Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 105 | Mayo 1990


Central America

Whither Central America? Coopted Negotiation or Participatory Democracy?

Envío team

Central America is in suspended animation after the avalanche of events in recent months. They rolled down on us one after the other: in El Salvador, the FMLN offensive and the massacre of the Jesuits in the midst of the continuing massacre of the Salvadoran people; in Panama, Noriega's capture and the US invasion; in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas' surprise electoral defeat; in Guatemala, the permanent plague of terror; and in the region as a whole, the neoliberal invasion, illustrated most clearly in Costa Rica and Honduras. These events crosscut and confused the attempts to maintain the Esquipulas framework of peace, democracy and economic development, a framework full of pronouncements and unfulfilled commitments.

The region has also been affected by the rapid and dramatic changes in Eastern Europe, although the fall of the Berlin Wall has not been matched by the collapse of the wall that the US maintains around Central America. The imbalance of international forces with the dissolution of the socialist camp has given the US an even greater sense of impunity in its “backyard.” The US continues to impose its traditional imperialistic program, having as its pretext the four “D”s—drugs, democracy, development and dictator. The crisis of paradigms creates dangerous ideological uncertainty for popular interests in the coming years.

Time is needed to analyze these unfolding events, but this annual interpretative synthesis of the region does not have the luxury of waiting until all the details are clear. We begin, as always, from the logic and the option of the majority, from the implicit project that takes form in the struggle for life, justice, liberty, democracy, dignity and self-determination.

We synthesize the specific characteristics and dynamic of each country, but recognize that national issues are also subject to and sometimes even determined by the regional nature of the crisis and the players involved. We support the thesis that without national projects there is no solution to the regional crisis, but argue that, in a world of great blocs, our countries, located in a strategic geo-economic zone in the dead center of the Western hemisphere, have no possibility of a national project without a regional destiny.

The Dialectic Of 1989-90

The explosion at the end of the 1970s has continued unresolved for a decade, despite huge US efforts and resources to enforce its strategic dictates. The alternative project of radical change with a socialist tendency in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala has had to fight the most integral and sophisticated “low-intensity” war the United States could throw at it. Ten years of revolutionary Sandinista rule as well as the revolutionary movements in Guatemala and El Salvador have forever changed the power structure.

This failure of US policy signals the end of the old model of domination. The “Triple Alliance" of oligarchies, generals and the US embassy and its particular model of economic accumulation—luxurious consumption for the elites, exploitation of the people and resources in favor of the centrally dominated capitalist economies—cannot be maintained or rebuilt in the region.

In each of these countries, we are seeing an historic shift in the regional power source and base. The old ruling land barons, protected by military dictatorships, have been uprooted; now they are being swept aside by the “'emerging right,” or “neoliberals." Modernizing, energetic, anti-state and pro-US, they are the force that the revolutionary movements and popular democratic forces must now confront. They are a different breed than the entrenched and intransigent oligarchies, and the struggle must of necessity change too.

The prolonged nature of low-intensity conflict has left a trail of 200,000 dead, 2,000,000 refugees and displaced people and has thrown the economies back to a quarter of a century ago. Together with the internal limitations of the revolutionary projects—their relationship between vanguard and the base, the popular economic project and its cultural underpinning—the war raised the cost for the broad masses, wearing them down and increasing their desire to just live in peace.

While the war against popular revolutions failed in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, it did succeed in postponing, corralling and forcing concessions in their original projects.

Contadora and later Esquipulas dominated the negotiation of the conflict. Esquipulas’ strengths and deep limitations were highlighted in the latest round of talks, at Montelimar, Nicaragua in April. Throughout the years of negotiation, Nicaragua complied with what it signed; the other four countries did not. New negotiations held in European capitals between the revolutionary forces of Guatemala and El Salvador and their respective governments indicate that the struggles of the URNG and the FMLN have achieved recognition as popular political movements. Up to this point, Esquipulas had artificially denied their political legitimacy.

Central America's two rising social projects—the neoliberal one and the popular democratic one—will confront one another more directly in the 1990s. The seeds of this confrontation, more civic than armed, were sown in the last years.

Both projects, however, require for their viability a negotiated resolution to the current armed conflicts and an end to the possibility of direct US intervention. Minimum demands to achieve these conditions are:

1. Demobilization of the Nicaraguan contras and fulfillment of the Protocol of Transition between the Sandinista government and the incoming administration of Violeta Chamorro.

2. Implementation of the new Geneva accords between El Salvador’s Cristiani government and the FMLN.

3. Consolidation of a negotiation process in Guatemala with international verification, as recently agreed to in talks in Oslo.

4. Support of the five new Central American presidents for the preservation and international verification of Central American self-determination.

What is the nature of these two projects, one representing the “emerging Right " in the region and its international allies, and the other the broad popular classes accompanied in their struggle by international solidarity?

The Regional Neoliberal Project

With its obvious national variants, the neoliberal project for the region is headed by a modernizing Right that would substitute the logic of war and confrontation with that of the market and social negotiation. It assumes subordination of the old oligarchy and far Right. It would limit or even do away with the armed forces, which represent an unsustainable economic cost, a political obstacle to the modernization of civic society and, ultimately, the threat of a coup to prevent the institutionalization of the new project.

Corporatist-style accords between industry, workers and the state would mark the neoliberal brand of social negotiation, to try to coopt those popular groups that defend class interests and structural transformations.

The political protagonists in each country may be new, but neoliberal economic policy is the same 15-yearold austere stabilization package of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), now embraced by the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the US Agency for International Development (AID). These agencies have abandoned their belief in “national development projects” in favor of structurally “adjusting” to a crisis they see as endemic in the Third World. The new governments are the products of this combined agency pressure, on the rise throughout the region since 1985.

