Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 228 | Julio 2000


Central America

Democracy in the Region? A Decade of Paradoxes

Is it valid to speak of new democracies in Central America when the model itself promotes economic and political exclusion? When the market itself marginalizes and the culture discriminates? The nineties were plagued with contradictions and paradoxes that reveal persistent anti-democratic practices and styles.

Salvador Martí Puig

With the eyes of the world still focused on the region, the nineties kicked off with good news in Central America: the peace process seemed to be on track. The victory of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in Nicaragua’s February 1990 elections meant the end of the US war of aggression and demobilization of the "contra." Soon after, in 1992, the end of 12 years of civil war in El Salvador was signed and sealed in Chapultepec, Mexico. Both events generated a conciliatory dynamic that deactivated one of the most critical regional conflicts of the eighties, which in turn led to the progressive demilitarization of Honduras and, in 1996, to the signing of peace accords in Guatemala.

Just a few years earlier even the most optimistic observers would have found it difficult to imagine such a landscape. The wave of transitions from dictatorship to Liberal democracy in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala surprised the majority of social scientists as much as both the triumph and the rapid erosion of the Sandinista revolution had.

No civic political culture; no modernity; no independence

All the recent theories about "regime changes" have centered on the study of certain factors (political culture, modernization, the economy’s dependence) and their foreseeable changes. Scholars posited that if these three factors mutated, so could the regimes, opening the possibility that democratic systems would emerge.

But in Central America, the move from war to peace, from dictatorship to democracy, was not accompanied by any transformation—at least in the positive sense—of the "factors" in question. The repressive and authoritarian experiences in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have not exactly consolidated a "civic culture." Neither the war nor the economic policies implemented during the eighties led to balanced economic growth or greater equity. Furthermore, all of the Central American countries have grown more economically dependent on and subordinated to the United States and the community of donor nations.

The political context of the Central American region began to be transformed in the nineties by two phenomena—one international and the other domestic. On the one side was the emergence of a unipolar world in which the Soviet "threat" was gone, and with it the counterinsurgent policy promoted by the US government. On the other, the authoritarian and despotic regimes that had ruled in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were profoundly delegitimized due to their inefficiency and their moral and social costs, while the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua ran out of steam due both to relentless US hounding and its own polarizing dynamic.

Peace and freedom at last

Optimism reigned at the beginning of the nineties: Liberal democracy was the only possible outcome in the region. It seemed that after so many years of infringed rights and freedoms, Central Americans would finally enjoy a political order that respected the law and bowed to the results of the ballot box. In this context, there were even those who proclaimed the end of one of the most recurring elements of Central American public life: political violence. For the first time in history, there appeared to be a real possibility of creating a "disarmed utopia"—as Mexican writer Jorge Castañeda titled his famous 1994 work. In the midst of a geopolitically unipolar world, Central America appeared to have gained two of its great historical yearnings: peace and freedom. They were announced from a rhetoric of modernity, or perhaps postmodernity. Were these expectations satisfied? The nineties have been replete with paradoxes.

Institutional weakness in Nicaragua

Although the decade began with such notable optimism over the possibility of channeling the various peace processes that grew out of the Esquipulas II Agreement, some old ghosts were already reappearing by the middle of 1992, including coup attempts in Guatemala and Honduras, and institutional instability in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua experienced changes in the executive branch during the 1990-96 period, following elections that were free and clean, if not exempt from blackmail by the Bush administration. The country also underwent profound mutations at the same time: from war to peace, from a planned, socializing and interventionist economy to a market-guided one, and from a revolutionary and mobilizing regime inspired by Marxism and nationalism to one with a Liberal-democratic character that appealed to the rule of law.
All these transcendental mutations occurred in a context of intense political polarization and an economy on the brink of collapse in which one "crisis" followed another. There were the strikes and unrest that paralyzed the country for months on end between 1990 and 1992; the violence and armed confrontations of recompas, recontras and revueltos; the institutional impasse between the legislative and executive branches during the second half of 1992; the twin hostage crisis in Quilalí and Managua in 1993; unresolved property conflicts; and the tense and conflictive constitutional reform process of 1995. These crises culminated in the chaotic and disorderly elections of October 1996 that gave Liberal candidate Arnoldo Alemán the presidency and his Liberal Alliance a significant majority in the National Assembly.

