Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Central American Fears

By Stabroek staff
August 7, 2009

The coup d’état in Honduras, the original banana republic, thanks to the almost feudal predominance of the notorious United Fruit Company in the first half of the twentieth century, has given rise to fears among some Central America watchers that the age of the banana republics – characterized by combinations of brutal and venal dictators, electoral fraud, bloody coups, endemic corruption and all sorts of guerrilla movements – might once again be upon us. This is obviously a worst case scenario.

Nevertheless, the longer the stand-off in Honduras lasts, the greater the fears that the Central American region will be prone to further destabilization and a return to the internecine violence of the civil wars of the 1980s, which saw some half a million people killed and several millions displaced in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

In Nicaragua, last November, there were serious irregularities in municipal elections leading to several days of political street violence. Now, President Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista guerrilla leader who fought against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and who, ironically, rules in the style of an old-time caudillo, is seeking constitutional changes to allow him to run again for president when his current and final term comes to an end in 2011.

In Guatemala, in May, a murdered lawyer accused centre-left President Alvaro Colom and his inner circle of his own assassination in a posthumously released videotape. Mr Colom says that the video is part of a conspiracy by his political foes, in league with narco-traffickers, to destabilize his administration, already seen as weak in the midst of widespread corruption and rising rates of poverty and violent crime.

Indeed, Mr Colom has made powerful enemies on the right, as he has given access to military archives to lawyers seeking to build a case for genocide against the former dictator, General Efraín Ríos Montt. Mr Colom’s government has made it a priority to bring to justice former army and police officers accused of ordering massacres during the 36-year civil war that killed close to a quarter of a million people, many of them of Mayan descent. However, there is evidence that demilitarized personnel have joined the narco-gangs, making a weak state like Guatemala increasingly vulnerable to the intimidatory and predatory tactics of the drug cartels, as violence and narco-dollars combine to undermine institutions and whole societies.

In El Salvador, which has a leftist government for the first time in its history, the new president, Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNL) party founded by Marxist guerrillas from the civil war, is walking a thin line between the moderate, pragmatic centre-left approach he favours and the more radical positions of revolutionary colleagues, who want to align themselves with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and the ALBA grouping. El Salvador, like the rest of the region, is particularly vulnerable to the world economic crisis, especially as there has been a dramatic reduction in remittances from the vast numbers of Salvadorans in the USA. And El Salvador is also the most violent country in Central America, with one of the world’s highest murder rates. It is not a recipe for stability.

Some analysts believe that fragile states, already succumbing to the influx of narco-dollars and organized crime, are also threatened by Venezuela’s petro-dollars, which in re-ordering political alignments, are at the same time creating a new form of dependency and eroding national unity.

In Honduras, Mr Chávez’s influence has polarized the country to such an extent that the clumsy attempt by Manuel Zelaya, the deposed president, to seek a referendum on the possibility of extending his term in office, was widely seen as a ploy to impose a Chávez-style government on Honduras. But Mr Chávez cannot be blamed for all of Honduras’s woes.

Honduras is a conservative society, with a strong agrarian tradition. Even the left is somewhat conservative by Latin American standards. Indeed, Mr Zelaya is from the landowning class and members of his own party have turned against him and backed the coup authorised by the Congress. Mr Zelaya’s major mistake would appear to have been to ignore the elite’s resistance to constitutional reform, populism and “twenty-first century socialism.”

Conflict is usually driven by fear – fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of catastrophe – but conflict has a nasty way of bringing about the very result it seeks to avoid. By seeking to prevent Mr Zelaya from following Mr Chávez’s example, the Honduran political establishment has brought greater uncertainty and a real danger of civil conflict upon the country.

What is being played out in Honduras is part of the wider, highly charged ideological debate in the Americas, as to the best political and economic models to follow. Undoubtedly, there is much to be said for attempts to effect greater equity and social justice in traditionally lopsided societies. However, it is far from clear that the confrontational model of populist authoritarianism being championed by Mr Chávez, including expropriation of private property and businesses, closure of media houses, political intimidation and thuggery, and subversion of the judiciary, is the way forward, much less for countries with high rates of crime and poverty, and rising personal and institutional insecurity. But then neither should countries like Honduras be simply left to function as the personal fiefdoms of oligarchic landowners or wannabe caudillos, whether from the right or the left.

Meanwhile, the longer it takes for the Honduras crisis to be peacefully resolved, the greater the risk of conflict and the fear of conflagration in the Central American tinderbox.

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