TWO ELECTIONS in Central America have underlined the growing problems in a region that is mostly ignored in Washington. On Sunday former general Otto Perez won Guatemala’s presidential election with a slogan long favored by Latin American authoritarians: “mano dura,” or iron hand, which he promises to apply to the Mexican drug traffickers and criminal gangs that have virtually taken over the country and sent the murder rate soaring. As with Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala is in danger of being overwhelmed by the drug trade and the violence it engenders. But Mr. Perez’s promises to cut the crime rate in half are unlikely to be fulfilled by his plan to expand and deploy the army.
An entirely different threat confronts Nicaragua, which has mostly avoided the drug traffic further north but has been unable to rid itself of Daniel Ortega, the former Marxist ruler who now appears intent on re-creating the dictatorship his 1979 revolution overthrew. Mr. Ortega, now 65, never won more than 42 percent of the vote in a free election, and he collected just 38 percent in gaining the presidency in 2006. But the electoral authorities he controls reported this week that he had won 63 percent of the vote — compared to the less than 50 percent he had in pre-election polls.
European observers blandly declared that fraud probably didn’t change the outcome of the election, but that was missing the point. As the recently retired U.S. ambassdor Robert Callahan wrote in The Post last week, Mr. Ortega “manipulated the voter rolls, enjoyed a near-monopoly on media advertising, spent lavishly on small gifts to potential voters, and put off until late August inviting international observers, ensuring that their presence is more cosmetic than productive.”
That was in addition to violating the constitution. Nicaragua’s charter bans presidents from being reelected or serving more than one term. But Mr. Ortega controlled a majority of judges on the Supreme Court, which ruled that he had a human right to run for another term.
If Mr. Ortega is more popular than he used to be, it is because he has abandoned his former socialist policies while accepting $500 million a year in subsidies from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan money, which amounts to 7 percent of the Nicaraguan economy, pays for populist handouts and, likely, Sandinista self-enrichment; there is no accounting. Mr. Ortega, meanwhile, coddles the business community and the Catholic Church — much like Nicaragua’s former right-wing dictators.
The United States cut off some development aid to Nicaragua after a previous electoral fraud, but the Obama administration has mostly ignored Mr. Ortega’s misrule. While counter-narcotics aid to other Central American nations has expanded, it has been a modest effort compared to the rising tide of violence. Unlike much of the rest of Latin America, Central American countries still look to the United States; their hopes for prosperity and political freedom depend on American support. Their people deserve better.