In mid-1999, after three years of a Liberal administration marked by major scandals revealing corruption and misappropriation of funds, an opaque "alliance" between President Alemán’s circle and the FSLN apparatus led by Daniel Ortega began to show signs of progressive corporativization. In addition, the institutions these new allies controlled became even more distanced from the citizens and their hopes.

Authoritarian enclaves in Guatemala

Let’s change countries and move to Guatemala. As early as 1990, Guatemala’s fragile and closely watched democracy began to loom as ominously uncertain. Once the US administration’s urgency to back a "guided" transition disappeared, the January 1990 elections gave the presidency to Jorge Serrano Elías, who had presented himself as removed from the traditional political circles with the slogan: No more of the same! He won with 68% of the vote in the second round, but his "non-traditional" forces ended up in third place in the legislative body with only 15.5% of its seats.

Serrano quickly found himself up against a problem. What was an advantage at the polls—an image distanced from traditional party structures and even from conventional politics—turned into a liability once in office. He had no solid party with firmly rooted grassroots structures behind him, no team to support him and only minority representation in the parliament. The new President undertook an erratic policy of alliances that soon fell apart. By 1993, this situation, along with increasing tensions within Guatemalan society, led Serrano to opt for his Peruvian counterpart Alberto Fujimori’s solution: a "self-coup." But his attempt failed in the face of a major civic mobilization, the traditional elite’s indecision and international pressures in defense of the constitutional order. Serrano was replaced by Ramiro de León Carpio.

Guatemala’s system still had many challenges to surmount, most of them related to the continuation of "authoritarian enclaves" and utter lack of respect for human rights. Although the signing of peace between the URNG and the government of Alvaro Arzú in December 1996 satisfactorily resolved some of these problems, the threats of the continuing impunity and the projection of reactionary political forces linked to former dictator Ríos Montt are endangering the democratic system’s very existence. The 1999 electoral victory of the FRG—a populist party founded by Ríos Montt—and coming to power of its new President Alfonso Portillo—are reviving many well-founded fears.

Legislative assembly irrelevant in El Salvador

A certain flexibility and fluidity has marked inter-institutional relations in El Salvador. This is probably due to the existence of parliamentary majorities, unlike in Guatemala, and the solidity of the governing party, unlike in Nicaragua. But it is also due to the irrelevance and lack of policymaking leadership that has historically characterized Salvador’s Legislative Assembly thanks both to the scanty resources that the Assembly receives and to its limited autonomy with respect to the economic power groups and the governmental ministries.

In El Salvador, the Legislative Assembly does not really exercise the functions of political control or budget preparation attributed to it by the Constitution. This is the result not only of the absence of the necessary institutional mechanisms, but also of a political culture deeply rooted in authoritarianism and submission to military power. For example, regarding the strict function of control and interpellations, El Salvador lacks regulations and sanctions to ensure that public officials send the information the legislators’ request. Nor does it have regulations requiring public functionaries to appear before the Assembly or legal dispositions for sanctioning officials should they lie or distort the information they present. And despite the Constitution’s very explicit mandate, the Assembly does not draw up the budget. The ARENA majority in the Assembly, the top-down character of executive-legislative relations, the lack of skilled technicians and analysts and the absence of an office specializing in budget preparation explain how this function has shifted to the Ministry of the Treasury.

Genuine democracies?

The institutional weaknesses of the new Central American democracies, however, are not due only to dysfunctions in the institutional engineering or the crudeness of their elite. There are also deeper causes, one of which is the generalized implantation of democratic systems that are implementing economic policies that worsen the living conditions of the majorities. This implies a democratic reductionism that not only calls into question the effective competitiveness of elections—neither those in Nicaragua in 1996 nor those in Guatemala throughout the decade were exactly examples of cleanness—and the setting of the agenda debated in those electoral processes. It also perpetuates situations in which, between elections, impunity, public corruption, administrative opaqueness and subordination of the judicial branch to the executive are the order of the day.

