The Lowdown on Central America's 'Spring'

Could Guatemala and others be on the path to a more democratic future?

Though he had just four months left in office, Guatemala’s president, Otto Pérez Molina will not be around to hand over power next January.

Pérez Molina resigned early Thursday morning, after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for him, and judicial officials instructed him not to leave the country. Pérez Molina will now face corruption charges related to a customs-fraud scheme that has entangled over a dozen top ministers and Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who resigned in May and is now facing trial as well. Posters extolling the ruling right-wing Patriotic Party (which Pérez Molina, a former army general, founded in 2001) are being torn down across the country’s capital.

While Pérez Molina awaits the verdict of the judicial system, joyful Guatemalans are preparing to deliver an electoral verdict when they choose a new president in Sunday’s general election.

The Guatemalan Congress’ Tuesday decision to strip Pérez Molina of immunity and the embattled president’s subsequent resignation is a historic inflection point. It’s a clear success for the tens of thousands of protesters who marched the streets of Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa alike this summer, loudly condemning the graft of Guatemalan and Honduran political elites, and the ability of civil society to demand Pérez Molina’s accountability is an important moment in the development of Central America’s democratic and participatory institutions. Leaders like Honduras’ conservative president Juan Orlando Hernández and El Salvador’s leftist president Salvador Sánchez Cerén could meet additional blowback in countries with equally systemic corruption and even more violent streets.

With the summer’s twin protests in Guatemala and Honduras, it is now de rigueur to argue that the region is undergoing a ‘Central American spring,’ a democratic awakening and a public demand for better policy to eliminate rampant corruption, reduce gang-related violence and provide the kind of growing middle-class opportunities that have become increasingly common throughout Latin America, from Mexico to Peru to Brazil, over the last two decades. Pérez Molina’s resignation will only embolden those declarations.

But the region’s democracy didn’t suddenly spring into existence in 2015. As the former Soviet Union and the Middle East have so painfully shown us, we should by now be wary of mad-lib punditry that falsely declares a rainbow’s worth of color revolutions, always overeager to set calendars to springtime. The full story of Central American governance today is one of gradual change and the development of mature political institutions only in fits and starts—it was only in 2009 that a military coup ousted Honduras’s left-wing president Manuel Zelaya. After nearly two centuries of war, imperialism and autocracy, Central America’s countries have enjoyed relative peace, democracy and full sovereignty only for the last quarter-century.

The United States shares a portion of the blame for that. In the 1920s and 1930s, U.S. industry founded quasicolonial banana plantations that pitted local political parties in Honduras against each other in a race to the bottom for special regulatory treatment and extravagant infrastructure, to the detriment of internal human rights and domestic economic development. The Eisenhower administration’s support for the 1954 coup against Guatemalan social democrat Jacobo Árbenz so destabilized the country that it spent the next four decades engaged in civil war. Throughout the Cold War, Democratic and Republican administrations alike supported despots like Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza and Guatemala’s Efraín Ríos Montt, the latter currently subject to a retrial of his conviction on charges of genocide two years ago. Even today, military-style U.S. drug-eradication efforts, more reminiscent of the Cold War than the Obama era, wreak lethal havoc in the region.

Only in the 1990s were most of Central America’s countries fully equipped to emerge from the shadows of geopolitical conflict, ideological strife and civil war. It would be a mistake not to acknowledge the genuine gains of the last quarter-century. Those include the development of powerful judicial checks on executive power and prosecutions and other legal steps to reduce the impunity of corrupt officials. Above all, as anodyne as it now seems, the routine occurrence of regular elections, imperfect though they may be, and mostly peaceful transfers of power, are crucial prologues to deepening civic engagement in 2015. That politics in Latin American countries like Colombia, Panama and Chile (and increasingly, Costa Rica and Panama) have become so “boring” is a sparkling compliment.