Guatemala's Military Man, Nicaragua's Revolutionary
McDonald, Mike, Americas Quarterly
Guatemalans and Nicaraguans (in a flawed election) chose two competing symbols of their pasts to address modern socioeconomic and security challenges. How will they fare?
Guatemala and Nicaragua, two Central American nations grappling with uncertain futures, chose starkly different paths in the November 2011 elections. Their presidents, both inaugurated in mid- January, will face challenges-some of their own doing-in an unstable region with scant resources, fragile public institutions, and the constant threat of organized crime.
Guatemala swore in a hardline former army general as president, the first time that a former military officer has taken power since the end of military rule in 1986. Otto Pérez Molina, 61, of the conservative Partido Patriota (PP), battled leftist guerillas during a 36-year civil war and skated to victory (winning by over 7 percentage points) in a runoffelection against Manuel Baldizón of the Libertad Democrática Renovada (LIDER) party. Pérez Molina's victory represents a swing to the Right after his soft-spoken predecessor-Álvaro Colom, who defeated Pérez Molina in the 2007 election runoff-served as Guatemala's first left-leaning president since 1954. (Guatemala's constitution does not allow for reelection.)
Nicaraguans reelected Daniel Ortega of the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) for a second consecutive and third overall term. Ortega, a socialist revolutionary who changed the constitution to permit reelection, has won over voters with a populist message to help the poor. He was helped by a decidedly uneven electoral playing field in which state-owned and pro-government media gave the president overwhelming coverage and state social programs were portrayed as party patronage. Ortega's campaign and presidency have been punctuated by Marxist slogans and discourse reminiscent of Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela-two leaders that Ortega honored in his victory speech. Over the next five years, Nicaraguans can expect more of the same.
What Awaits Pérez Molina and Ortega
The two newly inaugurated Central American presidents come from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, but both must find ways to improve socioeconomic conditions.
For Guatemala, the chief challenges are improving security, reducing inequality and generating opportunities that deter at-risk citizens from a life of crime. Nicaragua has yet to experience violence comparable to its neighbors in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), but persistent inequality remains a major challenge. Ortega's international legitimacy is also a lingering question. While observers recognized the election results, they qualified the election process as "tainted" and riddled with "irregularities" and "anomalies."
In Guatemala, Pérez Molina's victory did not come with asterisks. The former general, who entered politics in 2001 and founded the PP after hanging up his decorated military uniform, enters the presidency with a bold legislative agenda. But with only 58 coalition lawmakers in the 158-member unicameral congress, he is well short of the two-thirds majority (105 legislators) needed to swiftly push through reforms. That means the Guatemalan president will look to form alliances with other conservative parties and seek to lure centrist lawmakers to the PP ranks. In doing so, he will face fierce opposition from a Leftstill sour over losing the presidency.
Pérez Molina campaigned on a mano dura (iron fist) platform, promising to crack down on crime in one of the world's deadliest nations. "I am going to work tirelessly for security, for a safe country and for a prosperous and secure Guatemala," Pérez Molina told a cheering throng of supporters dressed in Partido Patriota orange just hours after the election. Still, the myriad problems and obstacles that have stalled progress in Guatemala will test the president's campaign promise that "change is coming. …