The Democratic Crisis in Central America, Expert Opinions

A Nicaraguan citizen passes in front of a mural with the image of President Daniel Ortega, in Managua. Billboards and murals of the presidential couple are all over the country.  Photo: Confidencial

Journalists in the region describe a bleak picture in terms of democratic issues. Governments repeat patterns of authoritarianism and repression.

By Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are facing a serious crisis of democracy, human rights and public liberties, in which Nicaragua leads the way, assess journalists from the region at a forum on the subject, organized by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

“For Central America (the Nicaraguan crisis) already merits a reaction from the democratic forces. Firstly, the permanence of the Ortega regime in power and the tolerance of some nations, such as Mexico and Argentina, encourages the development of authoritarian tendencies in the governments of the region, of any political sign. Secondly, the political crisis already represents a migratory problem not only for Costa Rica, but also for the United States,” explained the Nicaraguan journalist and director of Confidencial, Carlos Fernando Chamorro.

Journalists Jennifer Avila, editor-in-chief of Contracorriente, in Honduras; Oscar Martínez, chief editor of El Faro, in El Salvador and Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemalan criminal law specialist, academic, judge and trial lawyer, presented a regional view that shows patterns and cracks in the democracy of these nations, which in turn shows similarities with the crisis in Nicaragua.

The journalist from El Salvador described how the government of Nayib Bukele has repressed freedom of the press, has taken political control and has modified laws to allow him to continue in office in the long term, by approving presidential re-election, as happened in Nicaragua.

“I believe that we no longer live in a democracy. We live in a hybrid regime that has many elements of an authoritarian regime and barely a slap of what is left of democracy,” assured the Salvadorean journalist, who also described how doing journalism in this country became more difficult after Bukele’s arrival to power.

In January, the digital newspaper El Faro denounced that at least 22 members of its editorial staff, including journalists and executives, were tapped 226 times with the Israeli program Pegasus, between July 2020 and November 2021. “It is very difficult for this year to end without the current regime arresting any of us. This is a situation that has already happened in other countries. We have no indication to think that this authoritarian behavior will end soon.”

Fragmented democracy

Honduran journalist Jennifer Avila explained that this nation is facing a transition from autocracy to democracy with a government that presents itself as “the savior,” but which already shows some irregularities.

“The first actions of this government have definitely been devastating because even with the Congress in conflict, a part of the deputies has already elected the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General and there were many flaws in this election. In addition, a law was passed to punish the 2009 coup d’état which includes an amnesty for several crimes, among them some that have to do with corruption,” she pointed out.

Paz y Paz added that in the region, Guatemala was one of the countries that made impressive advances in democracy with the installation of the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) and the justice system of the criminal investigation system.

“Unfortunately, all this had a very high cost, presidents forced out, families that had enjoyed power practically without limits for many years, saw this status quo threatened and joined forces in what we call a pact for corruption in favor of impunity,” she asserted.

Likewise, she explained that “since 2019 what we have seen is an escalation, a continuous movement towards the weakening of democracy as Oscar (from El Salvador) mentioned; to full control, to limit all counterweights to the Executive power as happened in Nicaragua (…) and I relate it this way because these are patterns that we are seeing happening in other countries and sadly this authoritarianism is contagious.

Democracy accumulated cracks for years

Carlos F. Chamorro described the process of democracy that Nicaragua experienced since 1979, passing to the transition of 1990 until the return to the presidency of Daniel Ortega and his fifteen years of government. He pointed out that this country did not have a consolidation of its democracy.

“The case of Nicaragua should be studied as the failed transition to inclusive democracy in which today sees a dictatorship that progressively dismantled democratic institutions in the last 15 years and that since 2018 imposed a de facto police state, as a totalitarian dictatorship,” he assessed.

In the case of El Salvador, Martínez indicated that the current president Nayib Bukele enjoys a strong populism as a result of a country without democratic consolidation, without a deep reconciliation process after the war and a population tired of politics.

“The last four presidents who belonged to the traditional ultra-right and the FMLN are either refugees in Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua -two leftists from the FMLN-, accused of having stolen hundreds of millions of dollars, another ex-president is in jail after accepting that he stole more than 300 million dollars and a fourth died while on trial before being convicted for stealing several million dollars that were destined for reparations after the earthquakes that this country experienced at the beginning of the century,” he outlined.

Avila also stressed the role of the United States in these processes of democracy. In the specific case of Honduras, it was decisive that Juan Orlando Hernandez has been a strategic ally of the United States even while operating a great structure of corruption and drug-trafficking. But she also explains that the role of the United States and the international community is important in the restoration of democracy.

“The sanctions are important. These mentions of corrupt actors (such as Juan Orlando Hernandez) and the punishment in the United States to these corrupt actors set a precedent, not entirely of justice, but of a little responsibility that falls on these people,” she pointed out.

Meanwhile, the Guatemalan trial lawyer explained that the mistake of this nation was to leave intact certain powers that are tearing down the reforms that were achieved in moving from war to peace. “I believe that a transformation of Guatemalan society was not really achieved as a result of the Peace Agreements and the processes were inconclusive,” she said.

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.


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