Nov. 8 (Bloomberg) -- The results of presidential elections in Nicaragua and Guatemala on Sunday -- won, respectively, by a leftist revolutionary and a right-wing military man -- could almost lead one to think we’re back in the Reagan era.
Well, yes and no. Some of the characters are the same, but the roles are reversed. Former liberators are turning into tyrants; once-threatening militaries have become potential rescuers.
In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista National Liberation Front leader who helped topple the Somoza regime three decades ago, was overwhelmingly elected to his second consecutive and third overall term as president. It was a neat trick, given that the constitution limits presidents to two nonconsecutive terms. Ortega, however, found a loophole for himself through a pliant Supreme Court, and has parlayed a $1 billion-a-year sweetheart oil deal with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez into a modest economic upswing and enough voter support to keep himself in office.
Although it has long been clear he would win the vote, he took no chances: Monitors from the European Union and Organization of American States have complained of being kept out of polling sites, and many voters described widespread intimidation by the government. This is long-standing pattern -- some U.S. and European civilian aid programs were canceled after fraud-stricken 2008 municipal elections in which, according to the U.S. State Department, the Ortega government trampled the right to “free and open discussion in the media and the academia.”
Ortega bears little resemblance to the revolutionary darling of the early 1980s. Human-rights groups that were once die-hard “Sandalistas” have in recent years condemned the electoral fraud, dissipation of women’s rights (including making abortion illegal) and growing cult of “Ortegismo.” The government has clamped down on old allies, even investigating Oxfam -- as reliably leftist an organization as one could find - - for money-laundering and “subversion.” Ortega has mended fences with some old enemies -- members of the Nicaraguan business elite and the International Monetary Fund -- yet his country remains the poorest on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere.
Fortunately, Ortega’s tired rhetoric has little appeal among his Latin American neighbors, and his statement of “loyalty and support” for Muammar Qaddafi during the Libyan revolution showed how tin his political ear has become. The latest regional survey by the independent polling group Latinobarometro found him tied with his pal Fidel Castro as the least popular leader among Latin Americans. If only Nicaraguan voters shared their neighbors’ wisdom.
Just as the revolutionary is now the corrupt establishment in Nicaragua, the military is no longer the strongman in Guatemala. The election of Otto Perez Molina, a former army general, sets off understandable alarm bells. The atrocities committed by the military during the country’s brutal civil war from 1960 to 1996 were such that even the faintest possibility of Guatemala returning to military rule is unsettling. Yet Perez has never been charged with wrongdoing; he was a key figure in the 1996 peace talks that gave amnesty to many war criminals but set the course to peaceful democracy; and nothing he has done in public life indicates an interest in returning Guatemala to army tyranny.
In any case, Guatemalans are far more concerned about their dangerous present than their troubled past: The nation’s homicide rate is among the highest in the world, and twice Mexico’s, in large part a spillover of the drug-fueled violence by the Zetas and other Mexican cartels who are looking to expand their territory. Perez won in large part on a promise to use an “iron fist” against the drug gangs, which by some estimates control 40 percent of the country. As the cartels have expanded, growth has faltered: According to the World Bank, Guatemala’s economy, Central America’s largest, is expected to expand by only 2.8 percent this year.
As U.S. intervention in the 1980s was generally counterproductive, the Obama administration should tread carefully today. It has requested $20 million in development assistance for Nicaragua in the 2012 budget, which is paltry and yet also troubling given Ortega’s antidemocratic turn. Ortega should instead be made to turn to his patron, Chavez, and his new friends at the IMF.
As for Guatemala, Perez’s victory showed that the people are ready to trust a larger military role if the army can stop the drift toward narco-statehood. The U.S., which sends about $50 million a year in aid to Guatemala, and other Western states should also give Perez the benefit of the doubt. Obviously, all assistance should be conditional on human rights observance, and it would be in the new president’s best interests to continue the aggressive investigations into corruption and abuses begun by Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz. The U.S. approach to the Perez government should be, as Reagan was so fond of saying, “trust but verify.”
To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: email@example.com.