Recent years have seen the spread and consolidation of South America's much-touted electoral "left turn." Indeed, the phenomenon has reached Central America: in 2007, center-left Álvaro Colom beat out a former general for the presidency in Guatemala; earlier that year, transformed former guerrilla comandante Daniel Ortega returned to power in Nicaragua; and this past March, Salvadorans elected Mauricio Funes of the FMLN party to occupy the presidency. Once in power, constitutional reform has been one of the main strategies used by newly elected left-of-center governments working to define a post-neoliberal age.
Such constitutional reforms have been seen by their advocates as necessary to create the conditions for a redistribution of economic and political power, mainly by increasing public control over natural resources and national economies, and by expanding access to basic services. At the same time, however, particularly in Central America, constitutional reform has become a tool used by economic elites to retain and consolidate their power. Conservative forces in Honduras and Guatemala, for example, are defending existing constitutionally guaranteed power, or pushing power consolidation through proposed constitutional amendments.
In Honduras, elite tension had been simmering for a year prior to boiling over on June 28 when Honduran soldiers carried out a coup d'état in a scene resonant of the "bad old days" of the 1980s, forcing President Manuel Zelaya into exile. Zelaya, a member of the business elite himself, had moved to the left during his presidency, increasing the minimum wage, and promoting Honduras's affiliation with Petrocaribe and ALBA - Venezuelan-sponsored economic agreements that promote trading among Latin American countries as an alternative to U.S. and European-dominated free trade agreements.
While Zelaya's association with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez was seen by Honduran elites as a form of class betrayal, his most extreme "offense" was his push to reverse the gross inequalities guaranteed by the 1982 constitution. The idea of losing the consolidated power traditionally enjoyed by the country's elites was so deeply threatening that even the mere attempt at proposing a referendum on whether or not to convene a National Constituent Assembly was enough to push them over the edge.
When their attempts at blocking the referendum ballots failed, they resorted to a tactic from the old playbook, the coup d'état. The 1982 constitution provided easy cover for coup plotters: it does not include statutes for revision and considers any attempt at reform a crime.
Human rights reports coming out of post-coup Honduras now testify to a systematic campaign of political intolerance and violence - including forced detentions, disappearances, and torture - towards the http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/faultlines/2009/10/2009101596502...">social movement that has coalesced in the wake of the coup.
In the meantime, Guatemala too has been the scene of brewing political turmoil since its 2007 elections. A self-styled social democrat, President Álvaro Colom is neither a member of the traditional business elite, nor of the oligarch-friendly military establishment. In fact, he has ties to the ex-guerrilla URNG party and has run in past elections on the leftist Alliance for a New Nation (ANN) ticket. Colom's policy actions to date have tended toward the business- and U.S.-friendly neoliberal status quo and have rarely resembled concrete reforms in favor of the livelihoods of the country's poor majority. Apparently however, given the regional context, the risk of Colom's presence has been viewed as unacceptable by the traditional elite.
Just seven months after Colom assumed office, a letter purportedly written by the notoriously reactionary association of retired military officers, AVEMILGUA, circulated among the country's political class. The letter accused Colom of corruption, drug trafficking, money laundering and treason, and called for his immediate capture and ouster. In what the letter described as Colom's "constitutional violation," it called on all military personnel to carry out their mandated duty to defend the constitution, to remove the president, and to convene a Constituent Assembly.
A counter-communiqué released by the leftist National Front of Struggle (FNL), claims that the intention behind the letter is, in effect, to remove existing democratic guarantees from the Guatemalan constitution. The dream of the retired military officers, writes the FNL, coincides with that of the rightist business class, which has been expressed on countless occasions: the elimination of the 1985 constitution and the creation of conditions to formulate a new constitutional order designed exclusively on the neoliberal model - in which the rights of businessmen take precedence over human rights.
Though the letter ultimately failed to muster the support necessary to carry out its coup plan, and AVEMILGUA denied authorship, the issue of constitutional reform remained on the table as a strategy of Guatemala's reactionary elite. A group headed by Manuel Ayau - a prominent representative of Guatemala's oligarchy - released a set of proposed constitutional amendments called "ProReforma," which seeks to overcome Guatemala's ongoing insecurity and poverty by establishing a genuine rule of law, and by minimizing the role of the state in the market. Under such a plan, says the group, the markets will surge, thus undercutting the root cause of insecurity and criminal activity in the country.
A closer look at ProReforma reveals a strategy to consolidate power in the hands of an elite few. It would create a new governing body - a Senate - whose membership would be extremely restricted and whose supreme power to write laws, control the judicial branch, and arbitrarily dismiss the president or vice president would be unchecked. The amendments would establish a minimum age requirement of 50 years for eligibility to vote for and/or be elected to the Senate, and the length of a senator's term would be 15 years.
In a country where 70% of the population is younger than 30 and 89% is younger than 50, this proposal amounts to a significant loss of democratic gains made over the past 25 years. In effect, ProReforma is a counter example to the wave of multicultural constitutional reforms seen throughout Latin America in the past decade.
A common analysis of the current Central American context is that its oligarchy, aligned more to its transnational economic interests than to a sense of national identity, actually attempted to pull off a de-facto coup in Guatemala in early May, about two months prior to the Honduran coup, and just over a month after the FMLN electoral victory in El Salvador.
On May 10, elite lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg was assassinated in broad daylight just blocks from his home in a wealthy section of the Guatemalan capital. Distributed at his funeral, and later disseminated widely through YouTube and Facebook, was a video recorded by Rosenberg in which, in true magical-realist style, he foretold his assassination and accused President Álvaro Colom, first lady Sandra Torres, and presidential secretary Roberto Alejos of being responsible for his murder.
In the aftermath of the assassination, the video was used as propaganda to mount massive protests demanding Colom's resignation and, appropriating the language of popular movements, an end to violence and impunity in the country. Counter-protests were also mobilized in a scene described by observers as clearly divided on class lines, the wealthy dressed in all-white demanding that Colom resign and the poor defending the president.
Subsequently to Rosenberg's assassination many questions have arisen regarding both the production of the video and the details of Rosenberg's career and personal associations. After several weeks of intense political battle in May, the controversy subsided, protests lost steam and Colom maintained his position as the head of the Guatemalan government. What remains true is that this sacrifice of one of the elite's own has added tension to an already terrorized population that faces a higher average daily murder rate than during the 36-year civil war, and which is desperately looking for a solution to its problems of insecurity and poverty.
Constitutional reforms proposed in Honduras and Guatemala have thus established key terms of debate through which power has been contested and consolidated. It has also become clear that coups are not out of question. It is not unimaginable that the two countries' oligarchies are synergistically drawing from one another: noting the failure of Guatemala's orchestrated melodramas to oust its president, Hondurans decided to take a tougher, iron-fisted approach, while Guatemalans take current lessons from the Honduran resistance and international reactions to the Honduran coup, understanding that its own "coup d'état" must happen constitutionally through the passage of ProReforma. The future of the region is uncertain. For now, however, one thing seems sure: poor Central Americans will continue to suffer the effects of failed neoliberal policies, which degrade public services and swell the ranks of the unemployed, pushing ever more people to migrate al norte and send back remittances to sustain their families.
Kimberly Kohler and Joshua MacLeod are NACLA Research Associates.