Central American Governments Face Tough Challenges

by Benedicte Bull*

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

Embed from Getty Images

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.

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.