Next month marks the 20th anniversary of what was supposed to be a hopeful new beginning for Central America. In an election watched worldwide as part of the climax of the cold war, Violeta Chamorro  dethroned the Nicaraguan president at the time, Daniel Ortega, and his Marxist Sandinistas on April 25, 1990. The vote also ended Nicaragua’s decade-long contra war and brought down the curtain on Washington’s controversial involvement in the bloody Central American conflicts of the 1980s.
Afterward, I traveled to the countryside to watch rebels exchange their rifles for bags of beans and rice. I did not realize then how little recovery aid the United States would be giving Nicaragua and the region beyond those postwar party favors—how little compared with the billions of dollars in military aid the United States had just doled out.
Nor did I realize what a disappointing role my own Catholic Church would play in Central America’s healing. Leftist liberation theology had certainly become too politicized in the region, but it was supplanted by a church culture guided less by the memory of sensible progressives like Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had been assassinated in 1980, than by the right-wing agenda of Nicaragua’s Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.
If I had realized all that back then, I would be less surprised and less saddened by what I am seeing in Central America today.
For starters, Ortega is Nicaragua’s president again. He was elected in 2006 largely because, 16 years after Chamorro’s U.S.-backed victory, most Nicaraguans were still living under grinding poverty. Ortega today is the same mumbling, authoritarian incompetent he was 20 years ago, but this time he has tightened his hold on power. Last October loyal Supreme Court justices lifted the Nicaraguan Constitution’s one-term limit for presidents and let him run again in 2011.
As for the rest of Central America, it is arguably a more dangerous place today than it was when right-wing death squads and left-wing guerrillas ravaged the isthmus a generation ago. Thanks largely to corrupt justice systems, the region has one of the world’s highest homicide rates: 80,000 murders in the past six years, more than the 75,000 people killed in El Salvador’s horrific 1980-1992 civil war. Guatemala has even had to cancel daylight saving time because the dark mornings are a boon to armed thugs. Other indicators are equally dismal. Only sub-Saharan Africa has a worse regional literacy rate than does Central America—just one reason why Central America also has an average 47 percent poverty rate, 10 points higher than the average of Latin America as a whole.
Just as troubling is what happened last June 28 in Honduras, a country still recovering from the cataclysmic floods of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. A military coup, the kind of banana-republic scourge we thought had gone the way of the cold war, toppled a democratically elected president and showed how fragile the fledgling democracies of Central America still are.
Central America is still wrestling with the institutional backwardness and epic inequality that led to the conflicts of the 1980s. This time a different bogeyman spooks the right and incites the left. Back then it was Cuba’s communist leader, Fidel Castro. Today it is Venezuela’s socialist president, Hugo Chávez.
Honduras’s President Manuel Zelaya had forged an alliance with Chávez, which Zelaya’s foes feared would usher authoritarian socialism into Honduras. A wealthy rancher turned leftist, Zelaya was a middling leader at best; but he did seek to improve conditions for the 70 percent of Hondurans who live in poverty, and he riled the elite with measures like minimum-wage hikes. Still, as many Latin American leaders are prone to do, Zelaya put populism before constitutionalism, defying a Supreme Court order last June not to hold a referendum on whether a constitutional reform assembly should be convened. His opponents could have tried him for that breach, won a conviction, thrown him out and then basked in global applause for their working democratic institutions. Instead, they let soldiers exile Zelaya at gunpoint in his pajamas—then looked shocked when all they heard were global boos.
The coup leaders insisted the events of June 28 did not represent a coup at all. In the hours before the military whisked Zelaya off to Costa Rica, they claimed, Congress had already removed him from office for attempting by his referendum to eliminate Honduras’s one-term limit for presidents. They brandished Article 239 of the Constitution, which states that any president who tries to alter the charter to allow re-election shall automatically forfeit the office.
The problem is, Zelaya’s proposed nonbinding plebiscite never mentioned re-election. It would just have surveyed voters on whether a constitutional assembly should be held. So the re-election pretext, born more from fears about Chávez than an examination of the facts, does not hold up well. Legally Zelaya was still president when the troops came banging on his door and Congress was crowning the head of the Congress, Roberto Micheletti, as his successor.
The Obama administration at first condemned the Honduran putsch and imposed economic and political sanctions. But in the end it backed down and became one of the few nations to recognize the results of a new presidential election held by the coup government in November. The winner, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, took office on Jan. 27. Yet even Lobo, in a conversation at his opulent home outside Tegucigalpa, recently conceded that in the past two decades “Central America has actually gone backward. We have an utter lack of vision about who we are and how to order ourselves.”
Given how long and how deeply the United States was engaged in Central America, that is hardly a legacy of which Americans can be proud. It may not have been the responsibility of the United States to make a new Switzerland of Central America, but ever since its Mayan glory faded a millennium ago, this region has been most famous for natural and political catastrophe. In light of the role the Reagan administration played in stoking the internecine carnage there, the United States had an obligation to do more than walk away after the combatants received their beans and rice.