Political democratization is very difficult if it does not go hand in hand with a democratization of the whole of society and a reduction of the huge economic and cultural gulfs that still cut across the Central American countries—and the majority of other Latin American countries as well. Democracy is a system made up of shared values and attitudes, so political concertation is an illusion when the market marginalizes and the culture discriminates. Is it possible in these countries to speak of democracy when this model, challenging its own etymology, promotes social, economic and political exclusion? Many theoreticians have begun to take corrective measures, coining new concepts such as "delegated" democracy to define these kinds of "democratic" regimes.

With respect to the role of outside actors, it is important to stress that the international context in which Central America’s democratic systems have flourished is a unipolar world under US hegemony. The collapse of the Soviet empire, the isolation of Cuba and the defeat of the Sandinista experience at the polls—after being militarily pummeled—left the anti-democratic discourse with no alibi. Even forgetting the triumphantly proclaimed "end of history," the Liberal democratic model appeared in Central America not just as the only one sanctioned but in fact the only one possible. This is perhaps the key to interpreting the Bush and Clinton administrations’ enthusiasm for these democratic regimes, the invasion of Haiti to restore overthrown President Aristide and the refusal to support the flights of coup fantasy of the Honduran military and of Jorge Serrano in Guatemala.

Is being forgotten by the US a good thing or a bad thing?

The geopolitical framework resulting from the evaporation of the Cold War implied a new order presided over by the US government, one with a notably different reading of the Central American conflicts. If Central America’s international position before the nineties was seen through the prism of the hypothetical threat to the status quo of insurgent activities, Washington’s interventionist posture changed radically with its new reading in the nineties.
With the Sandinista government’s loss of the Nicaraguan elections in February 1990, the signing of the Chapultepec agreements between El Salvador’s FMLN and the ARENA government in January 1992, and the deactivation of Guatemala’s guerrilla movement and the signing of peace in December 1996, the region lost so much strategic importance to the United States that it was relegated and partially forgotten. It remains to be seen how beneficial or harmful this relegation proves to be for Central America. There are those who dub it "betrayal" and others who think that less international pressure could mean the revitalization and development of political and economic projects in another, more national key.

The elite give democracy the nod

Where has all the enthusiasm for democracy come from? Some argue that democratic institutionality is the only way to guarantee political stability, peacefully channel the citizenry’s demands and set bounds on the policy agenda imposed by the multilateral economic institutions. Certainly, the restoration of representative democracies has brought enormous benefits compared to the authoritarian regimes that dominated Central America’s political stage until recently. But it should not be forgotten that these new democracies were not "permitted" until the national elite perceived that any alternative model that could challenge the status quo had dried up, and that those who advocated a radical political change were dead, disappeared, exiled or utterly demoralized.

It remains to be seen what attitude these elite circles will take when alternative radical and transforming political options reappear in coming generations, this time in the democratic institutional framework that means they could compete electorally with some possibilities of winning.

Democratization also ushered in neoliberalism

Up to the mid-eighties, the majority of Latin American countries had adopted an economic development strategy based on import substitution. This strategy, which assumed strong state intervention in the industrializing process, had notable diversity. In some countries, the state played a prominent role in the economy, based on social-reformist policies as in Costa Rica or corporativist ones in Sandinista Nicaragua. In others, authoritarian regimes developed monetarist and free trade policies, as in El Salvador or Guatemala.

Not until the nineties did both the institutional and socioeconomic coordinates end up converging in all countries. The nineties saw not only a wave of democratization in Central America, but also the abandonment of state-based and regulatory economic strategies in favor of two guidelines: adopt neoliberal policies of an International Monetary Fund stripe and open up the economies to the outside world.

