In recent weeks I have had a chance to visit for a short time a few of the republics in Central America: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia (South America, but close enough), Guatemala, and Mexico. I have been trying to upload a podcast I recorded on the subject, but internet connections are so slow that I will have to wait a bit more on that; the upload times are just too long. I’ve been posting photos on my Instagram account for those who are interested in seeing them.
I have been traveling by cruise ship, and this is the first time I’ve done something like this. It’s a totally different experience from how I normally travel; but sometimes you have to try different things. Even though I’ve only spent about a day in each of these countries, it still is possible to see a few things and draw some basic observations. After leaving Nicaragua, I thought more and more about why some countries have stable political institutions and others do not. It seems to me that stable republics all have certain features in common. It goes without saying that there are countless factors that influence the stability equation, but it would nearly impossible to find a successful republic that did not have most or all of these qualities.
Middle Class. This is of critical importance. Stable political institutions cannot flourish in conditions where a country has only the super-wealthy and the super-poor, with nothing in between. When this type of polarity exists, the two extremes of the “poles” are always at odds with each other, pulling each other in different directions. The Roman historian Sallust noted (Bel. Jug. 41) that after the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. the politics of the city became fatally polarized. The rich exploited the state for their own benefit while the plebs seethed with anger and resentment. The result was eventual descent into social strife and class antagonism. A civic-minded middle class that cares about the country and participates in it is vital for the continuation of republican governments.
Freedom From War. There is a huge difference in the feel of Nicaragua and, say, Guatemala or Costa Rica. Nicaragua was been suffering for a very long time; in the 1960s and 1970s the government was repressive. Then there was the Sandinista revolution in 1979, followed by more war and insurgency as the “contras” fought them for control of the country. This did nothing to help the society. Things were so bad that in the early 1990s one of the Nicaraguan ministers sold off all of the country’s railroad stock as scrap metal, thereby helping to ruin its infrastructure. It can be said that a little bit of war does a republic good, in the sense that it fosters a sense of cohesion and common purpose; but if this little bit becomes too much, then vital institutions are destroyed or degraded.
Things were not always this way. In Leon, Nicaragua, I visited house of Nicaraguan author Ruben Dario (the founder of the “modernist” movement in Spanish literature in the twentieth century); he died in 1916 at the age of 49. I had never heard of him before, but the more I learned about him, the more I realized that old Nicaragua had once been different from what we see today. He was a brilliant man who learned to read at the age of three and had published works while still in his teens. He traveled extensively in South America and Europe and greatly influenced his fellow literary figures.
From what I could tell, it seemed that Nicaragua was actually better off in his day than it was in the late 20th century. Progress is not always linear. In any case, the point is that a republic needs an environment that permits the growth and maintenance of sound institutions. To take another example, consider Afghanistan. In the 1970s, it actually was a reasonably stable civil state by central Asian standards; photographs of the period tell the tale. But since the wars of the 1980s up to the present, it has been nothing but a tale of woe. War came and never left.
Institutions That Do Not Depend On Personalities. For sound institutions to exist, they must be able to survive the people who sit in such offices. The institutions should not be so “personality-dependent” that when the person dies or leaves, the office dies too. This is a major problem in countries in different parts of the world. Leaders focus too much on consolidating their power, and not enough time on building institutions. The judiciary, executive, and legislative branches of government must be truly independent and capable of surviving challenges to their integrity.
It seems to me that the current president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, is slipping right back into the habits of his predecessors in that he is not building institutions; he is only enriching his own family. The manner in which the alleged new canal project that the Chinese plan to build in the country illustrates this. The contract for the project was awarded as a result of nepotism and insider dealings that took no account of the needs of the average Nicaraguan.
In the same way, many of the Arab states suffer from a chronic inability to build resilient institutions that can survive the shocks of war or political upheaval. The ruling styles depend too much on one man; and while this is a problem in much of Asia, it was put on display to a great extent in the uprisings that shook the region after 2011.
Respect For Authority And Tradition. Institutions are no good if the people are unaware of them. They are also no good if no one respects them. In Thailand, the monarchy is universally respected; even factions that have political differences can agree that the throne in the one institution that unites Thais. It is critical that the young people in a country have respect for its institutions and are educated thoroughly in their importance.
When I was walking around Acapulco today, I saw two very long lines of young men queued up in front of a military official. All of these men were waiting patiently and politely. I was told that this was the day for these men to register for their military service, which is compulsory in Mexico. Each man must do at least 12 months, I was told. Service for females is optional. I happen to agree with universal military service; but even if one does not, it is still critical for the citizenry to be aware how their country functions. States begin to decline when respect for their history, traditions, and cultures is neglected.
When these requirements are found in a republic, it will almost certainly be stable and successful. Good institutions are both the rudders and the bulwarks of states: when they are in place, a state can survive many disasters, including a succession of fools or idiots on the throne. I am not saying that these are the only requirements for a stable republic. Doubtless a state will need much else. But I feel confident in saying that every stable political system has all (or most) of these characteristics. It is also true that states that lose these features begin to decline. Democratic institutions cannot survive in conditions where these things–noted above–are absent.