It is a beautiful tradition to begin each year by wishing loved ones, friends and strangers a trip around the sun full of happiness, health, prosperity, and peace. These are the wishes we send to you this year, dear readers, regardless of what religious, ideological or economic differences may set us apart.
But the work of achieving these hopes and desires, and of ensuring they extend to our communities, requires the cooperation and support of all of us. It requires concrete action, more than mere expressions of good will.
We have insisted in recent years on the need for citizens to take ownership over their public spaces: that we not just limit our participation in political life to social media, or to turning out at the polls every two or three years.
Central America’s new governments have shut down mechanisms of accountability while tightening their grip on democracy’s neck, for their own benefit, and plundering the public coffers for personal gain. They have taken control of the judiciary and are now advancing, all of them, in their efforts to further limit our constitutional rights, and to use the mechanisms of state power to guarantee impunity, persecute their critics, and continue dismantling our public institutions.
The case of Nicaragua is enough to demonstrate the damage that a small group in power can do to an entire country. Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo have turned Nicaragua into a fiefdom, where everything works according to the will and for the benefit of those who govern, and not, as democracies require, of those who are governed.
In every election, Daniel Ortega waves the old banners of the Left, promising more equality, more solidarity and more ferocity in his struggle against the enemies of the people. Just to be sure, during the last election he imprisoned all preliminary opposition candidates. Ortega’s behavior in power directly contradicts his every proclamation. His country continues to be one of the poorest in the continent, and its citizens enjoy fewer and fewer rights. The wealth that Nicaragua accumulates flows directly to the presidential family and the businessmen complicit with the dictatorship, while the country’s prisons fill with political prisoners and the entire judicial apparatus functions not on the basis of laws, but on the whims of the Ortega family.
Nicaragua continues to be the regional extreme, but it serves as a guiding star for the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, which are advancing at an alarming rate toward a similar end — a system in which the state serves only to protect the welfare of a select few.
In El Salvador, the economy is in serious trouble, mainly due to government indebtedness, disastrous public policy, the failed Bitcoin project that has cost Salvadorans millions in losses, and rampant corruption. The looting of state coffers during the almost four years that Bukele and his family circle have been in power has no comparable precedent — it is worse than under the very governments the president positions himself against, as he claims to set a new example of honest and incorruptible leadership. In terms of corruption, this government is only different from previous ones in that it has stolen even more, has fewer checks and balances on its power, and has eliminated state mechanisms for prosecuting the corrupt.
Despite the particularities of the political phenomenon embodied in the figure of Bukele, and despite the fact that he enjoys the highest approval rating of any president in the continent, his authoritarian drift, the corruption in his administration, and his destruction of the rule of law —all necessary for him to remain, unconstitutionally, in power— have isolated El Salvador internationally, not only from traditional allies like the United States and Europe, but also from the broader community of Latin American democracies.
A regime that is opaque, corrupt, and an enemy of the rule of law presents a serious threat to the rights of its citizens. It threatens the right to justice, the right to transparency and accountability, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to live in a country governed by a body of laws rather than the whims of those in power.
In Honduras, the departure from the presidency of Juan Orlando Hernández, who now faces drug trafficking charges in the United States, promised the beginning of a new era of hope for our neighbor to the north. But the Zelaya family, with Xiomara in the presidency and Mel commanding from the rearguard, has instead decided to follow in Bukele’s footsteps, formally and informally incorporating the entire presidential family into government, declaring a state of exception, and carrying out military sieges across the country.
In neighboring Guatemala, it is not one person or one family, but rather the old economic groups, narco-politics, and the military who have retaken control of the state apparatus, now that the UN-backed anti-impunity commission, CICIG, is no longer in their way. The judiciary is once again at the disposal of these groups; meanwhile, citizen organizations — those who led the street protests that culminated in the fall of President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015 and ushered in the “Guatemalan Spring” — have been dismantled, with many of their members forced into exile. Ongoing corruption scandals and the impunity that accompanies them only show how easy it is for thieves, when they eliminate regulations on public spending and take control of the judicial apparatus, to avoid paying any consequences.
These omens do not bode well for a region that has already suffered so much, whose people have struggled so hard, for so many decades, to build a more prosperous and equitable society. But it is precisely in the hands of those people where the only imaginable way out of this grave situation now lies.
We need citizens who are critical, who make demands, who speak out, and who assume that the state belongs to everyone, not just the powerful groups and mafias that control their countries. We need citizens who self-organize and intervene more forcefully in the public debate.
This is our hope for the new year: that the citizenry is stronger, more critical, more powerful, more organized, more visible. Without this, democracies are not viable, and the destiny of a territory’s people is determined by whichever despot is in power. Central American history has given us sufficient, and sufficiently painful, lessons on why that scenario is undesirable. The other scenario, the desirable one, is citizen power. Your power.
Happy New Year.