The IMF-designed neoliberal policies were set up on the negative inherited foundations of the lost decade, characterized by credit restrictions imposed by the foreign debt crisis and economic decline. The application of neoliberal policies involved shifts from demand-side management to supply-side incentives, and from the creation of public surplus to reliance on private benefits as the only factor creating collective well-being. These drastic about-faces were accompanied in all countries by the reduction of national maneuvering room due to the rigid conditions imposed by the World Bank and the IMF.

An economic adjustment that generates crises

The new Liberal model not only affected economic policies, but provoked massive deregulation of labor markets and decapitalization of health, education and social housing services, without generating any kind of compensatory programs through income-guaranteeing policies. After a decade, the basic effect of these policies has been an increase in social duality; a "two-speed" country where a minority rushes forward and the majority falls inexorably behind.
This increasing precariousness throughout Latin America has hit hardest in the Central American countries, Costa Rica excepted. The adjustment was carried out in a setting in which the average relationship of the region’s foreign debt to the Gross Domestic Product was double the Latin American rate as a whole (74% versus 36%). Furthermore, the terms of trade for its products had deteriorated 40% over the previous 15 years. Added to both of these negative realities is the postwar context, with its problems of reconstruction, demobilizing of insurgent armies and reduction of the armed forces.

The crisis the adjustment triggered is reflected in the statistics compiled by the United Nations Development Program and published annually in its Human Development Report, which highlights figures referring to its Human Development Index (HDI). In addition to per-capita income, this index includes illiteracy levels, access to social services, infant mortality and income distribution. Between 1990 and 1996, all these social indicators dropped sharply in all Central American countries except Honduras. Nicaragua’s case was the most dramatic, only comparable internationally to Iraq, a country that suffered a devastating war and the United Nations blockade during the same period.
Regarding the policies to open the economies up to the international market, it is worth noting the reactivation of old regional economic integration projects and the discussion of projects to create a hemispheric common market, dubbed the Free Trade of the Americas Area (FTAA). The effects of this opening have been contradictory: the geographic concentration of exports has increased, US participation has grown noticeably and the export composition is still largely based on traditional products. And because exports from the region are still largely based on raw materials, they are very vulnerable to external crisis, whether economic or meteorological. The most serious case was the catastrophic passage through the region of Hurricane Mitch in October 1998, whose trail was, above all else, an apocalyptic indication of the precariousness and vulnerability in which the bulk of Central America’s population lives.

The "transformation" of the antiquated Right

The new political scene centered on Liberal-democratic regimes in Central America was not the objective of any of the armed conflicts in the region. For the Left grouped into guerrilla organizations, the desired order was always revolution—social, economic and political transformation—and it showed enthusiasm for the Cuban system above any other on the continent. The Right, meanwhile, headed up by the criollo oligarchy and unconditionally sponsored by US administrations, was always rooted in an authoritarian and elitist conception. Right up to the end of the eighties, it never stopped thinking of a return, albeit rejuvenated, of the "old order." The new Liberal-democratic regimes born of the outcome of the wars could not fully satisfy either of the two sides that had faced off in bloody war.

Although the changed conduct of both political elite circles—the upper echelons of the old guerrilla movements as well as the recycled leaders of the antiquated reactionary Right—has been notable, the task of developing government policies has fallen almost exclusively to the Right. Under diverse party mantles, these conservative political formations have won repeated victories at the polls ever since the first elections held in the three war-affected countries.

