Central America’s Coming Crisis
Honduras is just the beginning.
If democracy hit Central America like a wave in the mid-1980s, it was one that left more than a few bubbles of authoritarianism behind. As recent turmoil confirms, the region's transitions from dictatorship to democracy were interrupted or left incomplete. Now, a coup in Honduras, electoral fraud in Nicaragua, and assassinations in Guatemala are just a few signs of trouble ahead.
If democracy hit Central America like a wave in the mid-1980s, it was one that left more than a few bubbles of authoritarianism behind. As recent turmoil confirms, the region’s transitions from dictatorship to democracy were interrupted or left incomplete. Now, a coup in Honduras, electoral fraud in Nicaragua, and assassinations in Guatemala are just a few signs of trouble ahead.
The region’s crisis is one of leadership — of a cadre of elite who promised democracy but have failed to provide it. Central Americans today are tired of the same-old political elites and parties, many of which are left over from three decades ago. Today, they can boast only neglected public bureaucracies and economies wracked by global shocks. Yet in spite of their failings and a groundswell of discontent, ruling parties across the region are refusing to go.
Nobody fits this description better than the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, whose expulsion followed his attempts to stay in power beyond what even the ruling elite could tolerate. Zelaya comes from the ranks of the Liberal Party, where he initially stood out as distinct from the governing elite. But he soon failed to prove himself any different. He has not delivered on key promises from his campaign: to control crime, protect civil society groups from conservative intimidation, and increase economic growth.
Poor performance certainly hurt Zelaya’s popularity. But where he really lost points were in his increasingly frequent attempts to consolidate power. The trouble intensified when he conspired with the electoral tribunal to remove Elvin Santos as the presidential candidate of his party in favor of Roberto Micheletti (who has now, ironically, taken Zelaya’s place as president after the coup). Zelaya bolstered his ambitions by leveraging economic gains from a preferential oil deal negotiated with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. He also drew closer to left-wing leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and courted local social movements. That backing gave him the bravado to order an informal referendum on whether to amend the Constitution — a move widely thought to be a plot to allow him to run for office again. Zelaya upset his fellow political elites, the parties that put him in power, the electoral tribunal, the Supreme Court, and the business elite by circumventing them all. Furious, Congress appointed an investigative commission three days before the national survey began, encouraging the Army to remove Zelaya.
Although there is plenty of blame to go around for Zelaya’s follies and the coup that followed, Honduras’s crisis is the product of a larger problem: a ruling elite that initiated the early democratic transition but was unwilling and unable to consolidate its completion. Consider the chain of events: A democratically elected leader circumvents democratic institutions so that he can face (democratic) elections again. In turn, Congress asks the Army to illegally depose him — with the widespread sanction of other legitimate political institutions. Now, the dilemma for democrats is: Should Honduras return power to a freely elected president who undermined democratic norms, or should the country respect his undemocratic removal widely supported by the legitimate political system?
The failure to address Central America’s democratic failings created not only this coup, but a region of polarized societies unable or unwilling to confront poverty and crime or promote economic development. The situation is more urgent than ever as daunting outside forces contribute to weaken fragile states. Transnational organized crime in Honduras, for example, has pushed the murder rate over the past three years to more than 15 homicides a day.
Meeting such challenges will involve facing down and refreshing the region’s entrenched power structures. There are countless more "Zelayas" across Central America who will have to come to terms with their inability to achieve true democracy — and the backlash that may be headed their way. Nicaragua’s President Ortega, for example, belongs to a generation of political leaders comfortable with an old-fashioned authoritarian and populist model, even as the world becomes increasingly intolerant of such autocrats. Costa Rica’s Óscar Arias, an old cadre of the social democratic National Liberation Party, represents similar ideals. Rather than passing the torch to a new generation, he recently anointed a party member, Laura Chinchilla, as his preferred successor.
Central America’s democratic time has come — a time to replace the old governing elites and parties with new approaches to the realities of international pressures and stalled economic development. Should the transitions fail this time, Honduras will not be the last trouble spot.
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