Trans-Pacific Partnership: A Framework for U.S.-Latin America Relations?

By Eric Hershberg
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President Obama’s desire to move forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) appears likely to founder amidst Congressional resistance to granting him “fast-track” authority, but it does signal a noteworthy initiative by an administration eager to grow trade relations with some Latin American countries.  Originally formed by Chile, New Zealand, Brunei and Singapore in 2006, TPP is currently negotiating the accession of five new members, including the United States and Peru.  Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama, Canada, and Japan are also considering joining.  U.S. Undersecretary for International Trade Francisco Sanchez said last year that agreement on a framework for the United States to join TPP represents “a landmark accomplishment because it contains all of the elements of a modern trade accord.”  It eliminates all tariff and non-tariff trade barriers; takes a regional approach to promote development of production and supply chains; and eases regulatory red tape.  The White House’s senior official responsible for Latin America has also emphasized the importance of the Partnership.

The Administration for the most part has tried to sell the pact as a domestic economic issue – the argument being that more trade and harmonized regulations translate into more jobs – or as integral to a strategic focus on strengthening economic ties to the dynamic economies of Asia, rather than as a policy that has the potential to redefine economic relations with Latin America.  But lobbying on Capitol Hill has so far been ineffective, and Obama’s own Democratic Party has denied him the “fast-track authority” needed for an effective negotiation.  The Administration’s diplomatic strategy has not progressed smoothly either.  During Obama’s recent four-nation swing through Asia, he and Japanese Prime Minister Abe failed to sign an agreement widely seen as crucial for moving ahead with TPP.  Negotiators from all 12 TPP countries met in Vietnam last week, and – despite claims of progress – press reports generally suggest a gloomy prognosis for progress soon.

President Obama has made much of his “pivot” to Asia, and the push for TPP situates Latin America relations in Washington’s wider foreign policy agenda.  The emphasis on the TPP signals that liberalizing trade remains the core principle guiding U.S. thinking about economic relations in the hemisphere, in effect continuing a paradigm that has reigned for decades and that is embodied by proposals such as the now-abandoned Free Trade Area of the Americas.  Unable to secure broad South American buy-in for that U.S.-minted vision for economic cooperation, the administration seems to have settled on trying to work with a “coalition of the willing” comprised of Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.  For governments elsewhere in the region, however, the not-so-particularly-new approach has elicited scant enthusiasm.  One could imagine ambitious proposals from Washington for hemispheric cooperation around energy, climate, infrastructure, technological innovation or even, eventually, labor market integration. But that would require visionary leadership, a commodity that is in strikingly short supply nowadays in the U.S. capital.  Rather than leading the articulation of a novel, shared agenda for a 21st century economic transformation of the Americas, Washington has chosen for now to repackage the last century’s prioritization of trade.

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.

Will Costa Rica Seize the Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong

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Costa Rican voters have given President-elect Luis Guillermo Solís a mandate for change, but they have also given him a Legislature and culture of political inertia that will make revitalizing the country’s democracy very difficult.  The withdrawal of opponent Johnny Araya from the presidential runoff on Sunday threatened to trigger such low voter turnout that Solís feared his legitimacy would be questioned from the start, but he received 78 percent (1.3 million) of the total votes – more than any other recent presidential victor.  Although he was deeply involved in the National Liberation Party (PLN) until nine years ago, he established himself and the Citizen Action Party (PAC) as viable alternatives to the PLN and Costa Rica’s other discredited traditional party, the PUSC.  His public persona – as a university history professor, former diplomat, a non-corrupt political neophyte, and an unglamorous campaigner – has engendered sympathy even if, as the head of a party with no record, people don’t really know what they’re getting in terms of policy.  Various business groups have signaled they can work with him and presented their wish lists – all touching on energy availability and prices – but that agenda also remains vague.

