Friday, January 15, 2010

'Elections and Democracy in Central America'

This book review ran originally in the New York City Tribune on Wednesday, August 9, 1989.

Scholars See More to a Real Democracy Than Just Elections 

Elections and Democracy in Central America, edited by John A. Booth and Mitchell A. Seligson, The University of North Carolina Press, $29.95 cloth, $10.95, 214 pp. 

Elections alone do not a democracy make. From Moscow to Monrovia, grand and petty dictators use elections as a tool to legitimize their totalitarian or kleptocratic regimes. It was just a few years ago that the Soviet press tried to assure the Kremlin’s subjects that Communist Party leader Konstantin Chernenko was in good health by broadcasting a photograph of him casting his vote in a Soviet parliamentary election. A few months later, Chernenko was dead — a bad cold, they said — and Mikhail Gorbachev became party leader. Just a few months ago, he was “elected” president with nary a dissenting vote in the Supreme Soviet.

Sham elections do not just take place in established communist states. Central America has had its share of them in the 150 years since the five states of the region declared their independence from Spain. The most stolidly democratic of the Central American countries, Costa Rica, has a remarkable record: almost 100 years of popular rule, interrupted by just one brief period of civil strife in 1948-49.

In this slim volume of collected essays, the electoral experience of the Central American countries is discussed by a handful of scholars who have been studying the region since before it inserted itself into American consciousness 10 years ago. The authors were members of a discussion panel at the Congress of the Latin American Studies Association. Each of the panelists, writes co-editor Mitchell Seligson in the introduction, “had been studying Central American politics for nearly 20 years, and some longer. While the length of their experience does not make them wiser than newcomers, it does give them a sense of perspective possibly lacking among scholars who began studying the region only after Central America became front-page news.”

These scholars had an experience at that conference that other Latin American experts, notably Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute, have also reported. In Seligson’s words: “It was with a certain sense of wry amusement that the panelists looked out upon a standing-room-only audience at the panel; these same scholars had grown accustomed to presenting papers on Central Ameirca only a decade before to audiences that were sometimes smaller than the number of panelists.”

It is unfortunate that North Americans have been so oblivious to Central America. Certainly, the United States looms large in the minds of Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans. Their recent history only underscores the long-standing mutual relationship that, for good and ill, extends back to the 1830s.

The study of Central American elections is not a parochial proposition. The Central American countries have much in common with other developing democracies around the globe, elsewhere in Latin America, in Africa, in the Caribbean, and in Asia. Experience in electoral democracy in Central America can teach us much about the means to imbed democratic traditions in a country’s political culture. It can teach us what works and what does not work, because in Central America there are examples of both success and failure.

As co-editor John Booth writes in an essay providing a framework for analysis, “Democratic values and support for civil liberties develop among populations through participation. A series of fair and free elections could increase popular confidence in elections per se, in participatory norms, and in a regime [an explicit or implied contract about the rules of the game worked out by the nation’s political elites].”

Booth goes on to note something that is quite important, if we want o contribute to the building of foundations for democracy throughout Third World countries that lack the basic framework or democratic culture necessary for fully participatory democracy. ‘It is also true, however,” he writes, “that other types of political participation, particularly those that are more continuous or relevant to ongoing and immediately important activities in the everyday lives of citizens, may be more likely than electoral participation to build participatory norms and support for civil liberties.”

For example, participating in decision-making in the workplace — through management or labor unions — is an important teaching forum for democratic values. This has been a motivating idea in the philosophy of the National Endowment for Democracy, which channels its monies to labor unions, small businesses, and the press as well as political institutions like opposition parties.

Some of the contributors to this volume have had an obvious adversarial view toward the policies of the Reagan Administration in Central America. There are accusations that the U.S. government has tried to manipulate elections there (in Guatemala and El Salvador, for instance) while trying to discredit valid elections (in Nicaragua).

There is room for debate on these points, but the behavior of the Sandinista junta under Daniel Ortega surely points to the conclusion that there is little possibility that the democratic opposition can gain power through a free election in Nicaragua.

Because Nicaragua is so much in the public eye, there will no doubt be plenty of readers who can dispute the authors’ views there. Knowledge of the other countries — especially Guatemala and Honduras — is harder to come by, so it will be up to Central American experts in the press, in the government, and in the universities to engage the authors in a continuing debate on this and other topics of importance.

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based analyst and writer.

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