Up to now only the Right has had the opportunity to show its stuff in terms of government policy. Because it has been in government, we can safely state that the Right has not changed its pernicious and secular tendency to exclude and impoverish the masses. If anything, that tendency has only gotten worse.
The Right’s "transformation" from profoundly reactionary and authoritarian postures to the adoption of civic-minded conduct as defenders of liberal democracy and the "free market" has not brought genuine changes. Not always are those who define or proclaim themselves as "democrats" the genuine article. The fact that they may have accepted "democracy" should not be attributed to a transformation in their values but rather to a strategic decision growing out of their perception that the new political situation lets them defend and promote their interests, and with greater personal comfort than before.
On the other side of the political spectrum is the Left, which has also suffered notable transformations. One of the most surprising is its change of posture regarding the reigning order. While the unjust order—the existence of structural factors such as persistent poverty, unjust property distribution or perverse divvying up of wealth—justified activating and prolonging armed conflict for an entire decade, the center of the Left’s concerns gravitated to institutional aspects once the peace accords were signed.
It is no small paradox that the major mutations within the Central American Right and Left since the eclosion of the crisis of the eighties have taken place in the framework of state institutionality and in the symbology, organization and character of the organizations that led the armed confrontation. They have not been seen in a transformation of the social fabric, the structure of land ownership or even the distribution of economic assets.
It is pertinent to ask whether this confusing landscape of the former insurgent Left in Central America—whose leaders have traded accusations and charges throughout the decade—marks the beginning of political projects that are clearly differentiated from what, in their time, were revolutionary programs. Or is the confusion one more chapter of the now traditional and sterile centrifugal dynamic of the Left’s political elite? When all is said and done, as Torres-Rivas pointed out so well, parties hardly ever split because of the grass roots, but rather because of the elite. And over very diverse issues: from politicking and personal ambition to confrontation between the more radical sectors and those that think along the lines of electoral strategies marked by moderation and alliances. In any case, the efforts made by the former guerrilla organizations to insert themselves into the system and bolster the rule of law is nothing to disparage.

The mutation of the insurgent Left

It is not easy to sum up the Central American Left’s transforming power at the end of such a critical decade. When it comes to making a balance sheet of the changes that took place within what was once the insurgent Left, we will have to take into account at least three aspects: its organizational transformation, the mutation of its symbolic world and its stock of proposals.
In his controversial work, Castañeda was perhaps right in titling the chapter on the new period for the Latin American Left that opened with the nineties and the end of the Cold War, "La guerre est finie." One big question is whether the Left, in addition to abandoning the symbolic elements linked to the world of political-military struggle, will also throw out the codes and conducts that belonged to that struggle: certain forms of sectarianism and intolerance. One of the challenges for the new Left is whether it can create consensus and seduce broad sectors of the population that are more impoverished than ever before. It is precisely from this challenge that the question of the "supply of proposals" derives. It seems necessary for the new leftist formations to draw up a program that fulfills three essential elements: that it be reasonable, that it be seen as a viable alternative of power and that it be transforming. Obviously, none of these tasks are simple, nor are they attained with formulas, but with a detailed analysis of reality and of the changes that have occurred in the relations between the state and society, and between the state and the economy. Appraising whether the mutation that has taken place in the Left had a raison d’être or not will depend on that. There are already experiences of municipalities managed by the Left that can begin to shed light on the direction of the current mutation.

The new "armed bourgeoisie"

In Central America’s "new institutionality," one must also speak of an actor that was central all the way up to the decade of the eighties: the Armed Forces, historically the guarantors of order and often the direct managers of public affairs. It is also said that the nature of the armies has mutated. Given the irruption of the insurgent threat in El Salvador and Guatemala, the military forces paradoxically gained even greater centrality in running those countries, but lost their function as titular head of the respective governments.

But not all has been negative for the region’s Armed Forces. Certainly their centrality in the public direction of national affairs has shrunk, but their access during the eighties to an enormous amount of resources through the fat budgets of the counterinsurgency programs converted them into a new sector of economic power: the "armed bourgeoisie." The exponential increase in their economic clout must be mentioned, even if their ability to directly influence the spheres of government has diminished—though it would be inappropriate to be too optimistic in this latter regard, particularly in the Guatemalan case. This economic influence is nothing to sneer at, particularly considering that we are speaking of countries that are still on the long road of post-war economic reconstruction.

Modernized countries?

The analysis of the three actors—rightwing elite, leftist groups and armies—highlights the persistence of notable shortcomings and dysfunction in the economic opening, democratization and state modernization processes initiated in the region during and after the military confrontation. Questions abound. All the discourse about the incipient rule of law coexists with the manipulation of governmental budgets to feed political loyalties while the exaltation of free competition and the virtues of the market is accompanied by money-grubbing behavior. The democratic rhetoric about equal opportunities and equitable treatment in courts of law is also constantly being discredited by reality. In each of the Central American countries, knowing someone in government, having friends with economic power or being from a "good" family continue to be far more important than the abstract entitlement of the individual rights and capacities enshrined in the newly reformed Constitutions.

