Yes, progress in Central America, but don’t call it ‘spring’


Photo credit to AFP.

I write for The National Interest on Friday that, despite the progress among civil society groups in Guatemala and Honduras and the resignation of Guatemala’s president Otto Pérez Molina under a cloud of corruption charges, it’s too simplistic to refer to a ‘Central American spring’:honduras flag iconguatemala flag icon

[T]he region’s democracy didn’t suddenly spring into existence in 2015. As the former Soviet Union and the Middle East have so painfully shown us, we should by now be wary of mad-libs punditry that falsely declares a rainbow’s worth of color revolutions, always overeager to set calendars to springtime. The full story of Central American governance today is one of gradual change and the development of mature political institutions only in fits and starts – it was only in 2009 that a military coup ousted Honduras’s left-wing president Manuel Zelaya. After nearly two centuries of war, imperialism and autocracy, Central America’s countries have enjoyed relative peace, democracy and full sovereignty only for the last quarter-century.

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RELATED: Guatemala lifts Pérez Molina’s immunity
six days before vote to replace him

RELATED: Three days before elections, Pérez Molina resigns
after arrest warrant issued

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Blame a century of US Central American policy

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Moreover, I argue that policymakers might be too optimistic that the current victory for civil society institutions will translate into ever-stronger gains for Guatemala:

Even as Guatemalans celebrate the fact that, for the first time in history, a sitting president will be subject to prosecution, they face an imperfect choice of candidates on September 6 and in a likely October 20 runoff: Manuel Baldizón, a business-as-usual politician whose party, LIDER, is alleged to be just as corrupt as Pérez Molina’s Patriot Party; Sandra Torres, a former first lady who is also part of the political elite; Jimmy Morales, a comedian and actor whose campaign is based on nationalism, social conservatism and the fact that he’s too much a political novice to have stolen any public funds; and Zury Ríos, the daughter of the former dictator. There’s no guarantee that Guatemala’s next president will have the will or the ability to effect a more permanent commitment to transparent and efficient government.

Finally, I note that while Central America has common features, it still encompasses seven countries, not all of which are experiencing the same kind of political, economic and security issues as Guatemala:

The Nicaragua example also demonstrates that the region’s seven countries are not interchangeable (notwithstanding the short-lived 19th century Federal Republic of Central America). While Costa Rica is on the verge of becoming a member of the OECD, Nicaragua languishes in [former Sanidnista Daniel] Ortega’s statist cronyism. As Panama increasingly uses the wealth from its eponymous canal to transform itself into a regional financial capital, Honduras has lower per-capita GDP than any country in the hemisphere except Haiti and routinely vies with Venezuela for the world’s highest murder rate. In some countries of Central America, “spring” is brighter and greener than in others.

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