Elections Highlight Central America's Power Problems
November 9, 2011
The November 6 elections in Guatemala and Nicaragua underscore the difficulty in bringing progress to some of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. In Guatemala, voters had to decide between two candidates who said fighting crime would be their priority, yet would be powerless to do much about it. In Nicaragua, a president was reelected for a second consecutive term because he has too much authority and got away with trampling the constitution. In both countries, power is in the hands of a minority.
Retired army general Otto Pérez Molina won Guatemala’s runoff contest against businessman Manuel Baldizón. Both favored hardline approaches to resolving epidemic gang violence and drug trafficking—the number one challenge. Unfortunately, such policies have been tried in the past with unhappy results. Not because they might not be effective in combination with other measures, but because Guatemala’s government doesn’t have the money to pay for them. As human rights monitors point out, corruption, arbitrary justice, and extrajudicial killings often result from harsh policies and insufficient funds.
Over the years, legislators have catered to elite interests and refused to reform the tax system or adequately build up law enforcement. When crime overwhelms, the default solution is to call in the army. Guatemala’s tax collection stands at 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) according to the Heritage Foundation’s 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, just one notch above Haiti’s at 10 percent and one of the lowest rates in the world. While private security guards—that reportedly outnumber police by four to one—protect elites, ordinary Guatemalans get their public safety on the cheap.
Revenue is not Daniel Ortega’s problem, even though Nicaragua is the hemisphere’s second-poorest country in terms of GDP per capita. Since returning to the presidency in 2006, he has reportedly used his position to accumulate riches—real estate, a hotel, and a television station—thanks to some $500 million in private aid provided by Venezuela’s Bolivarian Alliance for America. It isn’t the first time. When he left office in 1990, he allegedly took tens of millions of dollars from the Central Bank and enacted laws protecting property seizures in a process Nicaraguans call the piñata.
In 2008, President Ortega packed the electoral tribunal with supporters who controlled voting credentials. In municipal elections that year, the tribunal restricted monitoring activities, and his candidates won the majority of mayoral seats. The following year, his Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court declared the constitutional article banning successive presidential reelection illegal, clearing the way for a second term. In the background, some of Venezuela’s largess helped fund partisan social programs and subsidies, shoring up Ortega’s support base. Even with that pre-rigging, some election monitors complained they were denied access to polling stations on November 6.
In both cases, elections won’t affect the power equation. In Guatemala, the congress caters to a tiny minority. In Nicaragua, an autocratic president dispenses favors to loyalists. There is no easy way to adjust such imbalances. Average citizens representing majority interests must make an effort to become involved in politics, public service, and civil discourse to demand a say in what elected officials do in their name. That takes time and encouragement.
So when congratulations are sent, to Pérez Molina for winning a free and fair election and to Ortega for manipulating another one, the international community might temper accolades with a reminder to all elected officials that they are paid to serve all their constituents, not just a few, or themselves.
Stephen Johnson is a senior fellow and director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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