Many analysts note the tragic irony—to which politics and history are very inclined—that the recent democratization processes in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, which were attained by breaking up the old order through grassroots mobilization and revolutionary attacks, have returned the government to representatives of the most antiquated oligarchy. They have signed on with new-style rightwing parties in El Salvador (ARENA) and Guatemala (PAN), while in Nicaragua, worse yet, the government has been given to some of the very architects of the counterrevolution (Liberal Alliance). The conditions set by the international financial institutions (IMF, IDB and World Bank) accent the class skew of the economic policies and consolidate the power of the elite, which have "modernized" only in the sense of integrating into the market, leaving their attitudes toward the other sectors of society untouched. To what point is this a coincidence?

Support to democracy, rejection of its results

Central America’s reality in the nineties has also been a space in which manifestations bearing hope and creativity have emerged among the citizenry. With their civil rights recovered, a galaxy of social movements and party formations has arisen that had previously remained underground.
Political life in democracy has presupposed a lot more than the legalization of parties and consolidation of representative institutions. At the end of the nineties, many Central American citizens had more confidence in social organizations, church organizations and the media than in parties, courts or the legislative body. According to 1997 polling data from Latinobarómetro, churches, NGOs and the media inspired an average degree of confidence in 47% of the population, compared to the 18% that parties, government branches and institutions inspired.

Despite everything, the rejection of political actors in Central America has not yet led to rejection of the democratic system. Quite the opposite: according to 1997 data, 56% of Central Americans preferred a democratic system and only 13% preferred an authoritarian one. The picture is quite different when the level of satisfaction with the performance of the "actually existing democracies" is explored. Only 25% of those surveyed say they are satisfied. The reasons for this apparent paradox between support for the political system and discontent with its results can be explained mainly by the ever-tougher problems of daily life experienced by the majority of the population.

The public invades the private: New actors

The increasing difficulty of resolving problems and making any headway has been breaking down the spheres that separated the private from the public. The profound economic crisis, the massive layoffs of public employees and the slashing of social services—decisions made in the public sphere—have strongly invaded the domestic sphere. And this has activated social actors, particularly women, who had previously been subordinated to other leaders of collective action.
The politicization of private life has necessarily involved a redefinition of the relations between the public and private spheres, creating a renewed capacity for expression by new social subjects: actors grouped around basic social identities (movements of women, youth, indigenous people or churchgoers), specific interests (ecological or environmentalist networks) or elemental needs that must be satisfied (communal associations, groups of displaced people and veterans, soup kitchens). The greater social visibility of grassroots collectives that—with far greater autonomy than before—are fighting for and demanding a space where they can exercise their rights despite executive offices that marginalize and exclude them is a noteworthy element in the new Central American reality.

In the eighties, with the eclosion of revolutionary processes in the region, the political conflict made these actors socially visible for the first time in history. During the war years, a side benefit of their mobilization—albeit often in a dependent or channeled manner—was a greater sense of political effectiveness. It increased their confidence in organization and gave them firsthand knowledge of the advantages of working and pressuring collectively.
It is precisely from that perspective that an essential variant has been introduced into the political life of the Central American countries, particularly Nicaragua: a combative and mobilizing political culture born of the revolutionary period. That period, despite its limitations and errors, had an impact on the vision of numerous social collectives that no longer passively accept the neoliberal assaults of the executive office on behalf of an elite ensconced in the upper tiers of the new institutionality.

Civic awareness

It would be naïve to imagine that history has come to its end, even in Central America. Although there will always be places in which conformity takes refuge, the possibility of new social struggles is predictable. They are needed to break down the persisting authoritarian enclaves and exclusionary processes that are skewing and even blocking the meaning of the adjective "democratic" in both the old and the new institutions of the Central American countries.

