Central America's swing toward democracy: analysts doubt it will last
At first glance, it would seem that the wave of democracy that has swept three military rulers out of power in South America in the last two years has moved north. Two Central American countries -- Honduras and Guatemala -- have elected civilian presidents recently. The democratic natures of those elections have been attested to delegations of international observers. These elections follow the installation last year of a civilian government in another Central American nation, El Salvador.Skip to next paragraph
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But longtime observers of the region, including Western diplomats and North and Central American political analysts, have serious doubts that truly democratic regimes can emerge and survive in most of Central America. An exception is democratic Costa Rica, where land, and therefore power, has historically been held by a large class of farmers.
In countries where political, economic, and social power is concentrated tightly in the hands of a few, it is hard for any real democracy, which must at least partially reflect the interests of the many, to take hold.
Honduras and El Salvador are allies of the United States, and Guatemala is soon to become one. The Reagan administration hopes that US economic and military assistance will help consolidate its newly elected allied governments and usher in a new era of democracy in the region.
The elections are seen by the Reagan administration as moral victories over Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua. Despite receiving somewhat qualified approval from other groups of international observers, elections there last November were dismissed as a charade by the US government.
After the Sandinistas came to power in 1979 they insisted on keeping most of the power. They were concerned that political democracy would allow the old upper classes to take over. But most diplomatic observers in Nicaragua say that the Sandinistas have become increasingly nondemocratic out of a desire to maintain power for power's sake. US pressure may have played a part in moving Nicaragua toward the concentration of political power in the hands of the Sandinista elite.
But, observes one Western diplomat here, ``What kind of societal consensus can exist in countries so divided by social problems, as here in Central America? What kind of consensus do the Indians of Chichicastenango share with the governing classes of Guatemala City?''
If these dominant groups in Guatemala City, or for that matter in Tegucigalpa or El Salvador, have held free elections at all, it is in large part a result of the insistence of the Reagan administration, according to analysts in both Washington and the region.
The Reagan administration realizes that in order for Congress to consent to fund conservative, anti-Sandinista, pro-US governments in Central America, these governments must at least ``appear to be democratic.''
In the end, most observers in the region say, whether or not the voting on election day is democratic, it is the dominant powers, the upper classes, the Army, and the US Embassy that call the shots.
Those Central Americans most critical of the recent elections point out that the range of acceptable candidates is a very narrow one. They say that the major candidates are chosen by a small group of powerful people. The only candidates allowed to run, they say, are those that the dominant groups in these countries, such as the Army and business, feel will not seriously affect their interests.
Once a candidate is elected, critics say, he will be able to make some reforms. But he will be unable to make essential changes which will take the basic power away from the minority that has it.