figures for Evo’s electoral victories, we see that, even though Evo won the 2019 presidential elections with a plurality of 47% plus a ten percent margin, this was less than the 61% first-round victory in 2014, when he was seeking a second term under the 2009 Constitution.  There are various factors that explain this softening of voter support for Evo’s third term.  Nonetheless, it is reasonable for us to think that one of the factors was the widely held belief that the placing of term limits on the highest office is democratic, because it undercuts the possibility of abuse of authority by a person who holds power for a long period of time.  When the people adhere to this belief, in any revolution in power, a revolutionary leader seeking a third term of office is vulnerable to the accusation of having authoritarian tendencies or aspirations.

Many conceptions of democracy today have been formulated on the basis of the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century, amended by the expanding political participation of popular movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and to some extent influenced by the emergence of totalitarianism in the twentieth century.  However, during the last 100 years, there have emerged popular revolutions that have endeavored to construct in practice societies that move beyond the structures of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, and neocolonialism.  We must develop an understanding of democracy that emergences from these revolutionary experiences and that constitute appropriate guidelines for the current stage of popular revolutionary struggle.  

In the particular case of Cuba, the revolution in power during the last sixty years has developed an understanding and practice of democracy that constitute a genuine, politically viable alternative to the concepts and practices of representative democracy that are the legacy of the bourgeois revolutions, an alternative that could be called popular democracy.  In the forging of structures of popular democracy, the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution was constantly present for nearly six decades, forming the vanguard political party and educating the people with respect to reasons for these structures of popular democracy, so that the people came to understand them and to perceive them as superior to the structures of representative democracy, because of their tendency to promote stability and consensus and to ensure that the decision-making process is in the hands of the delegates and deputies of the people.

The historic leader of the Cuban Revolution was a person of exceptional capacities.  When I first arrived in Cuba more than twenty-five years ago and began listening to and studying his discourses, I was truly astonished at his capacities for analysis and his mastery of the art of politics.  I had not anticipated this, because I had not previously been aware that any person could possibly possess such capacities.  In my “Notes on the Revolution” of November 6, I tried to express the many pivotal moments from 1953 to the beginning of the twenty-first century, in which Fidel demonstrated an exceptional capacity to understand and lead.  His presence was not only important, but necessary, for the survival of the Cuban Revolution, enabling it to persist and move forward in the development of its socialist project, constantly evolving as experiences accumulated in the context of a changing national and international realities.  In six decades, Cuba has demonstrated the workability and viability of a leadership structure characterized by an exceptional leader with the support of a vanguard in formation

Is not this a general phenomenon in revolutionary processes?  Is it not the case that charismatic leaders, with insightful understanding and political intelligence, lead revolutions to the taking of power and to decisive steps of social transformations in defense of the people and the nation?  Does not the concept of term limits, formulated in a social and political context far removed from revolutionary processes, contradict the necessary leadership structure of popular revolutions?  Should we not, in the context of the popular revolutions of our time, seek to educate the people, demonstrating with numerous examples that political structures without term limits can be the correct road, depending on political and ideological conditions?

Each revolutionary nation has its own road.  In the cases of Cuba and Vietnam, the authority of charismatic leaders was over the course of decades institutionalized, such that the vanguard political party gradually has attained the trust and confidence of the people, and they now collectively lead the people.  In the case of China, three charismatic leaders have emerged, with the second and third leaders adjusting the direction of the nation, rectifying the errors of the previous leader.  The historically significant cases of China, Vietnam, and Cuba indicate that long-term leadership by exceptional persons is a necessary dimension of revolutionary transformation.

In the present stage in the development of revolutionary consciousness, many among the people identify with a leader whom they trust, but their understanding of revolutionary concepts is still in formation.  For many, the revolution indeed involves adherence to principles, but more than that, it also involves loyalty to a leader who has earned the trust of the people.  

In Venezuela, Chávez was unable to obtain popular support for a third term of office under the new Constitution.  When he was dying of cancer, he had the insight to discern that Nicolás Maduro possessed the necessary qualities for leadership of the Bolivarian Revolution, so he asked the party to name Maduro as leader, should be not be able to continue.  As a result, the revolution in Venezuela has made the transition to a founding leader to a successor.

In the process of revolutionary and reformist change unfolding in Latin America since the beginning of the twenty-first century, we have clear evidence of the difficulties encountered with respect to term limits.  When Rafael Correa stepped down in Ecuador, because of term limits, Lenin Moreno assumed direction without announcing his counterrevolutionary intentions.  When Cristina Fernández had to step down in Argentina because of term limits, Macri won the presidential elections by hiding his intentions of reversing the reforms of the Kirhcners.  But the process of change could be reinitiated in Argentina, with Alberto Fernández winning the elections with Cristina as his running mate.

The importance of identification with a trusted leader was illustrated in the 2018 elections in Brazil.  For many, their first choice was Lula, but when he could not be a candidate because of an unjust, politically motivated imprisonment, the second choice of many was Bolsonaro, and not the candidate of the Workers’ Party.  A number of years ago, when Lula was President, and there were some questions about the reformist rather than revolutionary direction of the government, Fidel called for support of Lula not by an explanation that the process of change in Brazil under current conditions required reformist rather than revolutionary measures, but by saying that we should trust Lula.  In the present stage of the evolution of human consciousness, personal identification and loyalty are important dimensions of political processes.

Those of us who think of ourselves as intellectuals whose work is committed to revolutionary transformations in defense of the peoples must develop effective ways to explain to our peoples an alternative revolutionary concept of popular democracy, that includes an explanation of charismatic leadership as necessary for the unification and the education of the people, and that the institutionalization of charismatic authority in a vanguard political party is a process that can take decades.

To be sure, the concept of charismatic leadership without term limits could be abused by false leaders interested more in power.  But we must search for other checks on this possibility, not the imposition of term limits, which in many cases contradicts the needs of the revolutionary process of transformation in a particular nation.

These reflections on democracy, popular democracy, and term limits, and their ideological consequences for the revolution in Bolivia, should not obscure the fact that Evo won the October 20 elections, and he should have begun his third term under the 2009 Constitution in January.  The world should know that Evo Morales, the most important indigenous leader of our time, was removed from power by a violent, fascist coup d’état supported by the government of the United States.

This is Charles McKelvey, reflecting on the unfolding global popular socialist revolution forged by our peoples in defense of humanity.

Edited by Ed Newman
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