So far the US media seem to be covering the elections going on in Thailand — largely because of the violence taking place in that Asian country.
But closer to home there are two elections that can have a more dramatic and immediate impact.
El Salvador and Costa Rica are holding elections Sunday, Feb. 2. The results could mean a lot to U.S. security and economics.
Costa Rica has been one of the most stable and successful countries in Central America. The democratic process is deeply ingrained in the Ticos.
Unfortunately, the country has not been able to avoid the problems other countries in the area are facing: corruption, drug trafficking and a weakened economy. And so the voters are faced with some serious issues and choices.
But what does that mean for the United States? (After all to the American media nothing is important unless it affects the USA.)
Exports from the United States in 2012 amounted to $7.2 billion dollars, most of that trade was in petroleum and electronics.
Imports were about $12 billion, mostly electronics and agriculture goods.
And, yep, that means there is about a $5 billion trade deficit with Costa Rica. Still, the best way to close that gap is to help make sure Costa Rica advances economically. If the Costa Ricans have more money, they can buy more goods and services from the USA as well as other countries and everyone benefits.
Unfortunately for El Salvador it got caught up the violence and civil wars of the 1980s. For some in the United States there was a red under every bed in Central America. And for others the U.S. policy was nothing but offering support for every two-bit dictator that would search out and destroy the reds.
A lot has changed since then. Democracy has taken hold. But, unfortunately, too many people on the left and right still live in the 1980s and are looking at the elections as just another phase of the Cold War, albeit 25 years later.
The violence that wracks El Salvador no is no longer communist-back rebels or right-wing death squads but rather plain old fashioned gangs and thugs. But, due to corruption and weak government institutions, the gang violence has gotten out of hand. Innocent bystanders are caught in the crossfire as gangs fight each other for domination of neighborhoods.
Journalists and human rights advocates are threatened by the gangs.
And the people are fed up with the violence.
At the same time the global economic downturn has hit the Salvadorans hard.
One candidate promises to end the violence. Another — the incumbent — promises to keep the social welfare programs he instituted in place. Both issues have a lot of appeal.
Going into the election, no one candidate has a majority in the polls. Chances are there will be a run off next month.
What does that mean to the United States?
To start with the most deadly gangs in the country are the MS 13 and Barrio 18, made up of Salvadorans deported from the United States. The gangs are multi-national enterprises — they operate in Honduras and Guatemala as well as the United States and Mexico. Besides running their own human trafficking, protection and extortion rackets, they cooperate with the Colombian drug operators and the Mexican cartels.
These gangs are a destabilizing the region through their violence and corruption. And — just to stress the point again — operate in the United States and help smuggle drugs and people into the USA.
U.S. exports to El Salvador come to about $3 billion. In that amount about $300 million each is earned in textiles, petroleum and chemicals.
Imports from El Salvador are $2.5 billion, mostly in apparel and electronics.
That means the U.S. carries a positive trade balance with El Salvador.
It does not take a lot of math or hard thinking to realize that if El Salvador can beat the problems of violence and develop economically, the people will buy more goods and services from the United States.
The question facing the people in El Salvador is what direction will they go: More spending on security or on social programs. From the rhetoric coming out of the country, there appears to be little room for both.
For American journalists, the results of these two elections should be of concern. If the power of the governments change hands, new policies that could affect U.S. security, drug policy and economic well-being might be put in place.
If the governments remain in the hands of the current ruling parties, then the issues of corruption, violence and economic issues will have to be dealt with by parties that have not been successful in addressing those issues. That is not to say that a renewal of power to a ruling party does not mean changes cannot happen. We are seeing dramatic actions being taken in Honduras to address corruption and violence even though the Nationalist Party was returned to the power of the presidency.
In just a few months, there will have been major elections in three of the five Central American countries. The changes — or lack there of — have an impact on the United States in trade and social stability.
It would be nice if just a little more attention was being paid to the region before the xenophobes go crazy over the influx of immigrants and before those who have not left the 1980s start their rants and raves to the press and U.S. Congress about either the rising red tide of Chavismo/Castro-ism or right-wing death squads.
And just covering the elections is not enough. It would be nice to show the American people why it is important to pay attention to Central America (or Asia or Africa or Europe). In journalism, that is called providing context.
And context is something that has been sorely missing from most international reports in most news organizations.
UPDATE Feb. 3, 9:14am Central America Time
The New York Times decided to cover the elections as the voting took place. (El Salvador and Costa Rica Hold Presidential Elections.)
It was done by one their correspondents — instead of lifting and AP or Reuters’ feed. And it even provided context on the issues the voters in El Salvador and Costa Rica were facing.
It was a very well-done piece. Anyone who cares about the issues of Latin America — especially democracy and security — would enjoy the piece and feel he/she was being properly informed.
All that was missing was why the rest of America should care.