One of the most relevant characteristics of the nineties has been the progressive—albeit not definitive or complete—recovery by many Central Americans of their sense of being "citizens with full rights." This recovery—in some countries more of a debut—has involved a complicated and tenacious struggle, taken up thanks to the survival of a vision of a better and more just world, a persistent myth about the possibility of creating a country where everyone has a place under the sun. Whether this country is created or not will be an indicator of how we can finally categorize the nineties.

Governability is the acid test

In the last analysis, politics seeks to achieve a reasonable degree of cohesion in society through the channeling of demands, the resolution of conflicts and the implementation of public policies. Each public policy signifies a series of interventions in a conflictive arena of social life in an attempt to subject conflict to some measure of control through the redistribution of resources of all kinds, or resorting to coercion, if it seems appropriate. The aggregate result of any public policy has repercussions on the existing social equilibria, either bolstering or modifying them.

When this result produces relative cohesion among the groups and individuals of a given society, it becomes possible to speak of a community’s "governability." On the contrary, if the political activity proves unable to produce the indispensable cohesion, the society in question becomes ungovernable. The acid test of a political system lies in its governability.
Governability depends on a system’s aptitude for guiding or regulating collective conflicts, selecting the most effective public policies. A country can become ungovernable when that political adjustment and readjustment mechanism malfunctions. Because it does not issue the hoped-for responses, the initial conflict or tension, which has persisted unresolved, is aggravated, increasing the tension and feeding it into the whole system, ultimately blocking or disabling it.
The government’s performance can be appraised by looking at the results obtained in the social arenas that produce the main collective discrepancies or tensions: income distribution, unemployment, public spending on social policies, degree of political violence, integration of women and minorities in public life, etc. We are talking about a medium- and long-range appraisal, which takes into account the evolution of certain sociopolitical indicators. Governability—or ungovernability—is measured by the degree of adjustment obtained between the expressed social needs and the results obtained by the policies that the system generates to respond to these needs.

Governance: A new concept

The renewed debate about the governability of political systems has been transformed by the introduction of a new concept: that of "governance." The literature generated by consultants and advisers to international financial organizations such as the World Bank or the IMF—which has remained notably relevant in the design of the Central American countries’ political agendas—has kept the concept of governance in circulation since the eighties. It has now acquired currency among many academics and political leaders as well.
What is understood by governance? The concept arises out of a perception new in recent years that the ability to satisfy social demands is attributable not to the activity of political institutions alone, but to the combined effect of intervention by a broader set of actors. Unlike "market coordination"—based on the presumed spontaneous harmony of economic exchanges—or "policy coordination"—rooted in hierarchical imposition from a position of power—governance is equivalent to a control of the social process through the constant interaction of all kinds of different agents. Governance does not depend only on institutions or formal rules, but is produced through a continuous interchange and adjustment among collective and individual subjects, both public and private. This process does not presuppose the existence of a directing center from which political power or some other type of leadership is exercised, but is formed as a resource exchange network. Some say that governance is equivalent to the activity of coordinating without a coordinator or "governing without a government."
Taking the concept of governance into account, the definition and final result of any policy is not the deliberate effect sought by the government that proposes and applies it. On the contrary, it is the almost spontaneous consequence of a constant interaction among all sorts of social agents. Ultimately, the governance of a specific sphere of the social problematic grows out of this interdependence. The international arena reinforces the use of the concept of governance as well. Major international issues are resolved without the existence of a "world government," while many actors do intervene in that process. Thus the regulation of large global problems—environment, disarmament, development or security, for example—are not yet in the hands of one or various governments, but in the self-coordinating capacity of a great variety and number of involved actors.
According to this perspective, only by accepting these suppositions can a response to the problems and tensions of contemporaneous societies be provided. In its extreme version, the governance thesis tends to coincide with the political formulas of the "minimum state" and parallel market hegemony.
The idea of governance leaves the role of government and of the system of public institutions as a whole on a second plane. Is this a way to effectively deny the political system a preferential or central position in these self-organized networks? Should it be understood that spontaneous adjustment among social actors makes the existence of a bonding power unnecessary?

