WEST PALM BEACH, Fl — As the United States turned its attention away from fears of communists on its borders and focused instead on terrorism in the Middle East, Central America’s hard-won democratic institutions came under ferocious attacks by many of the same players the US dealt with in the 1970s and 1980s.
In both Nicaragua and Guatemala, major presidential candidates are constitutionally barred from running, and the challengers impinge at least on the spirit of democracy.
The population of Central America, plagued by political polarization, poverty, increasing drug violence and organized crime, as well as inefficient infrastructure and natural disasters, appears weary of the burden of building democracy, resigning itself to repeating its history of dictatorship, brutality, and Caudillos.
In both Nicaragua and Guatemala, powerful leaders trampled the constitution in order to run in the upcoming elections. Although the situation in each country is somewhat different, the message is the same: those who hold power have the ability to extend power, regardless of the existing legal structure created to end the cycle of totalitarian rule in the region.
If ignoring the constitution wasn’t enough reason for concern, the flagrant disregard for democratic institutions suggests that other sacred tenants of democracy are equally weak, opening the way for a full-fledged return to autocratic government.
In Nicaragua, former Sandinista dictator Daniel Ortega is running for a fourth Presidential term in the November elections, despite the fact that he is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection.
The Nicaraguan constitution blocks individuals from serving consecutive terms, and limits the total number of times a person can hold office to three.
Ortega initially held power from 1979 to 1985 under the Sandinista regime, was President from 1985 to 1990, and returned as a democratically elected president in 2006. Under the Nicaraguan constitution, he is ineligible for relection on two counts. However, the Sandinista-packed Supreme Court ruled that the ban was “unenforceable,’ opening the way for Mr. Ortega to run for President.
Archbishop Leopido Brenes decried Ortega’s reelection bid, noting that allowing him to run is a dangerous precedent, and an attack on the Nicaraguan constitution. He warns that ignoring the democratic institutions and the safeguards they put in place could open the way for a return to totalitarian dictatorships.
Mr. Ortega’s opposition is dominated by other ghosts of Nicaragua’s past, and examples of pressures on the still fragile democratic process in the country. The leading opposition party, the PLC (Partido Liberal Constitucionalista) is divided between two candidates, neither of whom will agree to cede to the other. One PLC candidate is Arnaldo Aleman, who was President from 1997 to 2002. Aleman was previously convicted of corruption and spent several years under house arrest. There are also strong suggestions that Aleman and Ortega signed a secret power sharing in the late 1980s. The campaign is peppered with personal attacks, name calling, and general mud slinging.
It is a sad state of affairs when Mr. Ortega may be the better candidate.
One of the major candidates in the Guatemalan election is using a different approach to circumvent the constitution, using technicalities to undermine democratic institutions in that country. Sandra Torres de Colom is the candidate of the ruling party; she is also the wife of current president, Alvaro Colom.
The Guatemalan constitution prohibits direct relatives of the current president to succeed him in office, so Ms. Torres and President Colom recently filed for divorce to allow Ms. Torres to run for office. To anyone outside Guatemala, the move is an obvious tactic to side-step the Constitution. To Guatemalans, it is politics as usual.
Polls show Ms. Torres currently is in second place, behind the loser in the last Guatemalan election, Otto Perez Molina. Mr. Perez is a retired army general, best-known for his brutal leadership role in the civil war. More than 200,000 Guatemalan’s were killed during the conflict, primarily anti-government and anti-military activists.
Perez not only was head of the horrific military intelligence branch, he was also implicated in the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, a human rights activist who was beaten to death after publishing a report on military victims of the civil war.
Perez is running on a strong anti-crime platform, promising a “heavy handed” response to the growing problem of crime and increased support for the military.
The implication for democracy, if either Ms. Torres or General Perez wins in Guatemala, is disconcerting. If Ms. Torres is allowed to run and wins, it is a clear signal that the constitution is a weak document, easily manipulated. If Perez wins, we are likely to see a return of the military in police activities, possible erosion of civilian control of the military, and a return of the political power of the military. In a country with a history of military brutality, dictatorships, and lack of accountability for military actions, the prospect is disturbing at best.
In both Guatemala and Nicaragua, the historical context weighs heavily over the elections. Rather than strengthening the democratic institutions each country fought for in the 1980s, the current elections threaten those institutions, and foreshadow a return to powerful strongmen and large military influence.
The population appears resigned to the current developments as a repetition of their historical cycle; those with power retain power, those on the outside are powerless. All the supposed democratic institutions don’t seem to change that reality.
Read more by Lisa at Life with Lisa at The Washington Times Communities.
Lisa has an undergraduate degree in International Relations from George Mason University and a graduate degree in Foreign Affairs from The University of Virginia. She spent 11 years as an analyst with the federal government. She is part owner of a research and analysis company, C2 Research, LLC, which specializes in complex research and analysis. Lisa is also a freelance writer, contributing to Donne Tempo Magazine.
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