The ex-presidents club of Latin America

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 30, 2015


One of the most important lessons from the US democracy to the less consolidated democracies in Latin America is the role played by former presidents. Past presidents in the US refrain from actively participating in political debates. That makes it easier for them to acquire the role of wise old men who look after the greater interests of the nation. In Latin America, with a few exceptions, past presidents are always potential future presidential candidates and they often take on a partisan role that puts them in the middle of the daily political debates. Latin American democracies will be stronger when former presidents are banned from getting involved in politics.


Set in stone

Since George Washington set the precedent as the first president of the US, subsequent presidents retired after their second term. The tradition ended when Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a third consecutive term in 1940. Roosevelt won — and then won a fourth term in 1944, shortly before his death. As a result of Roosevelt’s decision to abandon the tradition, the US Congress passed the 22nd amendment to limit presidents to 2 terms in office. The amendment came into effect in 1951. Since then, presidents Eisenhower (1953-1961), Reagan (1981-1989), Clinton (1993-2001) and Bush (2001-2009) were term-limited. President Obama will join them when his second term expires in January of 2017. Because George Washington set the precedent and Congress engraved it into the constitution, the US is used to seeing presidents move into retirement after 8 years in the White House. Though they are not banned from running for other offices, former presidents normally choose to dedicate themselves to promoting their legacies.


The fact that former first lady Hillary Clinton is now running for president has forced former president Bill Clinton to get back into daily politics. Though his experience and fundraising prowess come in handy for his wife’s campaign, there are also political costs involved in reopening old political wounds and leading media outlets to investigate some of the scandals that remain controversial two decades after Bill Clinton first occupied the White House.


Like blood from a rock

In Latin America, former presidents never fully retire. In most countries, they are allowed to seek re-election either immediately or after they sit out for one or two terms (as in Chile and Panama, respectively). Though most countries establish some kind of term limits — as in Colombia, Argentina or Brazil, when they can only govern for two consecutive terms — other countries have eliminated previously existing term limits (like Venezuela, Ecuador and, if everything goes as expected, Bolivia). In Colombia, the trend might be reversed, as that country seems likely to limit presidents to one 4-year term. In all countries, regardless of their term limit structure, former presidents are relevant political actors.


In Brazil, former presidents Cardoso and Lula are widely seen as the leading figures in their respective political parties. Though they have both signaled that they will no longer seek the presidency, the 84 year-old Cardoso and the 69 year-old Lula continue to be politically influential.

In Colombia, former president Álvaro Uribe (the first to govern for two consecutive four year terms) is now a senator and is generally regarded as the most prominent leader in the opposition.

In Argentina, since her late husband Néstor Kirchner first became president in 2003, current President Cristina Kirchner has been a leading and controversial figure in national politics. She is expected to remain active after her second term expires in late 2015.


In Chile, President Michelle Bachelet is in her second term. She ended her first term in 2010 with 80 percent approval and immediately became the front runner for the 2013 election. Her successor, Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) became president by defeating former president Eduardo Frei (1994-2000) and is now leading in polls for the 2017 election. He might end up running against former President Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), who will be 79 years old in 2017. In Peru, former President Alan García (1985-90, 2006-2011) is likely to run again in 2016.


Even in countries where they are permanently banned from seeking re-election, like Mexico, former President Felipe Calderón’s wife, Margarita Zavala, has announced her intention to seek the presidency in 2018.


New blood

The fact that former presidents remain active makes it difficult for countries to move beyond old struggles and debates. Younger generations are growing old before they can get a shot at running the country. Because the political elite resists renewal, new ideas, practices and technologies that are rapidly embraced by the rest of society find it difficult to make their way into the political area.


A few years ago, a Cuban dissident told me that, if all the other arguments to bring about regime change in Cuba were unconvincing, the claim that each generation should be allowed to make their own mistakes should be sufficient to get the old guard to retire. In the rest of Latin America, as former presidents fail to embrace the US American tradition to retire after two terms, new generations are forced to enjoy the pros and cons of having their leaders grow increasingly older.