The Challenges of Democratization : Since the Early 1990s, Central America Has Celebrated Free and Fair Elections, with Power Transferrring Peacefully from One Democratically Elected Government to Another

By Orozco, Manuel | The World and I, March 2003 | Go to article overview

The Challenges of Democratization : Since the Early 1990s, Central America Has Celebrated Free and Fair Elections, with Power Transferrring Peacefully from One Democratically Elected Government to Another


Orozco, Manuel, The World and I


The resolution to the Central American wars of the late seventies and eighties was signaled in 1987 with the Arias Peace Plan, which opened the door for negotiations between governments and rebel forces to terminate the conflicts that had lasted over 30 years and taken 200,000 lives. Nicaragua signed a peace agreement in 1990, El Salvador in 1991, and Guatemala had a final agreement in 1996.

These agreements, each reflecting a specific national formula, opened a new era of democratization and stability in the region. Since the negotiations, the region has celebrated free and fair elections, with power being peacefully transferred from one democratically elected government to the next. Significant obstacles remain, however, as democratization is more than simply conducting elections.

The fragile new democratic institutions have encountered two political challenges. On one hand are pressures from traditionally antidemocratic groups to return to the status quo prior to democratization. On the other is the need to strengthen political institutions through modernization, oversight of corruption, and training.

In balance, the Central American countries are facing political problems that are connected to undemocratic party systems, weak civil society, and fragile political institutions. In particular, justice systems in Central America lack the capacity to enforce the rule of law. Courts are increasingly vulnerable to bribes, the police are underpaid and untrained, and there is little or no trust in the government, which has been reflected in a decline of voter turnout.

Guatemala

Hopes for democratization increased after the 1996 peace agreement between the government of Alvaro Arzu and the guerrilla Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union. They increased with the election of the new government of President Alfonso Portillo in 1999. Portillo, who sought to integrate liberal forces and Indian leaders into his cabinet, faced significant opposition from the army and Congress. Former dictator Gen. Efra'n Rios- Montt, under whose rule in the 1980s some of the worst human rights violations took place, was elected to Congress and has undermined President Portillo's plans for social development and demilitarization.

Furthermore, the army continues to exert influence over the government by increasing its budget, relocating its soldiers to areas where demilitarization had been pursued, reactivating the paramilitary civilian self-defense patrols, and intimidating rights workers. Civic organizations and the public, however, have mobilized efforts to prevent future abuses.

Charges of government corruption also increased during the past two years. Luis Rabbe, a former minister of housing and communication, was protected by the government throughout the first half of 2001 until finally asked to resign. Portillo himself has been accused of corruption. Politics have increasingly become complicated, as the private sector has neglected to address the problem of social inequality and has refused to support economic reform policies.

Crime rates continue to increase, predominately affecting the poor. Murders and kidnappings occur on an almost daily basis. In some rural areas, peasants have taken justice upon themselves by executing criminals. Courts, mostly inoperative, have been weakened by intimidation, and the police are corrupt and untrained. As Guatemala faces presidential elections in November 2003, it finds its highly fragmented party system in disarray, consequently reducing the hopes of citizen participation in the electoral process.

El Salvador

Unlike Guatemala, El Salvador has experienced a gradual process of democratization. Its two leading political forces, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the former guerrilla Farabundo Mart' National Liberation Front (FMLN), are seeking power through electoral means. After the 1991 peace accords, it has undergone two peaceful elections resulting in a stable balance of power between ARENA and the FMLN, with a group of smaller parties occupying minority seats in Congress. …

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