In Central America, Coups Still Trump Change

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If he holds his handy lead in the polls, Porfirio (Pepe) Lobo will be the next President of Honduras. Problem is, the last man elected to that office, Manuel Zelaya, was ousted last summer in a military coup. That makes it unlikely that any nation — except maybe the U.S. — will recognize Lobo if he wins the Nov. 29 election. But as he relaxes in his opulent house near Honduras' capital Tegucigalpa after a day of campaigning, Lobo sounds unfazed. "I practice Taekwondo for serenity," he says with his trademark Cheshire cat smile. "We have to hold this election, and the world has to recognize it, because Hondurans have to move on."

It would be great if a presidential election could magically transport the small, impoverished Central American nation beyond the political crisis that has gripped it since the June 28 coup. But unless Zelaya is restored to office before next week's balloting, which looks extremely unlikely, the international community is poised to brand the vote illegitimate. Instead, the election will confirm that Honduras has slipped back into the political chicanery and military meddling that typified the 1970s and '80s. "You can't use an election to clean the slate after a coup," says Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Council of the Americas in New York City. "It just threatens to roll back democratic norms in Central America by decades."

Honduras, in fact, is the latest example of how little progress Central America has made since the coups, civil wars and corruption of the past. The institutional rot that spawned those Cold War conflicts remains, not just in Honduras but in nearby countries such as Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama. In Nicaragua, for example, leftist President Daniel Ortega last month had Supreme Court justices loyal to him summarily lift a constitutional ban on presidential re-election so he can run again in 2011, even though most Nicaraguans oppose the change. In Panama, members of the powerful Arias family have so far been able to block the will of a relative who left some $50 million to poor children — the largest private gift in the nation's history. Even Costa Rica, once Central America's hopeful exception, has been rocked in recent years by corruption scandals involving Presidents.

And while it's been 20 years since Central America's last major civil-war battle, the isthmus is actually more dangerous today. Thanks in large part to exploding gang violence and useless justice systems, Central America has seen 79,000 murders in the past six years, more than the 75,000 people killed in El Salvador's 1980-1992 civil war or the 50,000 killed in Nicaragua's 1980-1990 contra war...

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