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Leaders discuss building credibility

John Tierney | Friday, November 21, 2008

Panelists participating in a Kellogg Institute-sponsored discussion of “The Future of Democracy in Central America” agreed Central American democracies risk losing their governmental structure if they do not do something to improve their credibility.

Building credibility in government is not something that can be achieved instantly, according to panelist Ricardo Maduro Joest, who was president of Honduras from 2002 to 2006.

During his presidency, he fought frequently with the nation’s teachers in his quest to improve the nation’s education. In negotiations with the teachers, Maduro said that “more often than not, we had to go find Cardinal Rodriguez” to verify the fairness of an agreement “because they didn’t believe in anyone else.”

“Who can we believe in? What can we fall back on?” are some of the questions that people ask when they feel that their government is not trustworthy, according to Maduro.

Maduro expressed frustration with citizen’s inability to trust a democratic government that he felt was trustworthy.

“The fact is, you don’t build credible institutions overnight,” Maduro said. “You need to change certain things for a long time and create credible institutions.”

Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States Arturo Cruz said credibility is a major problem in Central American democracies. He attributes much of this to the government’s inability to balance meeting people’s immediate needs and planning for the future.

“Sometimes, I wonder how you govern a type of society that is always overwhelmed by the need of the people,” Cruz said. “There’s a fundamental problem with promising the future and not dealing with the present,” especially in a society in which 79 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day, Cruz said.

In such impoverished societies, governments have difficulties fulfilling promises for the future when people are concerned about being able to find dinner.

“How do you manage expectations?” Cruz asked. “If you be patient, and let the market function, then you have a future. But the future isn’t coming yet … If we pretend to govern as we wish it to be, we have chaos and breakdown.”

Cruz said that the best way to deal with this problem is by what he called “responsible or measured populism.”

“That was my hope, a hope that withers away every day,” Cruz said.

Otton Solis, a former presidential candidate of the Citizens Action Party in Costa Rica, attributes much of his country’s problems to the negative impacts of free trade agreements.

These agreements, according to Cruz, neglected “inward oriented consensus building,” while instead pursuing “outward secret pacts, like in the case of Structural Adjustment and CAFTA.”

Solis also denounced corrupt governmental policies. “Decentralization of power and the elimination of populist practices” are areas in which better policies are necessary, according to Solis.

“People are used,” he said. “Perhaps the worst country in this is my own country, Costa Rica.”

Because the governments are weak and take advantage of the people, according to Solis, the entire system of democracy is called into question.

“Will the governance weaknesses continue to be blamed on the institutions of democracy?” he asked.

He cited corrupt courts and legislatures, along with inefficient government programs overall, as a bulk of the problem.

“They have weakened democracy,” Solis said. “Costa Rica is the worst case. More people think it would be better to have a dictatorship because some people have talked against the very institutions of democracy.”

In spite of all the corruption, the panelists agree that there is hope for Central American democracies.

Solis attributes this hope a predicted return of “more pragmatic policies” under the incoming administration of U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama.

Solis is also hopeful because of the American economy, growing practices of market intervention, and “the fear of new populist leaders elected” in Central America.

Central American democracy has also not been without success, according to Cruz.

“We have finally had – my God, especially in my country – some level of peace,” Cruz said.

“We’re also having great statistics when it comes to crime,” he said.

A third achievement of the Nicaraguan democracy is the electorate system, but that electorate system could begin to become problematic, according to Cruz.

“Since 1990, Nicaragua has realized that we can change government without killing or dying,” he said.

Similar participation in the democratic system is essential in Honduras, according to Maduro.

“What can keep us from extremes? The only way to do it is to delegate more,” Maduro said.

Under the current Honduran government, Maduro said that citizens are scared to participate in democracy.

“Now we’re being persecuted if we have an opinion against the government,” he said. “How do we get back so people are willing to participate?”