Central American Governments Face Tough Challenges

by Benedicte Bull*

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CLALS last week convened a panel in San Salvador to discuss the findings of its multi-year project on “Elites, States and Reconfigurations of Power in Central America.”  Attended by over 120 people, the event analyzed how the evolving role of elites will affect the new administrations in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Honduras.  The following day featured a daylong event to launch the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigación sobre el Desarrollo e Inclusión Social (INCIDE), a new think tank that aims to foster fresh thinking about the difficult challenges facing the region.  Here are some key conclusions:

The leftist FMLN in El Salvador and the centrist Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) in Costa Rica have won crucial elections, but their ideological labels don’t fully capture how they will relate to three decisive actors: legal capital (the private sector), illicit capital (organized crime) and the United States.  The elections of Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Luis Guillermo Solís do not signal a strong turn to the left in Central America, but rather show that the population in both countries increasingly questions the political elites and institutions.  Solís capitalized on the corrupt image of Costa Rica’s two traditional parties, and what tipped the elections in El Salvador were all those who feared the return of a corrupt and elitist right, whose dirty laundry was made public in feuding between ARENA and the breakaway party GANA.

The new governments’ ability to restore confidence will depend firstly on how they relate to business and private capital.  All the countries of Central America are included in the free trade agreement with the United States (CAFTA-DR) and have been generally pursuing market-oriented development strategies since the late 1980s, but economic elites are still dependent on the state for survival.  Many build their business primarily on contracts with the state; all depend on the state involvement in infrastructure and services; but few are willing to pay sufficient taxes to allow their governments to face important challenges.  Honduras, which has accommodated elites the most, may establish a free zone fully exempt not only from taxes but all government regulations.  Nicaragua’s approach, under Daniel Ortega, is to build an alliance between the presidency and business, facilitated by Venezuelan assistance and growing integration into ALBA trade networks.

Institutional weaknesses throughout the region make it difficult to bring organized criminal groups under control.  In Guatemala, where congressmen frequently jump between political parties, organized crime easily buys political control and influence.  Weak parties, weakened ideologies, and leaders’ unwillingness and inability to build a state capable of implementing policies for the common good also allow organized crime a strong grip over politics.  In both Honduras and Guatemala, criminalization of politics has blurred distinctions between legal and illegal elites.

Central America’s relations with the United States also tend to hold it back.  While South America has come a long way towards independence from the United States, many Central Americans believe the old hegemon does not intend to let go of their region.  U.S. policy has in many ways become more sophisticated, but former members of governments speak freely of various methods the U.S. uses – often with the support of Washington lobbyists representing Central American rightwing elites – to restrict Central America’s room for maneuver.  This overshadows debate in Central America over China’s influence and Brazil’s growing leadership.

Taken together, these factors contribute to the conclusion that, even with winds blowing slightly to the left in Central America, the new presidents will have little space to make new policies.  For former guerrilla Sánchez Cerén and former history professor Solís, their experience and wisdom may be their best assets to move forward their agendas.

*Dr. Bull is Associate Professor at the Center for Development and the Environment (SUM) at the University of Oslo.

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