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  • The Hybrid Regimes of Central America
  • Terry Lynn Karl (bio)

As the countries of Central America approach the twenty-first century, they present a picture that is strikingly different from the situation of the previous decade. 1 At the beginning of the 1980s, only Costa Rica was a functioning democracy. By 1990, for the first time in their collective history, all five Central American countries were governed by civilian presidents who had assumed office as the result of elections. All five had also experienced some rotation of power: in each case a president of one party voluntarily relinquished power to an elected successor of a rival party. Even more significant, by 1994 efforts toward national reconciliation were taking place in the three countries of the region that have been the primary sites of armed conflict: Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

These are remarkable achievements, not only because they have occurred in little more than a decade, but also because they have taken place in some of the continent’s poorest countries, in the midst of civil strife, and with the end of the Cold War having a less-than-expected impact. 2 They have bolstered claims that “democracies as delicate as seedlings are struggling to take root across Central America,” and have led to hopeful forecasts about the prospects of these “seedlings.” 3

Despite these signs of progress, some observers remain skeptical. During the 1980s, scholars noted that “demonstration” elections held primarily to win international legitimacy could not be considered indicators of unrestricted political participation, and they argued that Central American polities were being transformed into “low-intensity democracies” incapable of carrying out sweeping social change on the [End Page 72] scale of the bourgeois revolutions of the past. 4 In my own work, I argued that elections could assume real significance even under conditions of authoritarian rule or civil war but warned about the “fallacy of electoralism,” that is, the faith that the mere holding of elections will channel political action into peaceful contests among elites, the winners of which are accorded public legitimacy. 5 Because the experience of Central America shows that elections and political parties have not been sufficient to constitute democracy in the past, their current proliferation is greeted with a certain amount of distrust. They could mark a major step forward in the expansion of civic rights, political equality, participation, contestation, and accountability—or they could signal the beginning of a new cycle of liberalization followed by repression, perpetuating a pattern that has long plagued the countries of the region.

What are the prospects for democracy in Central America? Will the region’s polities regress to frank authoritarian rule, consolidate their democratic gains, or remain stuck in some middle “hybrid” terrain? Will popularly elected rulers be able to govern, or will they be overwhelmed by the profound political degeneration and ungovernability that have characterized the postwar era in Africa and other regions? With the sole exception of Costa Rica, all of the Central American countries are in the midst of uncertain and unpredictable transitions; thus the jury is still out on these questions. On the basis of current evidence, however, I would offer the following prognosis:

First, the probability of regression to “reactionary despotism” is generally low, with some variation from country to country. Reactionary-despotic regimes are especially unlikely in Costa Rica and Honduras, where they have not previously existed and patterns of compromise have deep historical roots. The chances of regression are only slightly higher in Nicaragua and El Salvador, where social forces have been profoundly transformed and objective conditions make compromise more essential than before. The situation is different in Guatemala, where political-military stalemates have never developed, ethnic conflict profoundly complicates negotiations between opposing sides, and compromise is not woven into the social fabric.

Second, the likelihood that the region’s fragile democratic structures will expand, consolidate, and soon be able to “deliver” to their populations is also low. Democracies are built in phases over time; in Central America, where conditions are especially unfavorable, any progress will have to be measured in small increments of empowerment of the previously disenfranchised coupled with a gradual curbing of the authority of traditional rulers...

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