The composition of the Legislature, elected in February, poses a formidable obstacle to any agenda that Solís develops.  (Click here to see AULABLOG’s first read on this.)  His PAC won two more seats in Parliament – up to 13 out of a total of 57 – but the PLN won 18, the Broad Front (FA) won nine, and the PUSC won eight.  Outgoing President Chinchilla, of the PLN, had a broader base – 24 seats – but obstructionism from across the political spectrum made Executive-Legislative relations rough throughout her term.  The country’s premier economic newspaper, El Financiero, last week gave a generally positive review of President Chinchilla’s performance in ten crucial economic policies – poverty, unemployment, exports, fiscal deficit, and more – and even if that assessment is too generous, the Costa Rican political machines have treated her like an unmitigated failure.  With both traditional parties out of the Executive, maneuvering in the parliament is likely to intensify and be more damaging.

Statements by Costa Rican academics and opinion makers since the lackluster, non-substantive campaigning in the recent elections, suggest a concern that the country is in a funk over the quality of its democracy and democratic institutions.  The political elites are held in low regard for putting their own (often pecuniary) interests before all others.  When Solís takes office on May 8, Costa Ricans will have an opportunity to shake themselves out of that mentality, taking advantage of the new president’s outsider image and his lack of a political machine eager to attach itself as a parasite on the government and economy.  Johnny Araya’s cowardice and his failure to even pretend to have a political program worth fighting for in the second-round campaign, however, bodes poorly for whether the traditional parties are interested in revitalizing Costa Rican politics.  Being the best democracy in Central America has been important to Costa Ricans for decades; being the best it can be is the new challenge.

Social Exclusion and Societal Violence: The Household Dimension

By Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz*

A street in Pacuare, Costa Rica—one of the FLACSO project's research sites  Photo credit: d.kele | Foter | CC BY-NC-SA

A street in Pacuare, Costa Rica—one of the FLACSO project’s research sites
Photo credit: d.kele | Foter | CC BY-NC-SA

Ongoing research in Central America increasingly points to citizens’ exclusion from basic markets, especially the workforce that receives certain social guarantees, as the cause of societal violence in the region.  Their lack of access to the labor, capital, land and other markets, in which almost all income is generated, leads to an extreme disempowerment – a primary exclusion – that reverberates through citizens’ lives.  Analysts of Latin American societies often focus on poverty and income inequality as important elements in violence, but a study by FLACSO-Costa Rica and FLACSO-El Salvador indicates that social exclusion is the underlying cause of these problems and, therefore, is the more reliable indicator of a country’s vulnerability to societal violence.  The processes of social exclusion may be responsible for the epidemic of violence that plagues urban spaces across the isthmus and elsewhere in Latin America.

In Central America, labor markets are increasingly important drivers of primary exclusion.  These are societies riven by endemic unemployment and generalized job precariousness, and much of the population is relegated to the kinds of self-employment that offer no prospects of ever moving beyond satisfying the survival imperatives of households.  Numerous South American governments in recent years have helped neutralize citizens’ exclusion through carefully designed social programs, but when the state lacks the capacity or will to supply access to such “citizenship,” as has been the case in much of Central America, exclusion only deepens.  A least two basic narratives establish clear linkages between social exclusion and violence, especially among youth.

  • First, when the state abandons marginal urban territories, these fall under the control of youth gangs that establish themselves as new authorities and obtain a monopoly on the instruments of violence.
  • Second, precarious employment – the inability of citizens to generate incomes sufficient to satisfy minimal aspirations of consumption – leads to lifestyles in which the line between legal and illegal becomes murky.

FLACSO’s study of several urban communities in Costa Rica and El Salvador has identified a possible third link between social exclusion and violence – in the household.  The domestic sphere, typically glorified as the sole space of security amidst the external insecurity that these communities find in public spaces, can also become a source of exclusion-driven violence.  Male unemployment, especially that of heads of household, is expressed not only in violence among adults but also violence by adults against children.  That violence in turn is projected outward, toward other members of the community, as victims of violence within households become perpetrators of violence outside them.  The complex chain of different types of violence, beginning with the structural violence that society generates through social exclusion, passing through the household unit, and then rebounds outward toward the community.  If this is in fact what is occurring, it suggests that efforts to overcome primary exclusion are imperative to reduce all levels of violence.

*Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz is a senior researcher for the Latin American Social Science Faculty in San José (FLACSO-Costa Rica) and lead researcher in this project supported by the IDRC.  For a description of the project please click here.

Central America: Elections Send Different Messages

By CLALS Staff

Salvadoran Presidential candidat Salvador Sánchez Ceréne  Photo credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Foter / CC BY-SA

Salvadoran Presidential candidate Photo credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Foter / CC BY-SA

The two elections held last weekend reflected different states of mind in El Salvador and Costa Rica. In the former, FMLN candidate Sánchez Cerén didn’t win the majority necessary to avoid a runoff, but the rejection of the ARENA party was strong and almost nationwide. ARENA candidate Norman Quijano not only trailed by 10 percentage points; his party’s victory in only one of the country’s 14 departments – remote Cabañas – was a serious blow to its image.  According to press reports, party infighting is intensifying.

Costa Rican Presidential candidate Johnny Araya and Antonio Álvarez Desanti, Chief of the Araya Presidential Campaign  By Lcascante2000 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http:/via Wikimedia Commons

Costa Rican Presidential candidate Johnny Araya (left) / By Lcascante2000 / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

In Costa Rica, the eleventh-hour surge of a left-leaning progressive – Legislator José María Villalta – gave rise to a unified effort by the traditional parties to cast themselves as essential to warding off “Chavismo” and even Communism. Commentators judged that Citizen Action Party candidate Luis Guillermo Solís ran a mediocre campaign, but he denied ruling National Liberation Party candidate Johnny Araya – whose large campaign coffers gave him a significant edge – a first-round victory, beating him by about 1.5 percent (but still far short of the 40 percent to avoid a runoff). Both candidates’ red-baiting tactics apparently got people out to vote – abstentionism was not higher than in the past as feared – and popular cries for change shifted to a mandate for the status quo.

Jockeying for the second- round elections – on March 9 in El Salvador and April 6 in Costa Rica – has begun in both countries.  The FMLN’s Sánchez Cerén appears likely to win even without a pact with former President Saca, formerly an ARENA standardbearer. In Costa Rica, Solís is widely believed likely to win, as Araya is burdened by a lackluster record as San José mayor for 21 years and by his party ties to President Laura Chinchilla, whose disapproval ratings have broken records in the history of polling in the country.

Neither new president will have an easy time governing. Their legislatures are deeply fractured, and corruption and weak Executive Branch institutions will plague them as they’ve plagued their predecessors. ARENA appeared as weak as ever and, already showing signs of crisis, will need to retool. As it loses its access to the lucre of government treasury, it’s going to lose the glue that holds it together and infighting will persist and intensify. Costa Rica’s legislators, including those of the majority National Liberation Party (PLN), have in recent years shown little willingness or ability to put aside venal interests and engage in the serious business of policymaking. Insofar as they construe voters’ last-minute rejection of Villalta as a rejection of change, Costa Rican politicians probably judge that the coast is clear for business as usual.

 

 

Violence in Central American Urban Communities: Challenging Common Perceptions

By Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz*

Urban storefront within a community of Sonsonate, El Salvador / Photo credit: Lon&Queta / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Urban storefront in a community of Sonsonate, El Salvador / Photo credit: Lon&Queta / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A recent survey on urban violence revealed that several kinds of violence are more serious in Costa Rica than in El Salvador.  Common wisdom, buttressed by homicide rates and other traditional “hard” indicators, is that El Salvador suffers from violence similar to Guatemala and Honduras, while Costa Rica does not. Historical factors stand out as possible explanations. Conflict among Salvadoran elites in the 1930s left the country deeply polarized and politically closed, laying the groundwork for war in the latter half of the century – with violence continuing, albeit in new forms, after the war ended. Costa Rica, on the other hand, emerged democratic, and the Second Republic created a welfare state committed to development. The structural economic adjustments of the 1980s challenged that order, and the growing inequality resulting from “neo-liberalism” has been accompanied by a rise in violence, but violence in Costa Rica did not reach the levels of its Central American neighbors.

