Dexter Boniface

Central America’s Homicide Problem

In El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Human Rights, United States Government, Violence on June 6, 2012 at 6:52 pm

The Problem in Numbers

According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), there are roughly a dozen countries in the world where the homicide rate exceeds 35 per 100,000 people; four of them – Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – are in Central America. Honduras, with a staggering 82.1 homicides per 100,000 citizens, holds the sad distinction of having the highest homicide rate in the world today (for the data, see the UNODC’s Global Study on Homicide 2011).

As a point of comparison, the global average stands at 6.9 per 100,000 and the homicide rate in the United States clocks in at 5.0. In Europe and Asia, it is 3.5 or less. In Japan, it is a meager 0.5.

The aggregate figures are no less alarming. In 2010, 16,284 homicides took place in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras combined. Although less than thirty million people live in these three tiny countries, this is more homicides than occurred in the entire United States with a population of more than 313 million people! In short, Central America is experiencing a homicide epidemic.

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Latin America’s Elections in 2012: The Dominican Republic

In Dominican Republic, Elections, Mexico, Venezuela on May 6, 2012 at 4:22 pm

Latin Americans head to the polls in 2012 to elect presidents in the Dominican Republic (Sunday, May 20), Mexico (Sunday, July 1) and Venezuela (Sunday, October 7). Voters in the United States do the same on Tuesday, November 6.

The Dominican Republic. In a partial replay of the 2000 contest, the 2012 presidential election in the D.R. pits former President Rafael Hipólito Mejía (2000-2004) against incumbent party nominee Danilo Medina of the PLD (Dominican Liberation Party). One of the more remarkable aspects of the election is who is not running. After contemplating a new round of constitutional changes to enable his re-election, current and three-time President Leonel Fernandez (1996-2000; 2004-2012) declined to seek a fourth term (though he will be eligible to run again in 2016). Fernandez’s wife, first lady Margarita Cedeño, followed suit, declining a presidential bid. She opted instead to run as Danilo Medina’s vice-presidential running mate on the PLD ticket. Danilo’s challenger Hipólito Mejía (whose presidency was marred by a severe economic crisis) trails by a small margin in recent polls. Like the 2000 contest, the 2012 election is likely to be seen as a referendum on the market-friendly policies pursued by President Leonel Fernandez; under his tenure, the Dominican Republic has experienced positive economic growth but unemployment, poverty and inequality remain stubbornly high.

Rise of the Transnational Voter? The other remarkable feature of the election is that it could be decided by (Dominican) voters in the United States. In recent decades a growing number of Latin American countries have extended the right to vote to citizens living abroad. In 2012, lawmakers in the Dominican Republic went a step further, enacting new legislation which enables foreign residents to choose seven overseas representatives (three from the United States and Canada), in addition to casting their vote for President and (under the new legislation) Vice-President as well. Historically, Latin American voters living abroad have not had much of an impact on election outcomes. This election could be different for two reasons. First, the size of the D.R.’s foreign electorate is relatively large (recent numbers compiled by the Observatorio Politico Dominicano indicate that one in twenty Dominican voters resides abroad, most of them in the United States; out of a total of 6.5 million eligible voters, more than 223,000 reside in the United States). Second, the presidential election is relatively close. Then again, as blogger James Bosworth points out, if Dominicans living abroad do not hold a strong partisan preference (in contrast to, say, Venezuelans abroad), or do not turn out in high numbers (turnout is generally low among foreign voters), their impact on the 2012 election may yet be inconsequential.

Bolivarian Populism and Democratic Governance: A Poor Record

In Bolivia, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela on June 21, 2011 at 8:13 am

The recent election of Ollanta Humala as President of Peru has once again raised the spectre of Hugo Chavez’s brand of Bolivarian Populism spreading to yet another South American country. Similarly, the recent release of a secret diplomatic cable outlining a pact between Honduran President Porfirio Lobo and Chavez has rekindled fears that Venezuela continues to exert powerful influence in Central America. Critics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez frequently claim that his brand of left-wing populism is incompatible with democracy. In this blogpost, I examine some preliminary evidence in support of this claim.

Source: Arnulfo Franco / AP

The Bolivarian Blueprint

I use the term “Bolivarian Populism” to denote a particular process of political change exemplified by Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez and imitated to different degrees by other left-leaning Latin American presidents, especially Evo Morales (Bolivia) and Rafael Correa (Ecuador) as well as Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) and Manuel Zelaya (Honduras). This process of political change typically begins, first, with the election of a political outsider who rails against the traditional political party establishment. Once elected into power, the president next calls for the creation of a constituent assembly to re-write the country’s constitution, a process inevitably marked by substantial partisan conflict (particularly between the president and the legislative and judicial branches of government), increased social polarization, and often a serious breakdown in the rule of law. The new constitutions, approved in more or less democratic plebiscites (or, in Nicaragua’s case, modified by dubious procedures), typically enhance the executive’s power by reducing checks and balances and abolishing presidential term limits. Once the new constitution is in place, finally, the president holds new elections to refresh their mandate. This pattern is particularly evident in Venezuela under Chavez (elected 1998, new constitution 1999, new mandates 2000, 2006 and possibly 2012), Bolivia under Morales (elected 2005, constituent assembly 2006-2007, new constitution and mandate 2009, and possible future mandate in 2014) and Ecuador under Correa (elected 2006, constituent assembly 2007, new constitution 2008, new mandate in 2009 and possibly 2013).

The Decline of Freedom

Chavez and other followers of “Bolivarian Populism” frequently claim that radical changes in political structure are required to make their countries more democratic. Yet recent data from Freedom House (an NGO specializing in measuring freedom around the world) suggests that the results of such changes are typically just the opposite. As the chart below indicates, aggregate measures of political rights and civil liberties have dropped (in some cases precipitously) during the tenure of all five of the leaders most closely associated with Bolivarian Populism. Although the Freedom House data is not a perfect measure of democracy (it is, more precisely, a measure of freedom), the gradual decline in political and civil rights in these countries is unambiguous. The decline has arguably been most striking in Venezuela, a case that has been extensively documented by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Source: author's computations based on Freedom House data published in 2011.

The Rise of Corruption 

In addition to championing democracy, the Bolivarian Populists often rail against the endemic corruption of their societies and advocate radical political changes as a key part of the solution. Yet recent evidence from Transparency International (an NGO specializing in measuring perceptions of corruption around the world) suggests that the results of such efforts have been disappointing. In the most recent 2010 survey, for example, Venezuela was found to be the most corrupt country in all of Latin America, followed by Paraguay, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia. The results, as Andres Oppenheimer has argued, are not all that surprising. Indeed, as Transparency International’s Alejandro Salas has noted, “In countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, government leaders have shattered the system of checks and balances. And when there are no watchdogs, you tend to have more arbitrary allocations of funds, and fewer transparent bids for government contracts” (quoted by Oppenheimer).

Conclusion

Although the evidence I have presented here is far from definitive, and the standards by which we should measure the success or failure of the “Bolivarian Revolution” are hotly disputed (a more complete analysis would need, minimally, to include a wide variety of socioeconomic data), recent data support the claim that Chavez’s style of Bolivarian Populism has consistently undermined democratic governance in Latin America.