Nicaragua, Guatemala: '80s Rebels Seek Leadership

Twenty-five years ago, both Central American countries were in the midst of violent civil wars. Both countries are holding presidential elections and the main candidates are icons from the 1980s.

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LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

Nicaragua isn't the only country in Central America holding elections today. In Guatemala, people are also headed to the polls to choose a new president. And in both countries, the elections are fraught with history.

Back in the 1980s, Guatemala and Nicaragua were facing civil war and revolution. Twenty-five years later, both countries are still embattled but with different issues.

NPR's Tom Gjelten covered the region in the '80s and says the aftermath of the civil wars is key to understanding what is going on in those countries today.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: There have been peace agreements in all these countries, and the peace agreements have lasted. And the consequence of that, unfortunately, is that we really don't pay attention to this region that much anymore. It does not mean the problems are gone. You know, all these countries have been dealing with the aftermath of war. And the aftermath of war can often be as messy as the war itself. And you still have conflict, but it's less ideological. It's now more a question of competing personal and even commercial interests.

SULLIVAN: Well, let's look at those two issues separately in each of these countries. First, Nicaragua where President Ortega is running for his third term.

GJELTEN: This third term, Laura, even though the Nicaraguan constitution prohibits running for more than two terms.

SULLIVAN: Huh.

GJELTEN: Quite a trick. He got the Nicaraguan Supreme Court to declare the Nicaraguan constitution unconstitutional.

SULLIVAN: Wow.

GJELTEN: And, you know, the Nicaraguan case, Laura, really shows how the nature of conflict in these countries changes because all the characters that are running were familiar to anyone from the 1980s. But the roles that they are playing now is completely different.

Ortega still considers himself revolutionary. He's friends with the Castros in Cuba and Chavez in Venezuela. He was friends with Gadhafi in Libya. But he's been governing in a very anti-democratic way, as I said, packing(ph) the Supreme Court. He really reinvented himself as a kind of a pro-business and even pro-church kind of politician.

SULLIVAN: And I understand Ortega has made opposition to abortion a big issue.

GJELTEN: A huge issue. A big case that got a lot of attention here just in the last few weeks was a 12-year-old girl who was raped by her stepdad and became pregnant and was not allowed to have an abortion even though she was so small that the pregnancy really endangered her health. She actually had to have a child by C-section because she wasn't able to give birth.

This was a direct result of this anti-abortion legislation that became very controversial in Nicaragua. That's actually the way Daniel Ortega made this alliance with the church and was able to gain support.

SULLIVAN: Let's talk about Guatemala. There, the leading contender is Otto Perez Molina, an ex-general who's been accused of using torture during their civil war. And his competitor is a wealthy businessman named Manuel Baldizon. What are these two candidates promising to do?

GJELTEN: The big issue in Guatemala is violence. And again, here, we're talking about a different kind of violence than what we saw during the civil war there, which was an extremely bloody time. There's no more guerilla movements in Guatemala. What we have right now is drug-related violence. The drug cartels have moved into Guatemala in a big way. So that is the big issue. How do you deal with the violence? It's actually hard to distinguish these two candidates ideologically.

I mean, they're both conservative. Both of them say that they will implement a mano dura policy, basically an iron fist policy. But when you talk about using an iron fist now, it has a different meaning than it did back then because you're not talking about using an iron fist against the poor indigenous populations that supported the guerillas, you're talking about using a tough hand against the drug cartels. So there is a lot of popular support for getting tough on those guys.

SULLIVAN: Are there any lessons from the '80s from those wars?

GJELTEN: From the U.S. perspective, those conflicts were seen almost exclusively in ideological terms - left versus right. And I think that what that perspective missed is the endemic problems in these regions that give rise to these conflicts. And I think that it's terribly unfortunate that we shifted our attention away from this region just because we had a settlement of the wars without dealing with the underlying causes of unrest and inequality in those countries.

SULLIVAN: That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. He joined us here in our D.C. studios. Tom, thanks.

GJELTEN: You're so welcome, Laura.

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