Source: Today Nicaragua
Note: This article was originally published in Spanish on Agenda Pública, an organization offering analysis of the legal-political, economic, and social reality of Spain, based on the knowledge generated by researchers and analysts of the social sciences in universities and research centers.
The new president of the United States faces enormous challenges, domestically and internationally, from tackling the continued health and economic threats due to COVID-19 to China’s rising global influence. In the Western Hemisphere the new administration must confront the legacy of the Trump presidency, which turned away from promoting democracy and anti-corruption efforts to emphasize strict immigration policies and an “America First” nationalism. The policies of the last administration were particularly devastating for the countries of Central America. Former President Donald Trump’s bullying, reductions in economic assistance, and tension over immigration led to political instability, corruption, and economic dislocation. On top of these effects, the region has been hard hit by COVID-19 and two destructive hurricanes.
The Biden administration has announced a USD $4 billion assistance package, in a renewed effort to fight corruption, promote democracy, and change immigration policy through an executive order that emphasizes the administration’s commitment to pursuing a policy that focuses on the root causes of migration, namely economic inequality, violence, corruption, and political instability. The administration has promised an asylum policy that is humane and welcoming to those fleeing political persecution and violence. All these changes are welcomed, but USD $4 billion will likely not be enough to tackle the scale of the problems facing the region. The pandemic has exacerbated the economic, educational, and health disparities in Central American societies. Corruption has increased as elites and criminal networks have sought to take advantage of the pandemic. Authoritarianism has deepened as presidents have sought to consolidate executive power, repress, or weaken political opposition, and increasingly rely on the armed forces to maintain domestic security and political authority.
Among the first critical tests of the Biden administration will be the November 2021 presidential elections in Honduras and Nicaragua. Both countries are facing difficult elections mired by corruption, authoritarianism, and weak oppositions.
In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández is barred from running for a third term. The Hernández presidency has been characterized by significant levels of corruption, including a controversial reelection in 2017. President Hernández himself has been accused of links to drug cartels and money laundering, and his brother was found guilty of trafficking cocaine by a New York jury. Accusations during the trial linked millions of dollars from drug trafficking to contributions to the ruling National Party during the 2009, 2013, and 2017 elections.
A leading National Party candidate for this year’s elections, Tegucigalpa mayor Nasry “Tito” Asfura, was linked to embezzlement of more than a million dollars in city funds by a government investigation. Another National Party hopeful, Mauricio Oliva Herrera, president of the Congress, has also been associated with drug cartels. One of the candidates for the Liberal Party, the second traditional party in Honduras, Yani Rosenthal, a prominent banker, pled guilty to laundering drug cartel money, and just recently completed a three-year sentence in U.S. prison. The main opposition party, Partido Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE), is led by former President Manuel Zelaya who was toppled by a coup in 2009, and whose relatives were named in U.S. courts for receiving money from drug cartels.
To make matters worse, President Hernández refused to renew the mandate of the OAS-sponsored Mission to Support Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). The risk of electoral manipulation remains high since the rules that governed the controversial elections of 2017 remain in place. Furthermore, in the absence of MACCIH, or other such international mechanism, the risks of illicit money finding its way into the campaign is very high.
The choices in Honduras are frankly not very edifying and it would be in the United States best interest to refrain from expressing a preference among the presidential candidates, rather focusing on the electoral process. The Biden administration should make it clear to President Hernández that bilateral cooperation, particularly on security matters, depends on the willingness of the president to guarantee free and fair elections. The U.S. administration should employ USAID to fund and build capacity among civil society organizations, particularly to monitor compliance with the rule of law and to promote an environment where political discourse is free from violence. USAID, along with the OAS and UNDP, could promote a dialogue among the various political parties to establish rules of transparency and accountability that would pressure political actors to conduct fair elections. Similar efforts have been done in other countries, for example Panama in the 1990s. Ultimately, the United States should make it clear to President Hernández and Honduran elites that future economic, political, and security relations are linked to clear anti-corruption measures and to transparent electoral outcomes.
In Nicaragua, the elections will mark the third time President Daniel Ortega has sought re-election since returning to the presidency in 2007. President Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, the country’s vice-president, have manipulated the electoral process, undermined the autonomy of the judicial and legislative branches, politicized the police and armed forces, relied on paramilitary groups to intimidate opponents, and promoted widespread repression of civil society. The political opposition has been neutered, and there’s little doubt that the November elections will not be free or fair.
Unfortunately, the Biden administration has few options in the case of Nicaragua. While Nicaragua remains a member of CAFTA, and thus relies on economic ties to the United States, removing the country from the multilateral free trade agreement is difficult, and would likely hurt the people of Nicaragua far more than it would undermine the regime. Targeted sanctions might put pressure on President Ortega and regime followers, but they have had limited effects in cases such as Venezuela where the military and security forces remain loyal to the government—as they do in Nicaragua. At the very least, the Biden administration should work with international organizations such as the OAS and UN, along with regional partners, such as Costa Rica and Panama, to pressure President Ortega to engage in a meaningful dialogue with civil society and political opponents and establish an environment that would promote transparent and fair elections. In the long-term, however, changes in U.S. relations with Cuba, and perhaps a meaningful dialogue in Venezuela, could put pressure on President Ortega to soften his grip on power. Nonetheless, little is likely to change before the November elections. Nicaragua appears destined to continue its slide toward autocracy.
The Biden administration finds Central America ravaged by the pandemic, devastated economically and socially, with autocracy on the rise, and suffering widespread corruption. All these problems are longstanding but were made worse by the Trump presidency. President Biden has named highly qualified persons to his Western Hemisphere team, including Brian Nichols as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs, Juan González as Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere at the National Security Council (NSC), and former ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson as coordinator for the southwestern border on the NSC. The president’s announced policy intentions are well-meaning, and President Biden has the experience in the region to understand the underlying problems. However, in the end, good intentions will not be enough to resolve the deep crisis confronting Central America. Significant resources will need to be deployed, along with multilateral diplomacy and the political will to promote economic development, democracy, and security.
Orlando J. Pérez is Dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of North Texas at Dallas. You can find him on Twitter at: @perez1oj