According to Wikipedia, the office of President for Life refers to “a title assumed by some dictators to remove their term limit, in the hope that their authority, legitimacy, and term will never be disputed.” It is an aspirational statement for not every strongman proves able to keep his grip on office until the moment of his passing.
Most leaders who have proclaimed themselves President for Life have not in fact gone on to successfully serve a life term. Most have been deposed long before their death. However, some, such as Rafael Carrera, François Duvalier, Saparmurat Niyazov, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia and Josip Broz Tito have managed to rule until their (natural) deaths.
Those who did manage to cling to office appeared willing to be as brutal as necessary to keep their hold on power. Matthew White, author of The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, notes that many of history’s worst monsters died peacefully in their beds. “About 60 percent of the individual oppressors and warmongers who were most responsible for each of these multicides lived happily ever after,” White wrote. The moral of the story is apparently that if you’re going to be a Bad Guy you can’t be half-assed about it.
Ronald Bailey, writing in Reason, cites “a 2009 study in the American Journal of Political Science by the University of Illinois political scientist Milan Svolik” which surveyed how 303 strongmen left office. Most left the the way they came: at the point of a gun.
Of the 303 despots for whom Svolik could unambiguously ascertain how they lost political power, 32 were removed by a popular uprising. Another 30 left under public pressure to democratize. Twenty were taken out by assassins, and only 16 were removed by foreign intervention. The remaining 205 were ousted by coups d’etat.
But interestingly the longer a President For Life stayed in power the more likely he was to die in his bed. Bailey notes “the longer a dictator rules, the more secure his power. Among tyrants who ruled for less than 10 years, 162 were removed by coups while only 31 died of natural causes while in power. By contrast, among despots who ruled for 10 years or more, only 41 were removed by coup while 45 died of natural causes while in power.”
Once a tyrant gets a good grip on power — once he passes the magic 10 year mark — he becomes very difficult to dislodge. No rivals of stature can grow in his mighty shadow. The low information public become unable to imagine any leader besides him. National stability becomes reduced to one metric: his continued personal survival, a narrative often enhanced by a ‘cult of personality’. Bailey observes that “personalist dictators … who destroy pre-existing social and political institutions … eliminate rival centers of power where would-be opponents might organize and plot”.
The Hollywood narrative is that dictators are done in by people at the barricades. In reality it’s the Grim Reaper in the form of natural causes that proves unfailingly effective in circumscribing tyranny. The role of natural death in ending long-lived dictatorships becomes larger the longer they rule.
If unlimited life extension were available to a President For Life he might conceivably rule forever. This is no longer a complete impossibility. A Russian scientist recently claimed that advances in medical technology might make human immortality attainable by 2045.
If Dmitry Itskov’s 2045 initiative plays out as planned, humans will have the option of living forever with the help of machines in only 33 years…. Now, Itskov is asking the world’s richest people for help in financing the project …
“DARPA is already working on it via a program called “Avatar” (which, incidentally, is also the name of Itskov’s project) through which the Pentagon hopes to create a brain-machine interface that will allow soldiers to control bipedal human surrogate machines remotely with their minds,” writes PopSci’s Clay Dillow.
However that may be, 2045 will probably come too late for the physical Hugo Chavez, who is dying in Cuba. However actual death may prove no obstacle as the virtual Hugo is set to rule Venezuela by Twitter from under his life support apparatus in Havana. The BBC reports Venezuelan officials claim he will be inaugurated whenever he wakes up.
Speaking on Sunday, Attorney General Cilia Flores said that the key date was 7 October when President Chavez was elected for the fourth time.
“He already has the presidential sash and the symbols of power,” Ms Flores told the Telesur network, adding that this placed a different interpretation on Article 231 of the constitution that says a president-elect should take the oath on 10 January.
Ms Flores’ comments echoed those of her husband, Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who has said that the inauguration is a mere “formality” and that Mr Chavez can be sworn in by the Supreme Court at a future date.
And so Chavez can rule for so long as he lives. And he lives for as long as Castro says he does. Since no one is allowed to examine Chavez without the permission of the Cuban officials no one can gainsay the continued existence of the virtual Hugo Chavez except Fidel Castro.
The most ironic fate for a President-for-Life, which Chavez faces now is to exist in some formaldehyde jar, neither alive nor dead, except in a political sense. A piece of organic tissue valued not for himself or his human qualities, no longer a son or a husband, but merely a prop to provide others with the things he most coveted: a power that will now be wielded, not by his nerveless hands, but by others.
A letter which circulated on the Internet, purported to be from Chavez’s ex-wife to her dying husband, but since ascribed to a newspaper columnist — who knows? — poignantly expressed this life-in-death. I have translated it loosely below.
Tell me now whether it was worth it. The gala balls, the world travel, the marvelous palaces into which you were received, the parades in your honor, the limousines, the honorary degrees, the glittering hotels, the fabulous state dinners — tell me it was worth it, now that all that glitter and pomp has been replaced by the beeps and chimes of your electronic monitors and life support systems.
Can you still hear the cheering crowds? Or is just your imagination or the hallucinations of morphine. The harsh reality is that you are dying in a strange land; among strangers; in an exile of your own making, your final moments attended by swindlers and con artists, by a paid crowd who are even now fighting over your office, while your country trembles on the brink of civil war. Is that what you wanted? Was that your mission in life? You claimed to love the poor. Yet there are more poor people today than when you assumed office. You boasted of your desire for equality and justice. And yet you have delivered over your entire country to a foreign power whose ouster will cost untold lives.
It may now be dawning on you that you’ve screwed up. That you lived out a fantasy of your own creation; imagining yourself a revolutionary and therefore immortal. You saw yourself walking midst your heroes, the phantoms you worshiped in life. Bolivar, Che, Fidel, Marx — of whom you understood nothing yet commended to others in your ignorance. A path that finally took you to the byways of sorcery and voodoo; which saw you conjuring amid tombstones, paying court to demons and evil spirits who now are ironically in attendance at your bedside. Do you feel their presence? They’ve come to collect. To take the only thing of value you have left and which you rashly pawned to the forces of evil and darkness: your immortal soul.
Well, I bid you goodbye. But I want you to know that you are leaving life in history’s eyes a traitor and coward, a person who passed up every chance of repentance and who continued to rob posterity of that which yourself gave up: liberty, the only thing that makes us human. As for your precious socialism, let me tell you where it works: in Heaven, where it is unneeded and in Hell where it has never left office.
If it was really written by his wife, my guess is that they parted company on bad terms. But maybe she still loves him in some sense; loves him at least more than Fidel, who will keep the Venezuelan Puppet-For-Life “alive” as long as he can.