Such neglect tends to diminish America’s moral standing as the lantern of New World ideals like democracy and opportunity, if the nations we rub shoulders with are left in the shadows. Pragmatically, the result threatens U.S. national interests. Unable these past 20 years to climb out of a hole the United States helped it dig, Central America has become violent new turf for drug cartels, its volatility a driver of illegal immigration in the United States.
Lessons From a Coup
The Honduras situation should be a wake-up call. On the plus side, free markets and democratic elections are the norm today in Central America. But the coup that deposed Zelaya, which was backed by the handful of families that control the Honduran economy, is a stark reminder that life after elections in 21st-century Central America looks almost as dysfunctional as it did in the 20th and that the region’s capitalist order still serves a narrow elite. “The millionaires who run things here still have no interest in preparing people for development,” says Juan José Osorio, owner of a small jewelry shop in downtown Tegucigalpa. “You know, education, bank credit, basic things like that. I really don’t think they’re all that interested in development, period.”
Micheletti, a member of Zelaya’s Liberal Party, is a devout Catholic who claimed to be guided by God. But after replacing Zelaya, he turned out to be the same sort of autocrat he accused Chávez of being. Micheletti thumbed his nose at international calls to step down, then suspended civil liberties and shut down opposition media after Zelaya sneaked back into Honduras in September and holed up in the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. Micheletti also played the card that Latin American coup leaders have used for decades: a disingenuous insistence that a new presidential election would supersede the coup, wipe the slate clean and move the country forward. Lobo, who supported amnesty for both Zelaya and the army bosses who ousted him, agrees with Micheletti: “Hondurans,” he says, “want to move on.”
The success of the Honduran coup and the United States’ tacit approval of it have moved Central America backward. The coup arose from and could now exacerbate the region’s age-old institutional vacuum: the powers that be had too little faith in the rule of law to resolve Honduras’s political crisis, so they had the army take care of it for them. Around Latin America, including neighboring Guatemala, there are unreformed military chiefs and other putsch-prone forces that can only be encouraged by what they have seen Micheletti get away with. They are also heartened that U.S. Latin America policy appears to be under the thumb of conservative Republicans in Congress, many of whom still believe that coups are an acceptable form of regime change and who pushed Obama to ease up on Micheletti.
Flimsy rule of law also stacks the deck against the social reforms Zelaya was pushing. With no reliable judicial systems to keep the economic and social playing fields level, Central America’s six Spanish-speaking countries are still dominated by monopolies, if not outright oligarchies. The 14 coffee-baron clans that used to run El Salvador still control its business sector to an extent that would make Bill Gates blush. A clique of monopolists does the same in Honduras.
I recently visited Adolfo Facussé, a Honduran textile tycoon, at his palatial family compound overlooking Tegucigalpa. Facussé dismissed the charge that Central American elites resist development because it threatens their feudal comfort. “The idea that the business elite here want people to stay poor is absurd,” he said, noting the schools and microcredit projects his foundation funds. Still, he acknowledged that “Zelaya was right about the need to better redistribute wealth. He just went about it the wrong way.” When I asked him what the right way is, Facussé only said: “This crisis has had a great impact on the country. Honduras can’t be the same after this, I promise you.”
A “show of initiative” is the public relations line the Honduran upper classes are using at the moment. It is similar to what Central America’s plutocrats said at the end of the 1980s. Lobo insists it is sincere and claims he has moved his conservative National Party toward the center to “base our policies more on Christian humanism and the needs of the human being.” His “platform for common good” includes broader access to education, more social investment and anti-corruption measures.
Those initiatives would be helpful, considering that one in three Honduran children under the age of 5 suffers chronic malnutrition. That statistic is even more disgraceful in Guatemala, where half of all children under 5 go hungry. It is little better in other Central American countries, like Panama, where a growing number of rural toddlers have died of malnutrition in recent years.
The United States ought to assist Central America’s development beyond free elections and free trade. Judicial reform is as urgent as anti-poverty aid. The World Bank has spent $15 million over the past five years to help modernize Honduras’s judicial system, but much more is required, like more microcredit. Banks and investors in the region rarely make loans and capital available to the small- and medium-sized businesses that employ most of the workforce. Less polarized politics also would be welcome, like the more moderate liberalism of El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes and the more socially conscious conservatism that Lobo is promising in Honduras.
Honduras’s Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga has championed such remedies. But like Micheletti and the coup leaders, the cardinal let his fear of Chávez cloud his civic judgment when he essentially absolved the coup. It is one more reason supporters of the region will not be celebrating Central America’s revival next month. Instead, they will not be asking how the past 20 years were squandered like so many bags of beans and rice.
View a slideshow  documenting the poltical crisis in Honduras.