A survey conducted by FLACSO specialists in El Salvador and Costa Rica challenges those theses. Polls of families in nine urban communities cast new light on the problem of violence, revealing important differences in the occurrence of three main categories of violence.

  • Members of 15.1 and 18.4 percent of the families in two Costa Rican communities reported suffering from criminal violence against persons, while the highest figure registered in El Salvador – in a community in Sonsonate – was only 11.5 percent.
  • The three Costa Rican communities also reported a higher incidence of violence against personal property (household wealth), with 26 percent of families in Cariari (in Limón Province, on the Caribbean coast) reporting such violations, and only 12.8 percent reporting this kind of violence in El Salvador’s hardest-hit community.
  • Only in the case of domestic violence did Salvadoran respondents report a higher incidence than did their Costa Rican counterparts.

Several hypotheses may explain these findings. Costa Rica’s higher level of socioeconomic development may be a factor in its higher rate of crimes against property even in less-affluent communities. Another possible explanation is that violence is a relatively recent phenomenon there and has not yet induced attitudes of resignation and acceptance of crime as something natural, leading to more accurate reporting.  In the case of Cariari, where the highest levels of violence in Costa Rica are reported, the existence of a local awareness program may be prompting residents to be more forthcoming in expressing concerns about violence. In El Salvador, on the other hand, the existence of youth gangs – maras – and the government’s abandonment of these communities have given rise to an institutionalization of their role in violence. The maras don’t permit the presence of other actors, and some of their actions may be perceived by communities as legitimate (for example, extortion could be interpreted as an act of protection). In addition, it’s noteworthy that the poll was conducted during the truce among the gangs, which at least until recently appears to have reduced violence. FLACSO will explore these explanations more deeply in the next phase of our research, which is being supported by the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC).

*  Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz is a senior researcher for the Latin American Social Science Faculty in San José (FLACSO-Costa Rica) and lead researcher in this project supported by the IDRC. For a description of the project please click here.

Costa Rica: Losing Faith in Democratic Institutions?

By Fulton Armstrong

Supreme Elections Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado / Photo credit: izahorsky / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Supreme Elections Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado / Photo credit: izahorsky / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Costa Rica is approaching February’s presidential and legislative elections with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, if not with dread.  Most international surveys present Costa Rica as the “world’s happiest country” (the Happy Planet Index), or in the elite club of the world’s “full democracies” (ahead of Japan and Belgium in The Economist’s list), or as the 48th least-corrupt country (out of 174 reviewed by Transparency International).  The economy is expected to grow about 3 percent this year, and the country’s access to foreign direct investment is blunting the impact of the government’s fiscal deficit of about 5 percent of GDP.  Crime is on the rise, but Ticos know that their pain is small compared to that wreaked by the narcos and maras in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Reputable polls show, however, that Costa Ricans are gloomy about the state of their political institutions and specifically about their upcoming elections.  According to polls, about 32 percent of the country’s 3 million eligible voters say they plan to abstain, citing corruption, a lack of leadership, insensitivity to the average citizen, and unemployment as reasons to reject not just the candidates but also the political elite in general.  The President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Luis Antonio Sobrado, acknowledged last month that the election was taking place in the context of “citizen uneasiness … and a lot of anger with politics and politicians.”  Abstentionism was high in 2006 (35 percent) and 2010 (32 percent), but commentators sense a much deeper and darker alienation this time around.  A columnist lamented that the “multiparty” system has been replaced by “atomization,” and another said the political parties have “disconnected themselves from the national reality.”

Further reflecting the malaise, President Chinchilla’s support has nosedived – a July poll showed only 9 percent of voters said she was “good” and none said “very good” – and pundits cite her ineffectiveness as the cause of collapsed highways, dengue outbreaks, and other calamities.  The nominee of her Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN), Johnny Araya, is widely thought to have an edge in February, but his 12 years as mayor of San José have coincided with a deterioration in the city’s infrastructure and security, and his personal lifestyle (including five marriages) may be a factor in popular skepticism.  The government’s recent announcement that it will contract the services of 4,125 new employees in 2014, mostly in the education sector, drew immediate criticism as yet another example of political patronage to influence the race.

