Central America

Contagious authoritarianism

Claudia Paz y Paz has brought high-ranking military officers in Guatemala to justice for human rights violations. How does she see the future of democracy in the region?

medico: Your career is closely linked to the struggles for democratisation in Central America. How exactly?

Claudia Paz y Paz: I was Attorney General in Guatemala and in that role I brought drug traffickers and high-ranking military officers to justice for their responsibility in serious cases of human rights violations. Because of this, I was forced out of office before the end of my tenure and in 2014 had to leave the country with my family. As part of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts established by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, I investigated the disappearance of the 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa in Mexico and, in 2018, the violent crackdown on the opposition movement in Nicaragua.

After a stint in Washington, I had the privilege of returning to Central America in 2019 and continuing to work here. My current work at the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) in Costa Rica affords me a regional perspective on the problems of Central America. We bring cases of human rights violations to the Inter-American Court, support indigenous groups, human rights defenders and other threatened groups in protection measures, and try to influence governments in the region through lobbying.

What is the state of democracy in Central America?

The erosion we are observing is clear and it is serious. It is certainly the most evident and worst in Nicaragua, where we are seeing a process of appropriation of power and control that has been going on for years: over the Supreme Court, over parliament and over the entire public sector. The annulment of any opposition culminated in the illegal arrests and criminalisation of politicians, human rights defenders, journalists, farmers and students. This authoritarian development was practically contagious, spreading to the other countries in the region, especially Guatemala and El Salvador. In Guatemala, no non-governmental organisations have been banned yet, but laws controlling NGOs give the government a lot of power over them. In El Salvador, European countries were able to prevent a similar law in time.

Can you describe the impacts of authoritarianism in greater detail?

The influence over the justice system is serious. In Nicaragua, independent judges were forced out of the Supreme Court and the tenure of those close to Ortega was extended illegally. The same thing happened in Guatemala, where independent judges, public prosecutors, journalists and human rights defenders are being subjected to trials simultaneously. The former investigator of the now closed International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), Virginia Laparra, has been detained in prison for months. As has well-known journalist José Rubén Zamora, whose newspaper elPeriódico has had to cease publication. This political persecution is leading to an exodus. Just recently I was in Washington at a meeting of a good thirty judges and prosecutors who have left Guatemala and applied for asylum in the US. And the same goes for other persecuted groups.

In El Salvador, in the early summer of 2022, President Bukele summarily removed five judges of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court he did not like, replacing them with judges loyal to him. A change in the law also moved a third of all active judges in the country into early retirement. So it is no longer possible to legally check and control what happens under the state of emergency currently repeatedly being imposed. Young men suspected of belonging to gangs are being arrested en masse and have no chance of a proper trial. Instead, they are being tried in groups of twenty: But no one knows what the individual person has done.

In Honduras, we have witnessed the same treatment of the justice system. There, in 2012 Supreme Court judges were illegally removed after they had ruled that various laws were unconstitutional. By contrast, Xiomara Castro coming to power gives some hope for the future. Not that everything is good, many things are very questionable, but something is happening at least: human rights defenders have been released, there is an opposition which includes the former ruling party. So the situation here is indeed different.

What do you currently see as the biggest obstacle to democratisation in Central America?

It is not the same everywhere, but in Guatemala there are utterly corrupt elites who control the state with a view to plundering the public coffers. In El Salvador, where corruption is also huge, the situation is somewhat different because of the wide popular support for Bukele. Although the high incarceration rate in the country means every family must know someone in prison, people believe in him.

Why is that?

Because the problem of gangs is real. They control entire districts, residents are not allowed to leave their district without permission, others are not allowed to enter without permission, many people pay protection money. This has made them desperate and so they support at least something happening.

Are we currently seeing a wave of authoritarianism or the return of caudillismo, i.e. the rule of charismatic leaders?

I would describe the phenomenon as authoritarianism. In Guatemala, every president is awful, whether his name is Giammattei, Morales or something different. Control of the state apparatus stays in the same hands. It is not who heads the government that matters, but rather the system behind it.

What are the characteristics that define this authoritarianism?

A connecting element copied from each other is definitely the attack on the independence of the justice system. Add to this the curbing of the right to association – so bans on organisations and obstacles to the freedom of association. This is worst in Nicaragua, where over 3000 organisations have now been banned. But Guatemala and El Salvador have copied their aforementioned laws to control NGOs from Nicaragua. In all countries we are witnessing censorship and criminalisation of the free press. In Nicaragua, media outlets have been closed, the people who head them arrested or forced into exile. But freelance journalists and community reporting on extractivism are also being persecuted. The house of journalist Juan Bautista Xol, who reported on the mining project in El Estor, Guatemala, was raided by a large police operation. The denunciation and criminalisation of staff from the investigative news journal El faro in El Salvador is alarming.

These are connecting trends we are seeing throughout the region. And at least in Nicaragua and Guatemala, there is quite rightly no trust and confidence at all in the political parties and the electoral system. There are parallels in the history of the countries: Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua each have a history of wars. The peace that ended these wars was not complete. The structures that had developed historically did not change. This is most evident in Guatemala, as well as in El Salvador.

What options are left for democratic actors and do you see any promising approaches for them?

In Guatemala and El Salvador we are seeing an exodus of leaders from social movements, of judges, public prosecutors, journalists. The best and bravest are leaving. For those who stay, the only option left is obedience to the powers that be. On top of this, of course, there is the migration of countless people for economic reasons and because of the continuing violence.

At the same time, there are active resistance movements: In Guatemala and in Honduras as well, the resistance of the indigenous peoples against the extractive industries and their large-scale projects seems to me to be the most important. Here, the social structures are the most pronounced. For Nicaragua and El Salvador, it is more difficult to say where fractures may occur. A lot of what is happening in Nicaragua stays invisible because of repression. I mean to say, hopefully, something is happening in the country. It is difficult to hold any sway from the outside.

Central America has a long history of external interventions against democratic developments. Can external influence play a positive role now and support democratisation?

In the case of Guatemala and El Salvador, one sees very clearly that the international level is mainly interested in curbing migration towards the US and that there is no serious effort to strengthen democratic movements, no promotion of the fight against corruption and impunity. Just a few weeks ago, the US gave Guatemala dozens of military vehicles to ensure “border security”". The same holds true in El Salvador: there is criticism of Bukele’s authoritarian course, but that’s all. International pressure on those in power in Central America to adhere to rule-of-law norms could be greater. The sanctions against specific groups in Nicaragua are a step in the right direction as I see it and hopefully will produce positive results.

The interview was conducted by Jana Flörchinger and Moritz Krawinkel.
Translation: Rajosvah Mamisoa

Published: 19. December 2022

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