Home News In Central America, democracy is rapidly crumbling

In Central America, democracy is rapidly crumbling

by admin

09 September 2021 15:35

Enrique, a lawyer (the name is fictional), worked for the El Salvador authorities for more than a decade, moving from consulting to a local municipality to a job in the transport ministry. Despite his concerns about political corruption, he has worked with the two parties that have dominated the country since the civil war ended in 1992. But shortly after Nayib Bukele, the president, came to power in 2019, Enrique returned to advocacy. private. “This government is worse: it attacks anyone who does not adhere to its position and the abuses of power are uncontrolled,” he says. “There is no rule of law”.

Bukele, a forty-year-old populist, is threatening the fragile democracy built in El Salvador over thirty years of peace. Shortly after he came to power, he entered parliament accompanied by armed soldiers, to force deputies to approve a loan needed to buy equipment for the police and the army. In May, the Salvadoran parliament, now controlled by Bukele’s party, fired the attorney general and all five judges of the constitutional chamber of the supreme court, replacing them with others loyal to him. In June, he dismantled Cicies, an anti-corruption commission. He expelled a reporter from El Faro, an independent news site, from the country and proposed sweeping changes to the constitution, including one that would extend the president’s term by one year.

Systems fail
El Salvador is a prime example of democratic regression. In last year’s democracy index compiled by the Economist intelligence unit, a sister company of the Economist, it was demoted from “imperfect democracy” to a “hybrid regime”, ie semi-authoritarian. Neighboring countries are also in trouble. While Latin America became more democratic globally in the 1980s and has held up quite well in recent years (with notable exceptions, such as Venezuela), Central America has not done the same. In four of its seven countries – El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, known as the “northern triangle”, and Nicaragua – systems are failing. It is an important fact for those who live there, but it also affects the United States.

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The pandemic has provided a pretext to curtail civil liberties in the name of public health

Each Central American country is different from the others and has its own specific problems. But they all have things in common. They have long been dominated by small but powerful political and economic elites who do not necessarily favor democracy. Institutions are young, weak or politically connoted. Economies tend to work best for those at the top. And corruption is common.

Poor governance has led to insecurity, economic stagnation and poor public services. Institutions that should support the rule of law, such as courts and non-party bodies, have been co-opted by politics or dismantled, allowing corruption to increase. And the pandemic has added to these problems. The region “plummeted” in 2020, says Dan Restrepo, a former adviser to Barack Obama who is now at the Center for American Progress, a Washington study center. The pandemic has provided a pretext to curtail civil liberties in the name of public health.

Effects on the United States
In Guatemala, things went from bad to worse in 2019 when Cicig, the international commission against impunity, an independent body, was dissolved. Cicig had investigated the government’s bad practices and abuses of power committed by the army, which ruled the country until 1996. Over the past two years, the military, corrupt officials and criminals have grown more powerful, says Carmen Rosa de León. , who heads the Institute for Sustainable Development, a Guatemalan study center. US hopes that the country could be its main ally in the northern triangle are evaporating as the government of President Alejandro Giammattei attacks the judicial system. On 23 July Juan Franciso Sandoval, the anti-corruption prosecutor, was fired for allegedly impartiality. Sandoval, who fled the country, said he was fired because he was investigating high-level officials. Drug money has also begun to penetrate institutions. De León’s organization found links between 38 MPs and drug traffickers.

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In Honduras, too, the main concern is state crime. The drug barons seem to have infiltrated every level of politics. Juan Orlando Hernández, the president, was involved in at least three trials against drug traffickers, including one last May, in which his brother was sentenced to life in prison. The November elections are unlikely to change that. Yani Rosenthal, a leading presidential candidate, served three years in a prison in the United States for money laundering.

Joe Biden made Central America a foreign policy priority

In Nicaragua the authoritarian president Daniel Ortega acts with increasing impunity. In the past four months, seven presidential candidates have been arrested, as well as numerous intellectuals and former ministers. On August 6, the Nicaraguan Electoral Council invalidated the candidacy of the main opposition party, Citizens for Freedom. From December onwards, NGOs will have to register as “foreign agents”. The police also raided the offices of Prensa, the oldest newspaper in the country. There is “no trace of democracy,” says a Nicaraguan businessman.

It takes a lot of courage
Few among the population of these countries think they can change things through elections or protests. Many think their only option is to leave. In July, US border authorities arrested 213,000 undocumented migrants at the southern border, the most in a month since 2000. About 44 percent were from countries in the northern triangle. But these figures do not give an idea of ​​the problem. Far more people on the run spend time in Mexico before attempting to move further north, while many Nicaraguans go south to Costa Rica.

President Joe Biden has made Central America, especially the Northern Triangle, a foreign policy priority (officials fear they can do little for Nicaragua). Instead of simply tightening the border, the administration wants to address democratic regression and its effects.

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This is easier said than done. The United States has some diplomatic tools at its disposal, such as a visa ban for the ruling elites. Last month, the State Department released a list of more than fifty current or former officials accused of corruption or undermining democracy in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. They will not be able to travel to the United States and could face further sanctions (similarly a visa ban has been issued for Nicaraguans linked to the regime). The Justice Department says it will launch a task force to investigate corruption and human trafficking in the region.

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Strengthening good governance, security and prosperity from afar in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras will be much more difficult. Some violence reduction programs may have had some success in recent decades. But even the evaluations of the United States agency for international development (USAID) admit that the attempts to help, in the past, have had little effect.

US officials say they have learned from mistakes. Their main goal today is to improve prosperity by working with the private sector in each country. For example, they are trying to persuade local businesses to provide more jobs. They also want them to lobby for policy changes, such as introducing well-regulated public-private sector agreements into infrastructure projects. Today, these kinds of projects are run entirely by the state and lend themselves a lot to corruption.

Restrepo says US efforts need to be more “disruptive”. This could be done by creating a parallel market for captive sectors, such as sugar. Producers could thus sell the goods directly to the United States, without having to go through local cartels. This job, he explains, “takes a lot of courage.” Biden and his team may not have enough.

(Translation by Federico Ferrone)

This article appeared in the British weekly The Economist.

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