The self-doubt seems at this point indicative of concerns about Chinchilla and the crop of candidates, rather than a rejection of democracy.  Costa Ricans comparing themselves with the rest of Central America still feel good about themselves, and the green image that eco-tourists reinforce is comforting.  But crumbling infrastructure – including collapsing bridges and the exorbitant cost of repeated repairs – and shocking crimes, such as the recent assassination of an environmentalist protecting turtles on a Caribbean beach, fuel the sort of doubts that only effective political and economic leadership can quell. 

Nicaragua: Model for Citizen Security?

Police in Managua, Nicaragua / Photo credit: jorgemejia / Foter.com / CC BY

Police in Managua, Nicaragua / Photo credit: jorgemejia / Foter.com / CC BY

Nicaragua – often accused of keeping bad company on political and economic matters – finds itself in a special group of countries that are doing quite well combatting crime.  Along with Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, it has one of the lowest crime and violence rates in Latin America.  At a discussion* at the Wilson Center in Washington this week (click here for video), experts identified factors explaining why these countries stand out, including the democratic traditions, relatively strong institutional frameworks, and economic stability in Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay.  Nicaragua, on the other hand, has witnessed dictatorships, coups, chronically weak institutions, and the sort of grinding poverty that fuels chronic security challenges.  Gross generalizations are risky, but analysts probed why Nicaraguans generally trust their police force and commit fewer violent crimes.

Among the key factors is that Nicaragua, like the other three top performers, separated the police from the armed forces and increased civilian control over it.  Unlike in the rest of Central America, where revolutionary movements did not triumph, the Sandinistas abolished the hated National Guard in 1979 and created a force under the Interior Ministry.  Over the course of the Esquipulas peace accords, the elections in 1990, and the passage of a Ley Orgánica de la Policía Nacional in 1996, civilian oversight was institutionalized and respect for human rights and judicial process grew.  The Sandinistas’ promotion of mechanisms for community vigilance – a negative when used to root out suspected “counterrevolutionaries” in the 1980s – later helped communities develop cohesive approaches to citizen security and contributed to respect of institutions.  Another factor is that, like the other three countries under discussion, Nicaragua has a relatively low gun ownership rate.

Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have another thing in common:  none has resorted to the sort of militarized strategies toward transnational or homegrown crime that Colombia, Mexico and the United States have espoused.  The Nicaraguan National Police have generally maintained closer ties with their Scandinavian counterparts, who emphasize addressing the root causes of crime and violence – a philosophy that Nicaraguans of most political stripes embrace more readily than the emphasis on military-style operations.  The steadily worsening situation in Honduras, where Washington has pursued collaboration with the military, has convinced many in Central America that the militarized approach doesn’t work.  The mix of limited training and operational cooperation that the United States provides Costa Rica would probably work well in Nicaragua, but Washington – prodded by legislators who still see Nicaragua through a 1980s optic and condition cooperation on electoral performance – appears cool to fashioning a flexible package of joint initiatives.  Rather than applying the Colombian-Mexican security model to Central America, perhaps the successful elements of the Nicaraguan model can be expanded in the troubled region.

*CLALS Research Fellow and InSight Crime Senior Fellow Javier Meléndez delivered the lead presentation on Nicaragua.

Obama’s Second Trip to Central America

SICA logo | Wikimedia Commons | GNU Free Documentation License

SICA logo | Wikimedia Commons | GNU Free Documentation License

The White House has cast President Obama’s trip to Mexico and Central America on May 2-4 as “an opportunity for the President to demonstrate his leadership in the international community in a really important way.”  The spokesman emphasized the “important people-to-people ties” between the United States and Central America because “there are a lot of immigrants” from the region.  The Administration’s press releases stress that the summit in San José, with the presidents of the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic under the rubric of the Central American Integration System (SICA), will focus on collective efforts to promote economic growth and development in the region and on “our ongoing collaboration on citizen security.”

