03/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

All Hail the World's Latest Presidente for Life!

Those of us on the liberal-progressive side of the spectrum can be thankful for the term limits that brought the malfeasance of the Reagan and especially the Baby Bush eras to a merciful and inevitable end. Both were popular -- even occasionally rising to immensely popular -- and Reagan left with approval ratings good enough for a shot at a third term. Yet it would seem that some of us seem to feel that when the shoe is on the other foot, term limits magically become undemocratic.

As Venezuelan journalist Francisco Toro has ably pointed out here and Marc Cooper reaffirmed in his post-referendum analysis earlier today, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has long coveted the prize that aims to put him in the company of busily "election"-holding paragons such as Robert Mugabe, Alexander Lukashenko, Kim Jong-Il, Daniel Ortega, Hosni Mubarak, the late Turkmenbashi -- and of course let us not forget the magnificent flying Castro brothers. Now Chavez has finally wheedled the aló presidente he so wanted from his subjects, it'll be very hard for them to say adiós, short of a military coup.

Setting aside whether Chavez has been good or bad for Venezuela (in any case, the venality of previous governments made him or someone like him all but inevitable), allow me to haul out that priceless quote of General De Gaulle's one more time: "The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men." Even if you think the so-called Bolivarian revolution has been a necessary corrective tonic for the country, if it's such a good thing, why must it be yoked to a 21st-century version of the classic Latin American caudillo? Surely the chavista movement can come up with at least one other charismatic figure capable of advancing that ball down the field.

Ah, say some progressives both in and out of Venezuela, but the fact is that for better or worse Chavez is indispensable at the moment -- the only glue strong enough to keep the revolution together. Typical was Australia's Green Left which has written that abolition of term limits was crucial in order to "deepen the revolutionary process in Venezuela and Latin America, especially in the context of the global economic crisis," and while it admitted that "there is the need to develop a broad-based collective leadership," Chavez is needed for the foreseeable future because "this requires time to develop."

And thus do some of the same folks who were no doubt appalled at the recent prospect of a third term for their bete noire next door, Colombia's president Alvaro Uribe, suddenly check their judgment at the door of Venezuela's Consejo Nacional Electoral, conveniently ignoring the fact that no matter how beneficial the politics may or may not be, unlimited and open-ended power is never a good idea, far outweighing in the long run any good it might accomplish.

Developments in our back yard such as this and Nicaragua's fraud-tainted municipal elections in November serve to further underscore why it would be dangerous for the Obama-Biden administration to let itself fall into the pattern set by the Bushies, by and large neglecting serious attention to most of our hemispheric neighbors until a crisis smacks us in the face. Monroe Doctrine or not, the U.S. neglects this back yard at its peril, because even beyond foreign-policy considerations, trouble south of the border has the potential to spill over directly into our own country -- as Iran-Contra's abuse of the Constitution proved in the 80s, NAFTA's impact proved in the 90s, and the controversy over immigration continues to prove today (and one shudders to think what would happen should narco-violence get truly out of hand right next door in Mexico).

In fact, as the spreading economic crisis translates into spreading unrest in countries with the relatively shallow and/or wobbly democratic traditions of Latin America, the old witches brew of instability, demagoguery, dictatorship, and more widespread terrorism -- narco and otherwise -- could well be due for a comeback. Do we really need that, on top of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea, and global economic meltdown?