Under the wing of politics

Many of the analyses based on the concept of governance still reserve a place for political institutions, but it is no longer a central place. It is not the command post, from which the actions of the other collective subjects are controlled. In this vision, the political system’s function role is less managerial: in lieu of acting in an exclusive or monopolistic situation, it makes an effort to favor and stimulate the intervention of other social actors, identifying opportunities and providing incentives to the creation of alliances between public and private actors. It is recognized as holding a position of "first among equals" among a plurality of interdependent actors. At the same time, the political authority is attributed the faculty of arbitrating on behalf of the general cohesion in disputes that may arise within the network. Governance, in this vision, represents a self-coordinating system that develops under the wing of politics.

This revision of the role of political institutions and of politics itself has consequences for democracy. If many decisions with a social projection are no longer imputable to a subject or an institution, but are seen as the almost spontaneous result of the combined action of multiple actors, who is accountable for the effects of the action? Who will assume responsibility for its results, whether positive or negative? The network’s public and private actors could end up interminably shifting the responsibilities from one to the other, with no one ultimately paying for the negative consequences of decisions.

Sum-up of the nineties: impunity and irresponsibility

All of this is vital for all countries on the planet, but most intensely so for the impoverished ones riddled by inequalities and impunity. And the most tragic phenomena of the nineties in Central America have been precisely public irresponsibility and impunity. Both are openly manifested in increased public insecurity, whether due to common crime or the violent postwar aftermath, and in the negligence displayed by authorities when it came to trying those responsible for crimes of state perpetrated during the eighties. The latter have been well documented in the reports of the Truth Commission in El Salvador and the Recovery of the Historic Memory project in Guatemala.
The rapid rise in street crime and the massive appearance of youth gangs that emulate the vandalism of their counterparts in the peripheral neighborhoods of US cities illustrate the socioeconomic consequences of the drastic structural adjustment policies. They have been a rude blow to the most unprotected collectives, a category in which the phenomenon of street children and adolescents, both female and male, belongs. The weakest strata of Central American society have not only borne the worst of the new model, but have ended up branded with the stigma of being the most dangerous, violent and lawless on the new Central American social map. This same map combines a war-scarred landscape with a new one adorned with increasingly less authoritative institutions.

The "absence" of the public sphere under a suspicious appearance of "modernity" presupposes a notable involution in the institutionality of the long-suffering Central American countries. At least two conditions are required to counteract these risks and ensure that the arduous conquest of the democracy that has so recently made its premier showing in the region does not dissolve in a scheme of "free competition among unequals." The first condition is to reinvent mechanisms that make decision-makers effectively responsible for their decisions, returning to the political system its role as guarantor of social cohesion. The second is to extend the principle of democratic responsibility to all knots of the net: economic, administrative, associative, etc.
Has the time come in Central America for governance to replace democratic politics? Politics still has a raison d’être in a national and world setting in which inequalities among individuals, collectives and communities persist—and in some cases are getting worse. It is perhaps more necessary than ever as security against social disintegration. And Central America has a particularly urgent need for this kind of "politics." How can we speak of institutions that regulate conflicts when these institutions are themselves fragile and vulnerable? What solidity and leadership can the political elite have in their representation of the majorities when reality shows us the abyss that separates them? Whom can we hold responsible for the dynamic of increasing social exclusion and economic polarization in each of the Central American countries? How can we talk about democracy when the institutions that were never central in political life are now instruments lacking power and authority?

The nineties: Decade of what?

The answers to all these questions are vitally important because politics is expected to help maintain a reasonable degree of cohesion in the society and protect it from the risk of disintegration. If politics is democratic, it should also pursue the goal of basing social cohesion on equilibria that increasingly favor the equality of opportunities that is so vital for all citizens. The response to these challenges will indicate how we should describe the decade that has just concluded in Central America. Will the nineties be remembered as the decade of peace? of apathy? of democratization? of exclusion? or of oblivion?

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