Regional reaction to the visit and summit has been positive – Obama’s interest is clearly welcome – but leaders are already managing expectations.  Costa Rican Foreign Minister Castillo last weekend cautioned that the United States is not able to provide significant new assistance for either economic or security programs.  Commentators note that the visit has not been preceded by the sort of diplomatic activity that would indicate the rollout of significant new policies or programs.

At a summit in Guatemala with Vice President Biden one year ago, Costa Rican President Chinchilla crystalized regional criticism of the U.S. counternarcotics strategy when she said that Central America “is sacrificing the lives, making its enormous sacrifice” and, in a clear reference to Washington, called on the “international community [to] take greater co-responsibility in this struggle.”  Hosting the SICA summit with Obama suggests she is prepared to put such criticism aside, perhaps in hopes that talks focus on the economic and immigration issues.  The White House spokesman’s reference to immigrants – at a time that Obama is pushing ahead with related legislation – may indicate that immigration will be a primary concern for him also.  The last time Obama went to Latin America, for the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena in April 2012, he seemed ill-prepared for criticism of U.S. policies, including its counternarcotics strategy, even from Washington’s closest friends.  With perhaps the exception of Nicaraguan President Ortega, the participants in this Central American get-together seem less likely to deliver a similar grilling, making what diplomats call a “successful meeting” very likely.

Central American Elites Are Evolving But Cling to Power

From left to right: Manuel Torres, Ricardo Barrientos, Hugo Noé Pino, Aaron Schneider and Elizabeth Oglesby participating in the project seminar in Costa Rica

From left to right: Manuel Torres, Ricardo Barrientos, Hugo Noé Pino, Aaron Schneider and Elizabeth Oglesby participating in the project seminar in Costa Rica

The sources of Central American elites’ wealth are evolving, as are their fundamental interests and the ways they wield political power.  Land‑intensive production – the focus of decades of insightful scholarship – continues to prevail in Guatemala and Honduras, but the economically powerful now maintain their position through a growing array of service-sector activities and by capturing rents from public coffers.  Changes in their economic foundations are but one of several transformative processes that swept the region beginning during the 1980s, making the past three decades a period of fundamental rupture with the past.

  • Civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua during the 1980s transformed the economies in all three countries and had spillover effects in Costa Rica and Honduras.  Most striking is the case of El Salvador, where elites abandoned the countryside upon which they had depended from time immemorial, never to return.
  • Structural adjustment programs, implemented throughout the region during the 1990s, changed the role of the state in Central American economies and thus the ways in which the public sector intersected with the elites’ wealth-accumulation strategies.  Hasty and corruption-ridden privatizations, in particular of energy and telecommunications and of an array of public services, created a reformist façade but gave private-sector groups a piñata that helped to ensure uninterrupted enrichment.
  • During that same decade, transitions to electoral democracy contributed to elite reliance – albeit with some important exceptions – on political parties, campaign strategies and legislative lobbying to protect their interests.  Ties to military and death squad enforcers are no longer the principal vehicles for the enforcement of elite imperatives, though Honduras today is increasingly reminiscent of the worst times in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Central America’s elites have yet to offer the region a vision of reform that will enable the isthmus to overcome misery, exploitation and predatory rule.  While dominant groups have embarked on aggressive state-building strategies, experts question whether these are producing the virtuous dynamics that advance the general welfare of the population and ensure effective governance. 

Scholars from across Central America have reached these conclusions through research and seminars under a multi-year AU program on Central American elites and power.  To foster better understanding of the shifting landscape in the region, and thus to illuminate plausible paths toward more equitable distribution of power and resources, the Ford Foundation is supporting this effort, undertaken in partnership with more than two dozen researchers from institutions throughout the isthmus and the United States.  The project was the focus of a recent workshop at FLACSO Costa Rica, and several publications will result over the course of 2013 and 2014.  Click here for more information.