The lending agencies would bankroll the project and define the laws of the market. Together with business associations that bring together the neoliberal ideas, skills and power of the more moderate Right, these agencies would finance a “parallel state,” which would become the motor force of the projects in each country. The business associations already exist: the Commission for Reconstruction and Development of Nicaragua (CORDENIC), the Salvadoran Foundation for Development (FUSADES), the Foundation for Business Development and Investigation (FIDE) in Honduras, the Costa Rican Coalition of Development Initiatives (CINDE) and the Chamber of Entrepreneurs in Guatemala. The state—small, agile and modernizing—would make the social alliances. But the neoliberals who accept a multipolar world into which the region should assert itself with nontraditional products, new technology and new capital, are anti-state and would privatize the economy.

The neoliberals, in sum, look to modernize dependent capitalism in the region, to give it a quick infusion of new blood. They would rebuild and modernize regional integration, reducing protectionism and complementing the national economies with more ability to compete in the international market. The Central American Parliament would now be approved, given the new regional political homogeneity.

With themselves as intermediaries, they would open up the social and economic space for world capital, and lower the profile of their alliance with Washington. Their international support is trilateral—the US, the EEC and Japan.

The five commandments of the neoliberals' bible might read as follows:

1. Reduce the role of the state to a minimum, eliminate subsidies and privatize the economy.

2. Open the domestic market and integrate it with the international marketing areas where the country has comparative advantages. Take advantage of the Caribbean Basin Initiative facilities and the proximity to Pacific countries.

3. Incorporate the majority of small and medium producers oppressed by state bureaucracy into what neoliberals call the “social market economy,” using the laws of the market as the principle and the force. Establish special programs for the informal sector, converting it into the “new business class” to consolidate a social base for the business leaders interested in heading the project.

4. Create a social fund, financed by AID and the multilateral lending agencies, to deal with cases of extreme poverty and those affected by the economic adjustment policies. Churches and nongovernmental organizations would play a role here.

5. Continue the Esquipulas process but emphasize the economic (dropping democratization and peace in favor of “Esquipulas for Development”) to broaden the regional market with new integration projects. Begin an international project with Japan and the European Community for the economic “take off,” which, at least initially, might recover the high growth rates of the last decades.

To institutionalize their project the neoliberals must wrest control from the oligarchs and the old, recalcitrant rightwing business organizations such as CACIF, COSEP, ANEP and COHEP. While positive in itself, this is offset by the neoliberals' plans to denationalize and eventually transnationalize the small Central American economies; their production would be managed by world financial capital and a great part of their profits transferred abroad. The neoliberals would try to implement the lending agency programs within national conditions. Costa Rica already has a neoliberal business class, El Salvador and Guatemala's equivalent will only consolidate through negotiating peace with the FMLN and the URNG. In Honduras and Nicaragua it is just emerging.

An immediate effect will be the gobbling up of small businesses and the centralization of capital, technology and information, concentrating economic power in the neoliberal associations. Popular organizations that accept a social accord with the emerging project would be effectively co-opted. The peasants and producers of basic grains and other domestic consumption items would be hardest hit.

The structural inequality of the old model would thus persist, in the best of cases reducing extreme poverty and the most brutal repression of the past, but without resolving historic contradictions. The danger of this project, then, is that the original causes of the regional crisis, while perhaps lessened, will not be resolved. Stability, peace, participatory democracy and self-determination will remain on the historic agenda.

Costa Rica is the most original and consolidated example of the neoliberal project in Central America; Oscar Arias was its political champion, even opposing the US-sponsored military confrontation. Christian Democracy attempted neoliberalism in Guatemala and El Salvador through Vinicio Cerezo and Napoleón Duarte, but it failed in both countries because of the continuing war and repression. Honduras demonstrates the impossible balancing act of subsidizing a US-imposed military platform while trying to impose market forces, adjustments and macroeconomic balances.

During 1989-90, the neoliberal Right has come to power in the region. Family as well as business ties link El Salvador's Alfredo Cristiani, Honduras' Rafael Callejas and Costa Rica's Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, this last a Nicaraguan-born relative of Violeta Chamorro. If Alvaro Arzú wins the Guatemalan elections, he would close the region's political, economic and family circle.

The Popular Democratic Project

The neoliberal project would not have emerged in Central America had the popular forces not defeated the neoconservative one imposed by the Reagan administration and sectors of the Bush administration. Their struggle was joined by the most lucid and conscientious of the intellectuals and professionals and sectors of the church and even private enterprise. Monsignor Arnulfo Romero and the murdered Jesuit priests, Enrique Alvarez and Hector Oquelí in El Salvador; Manuel Colón, Alberto Fuentes Mohr, Miguel Angel Asturias in Guatemala; Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and a large sector of the anti-Somocista bourgeoisie in Nicaragua, only to mention a few names in the most conflictive countries, represented a growing tendency of leaders to dedicate, even sacrifice, their lives to eradicate the causes of regional conflict and create a new Central America.

For the majority of the popular classes, the giving way of the old oligarchy to new configuration of the dominant classes after three decades of conflict only means replacing one enemy with another. Revolutionary and progressive grassroots organizations now have to work out a new strategy and styles of struggle to confront the new, more subtle methods of bourgeois leadership.

The popular project, which we have described in past regional issues of envío, is more integrated and comprehensive than the neoliberals'. It is not just economic, but is a project of society and civilization, an historic project whose elements have a structural character. To respond to the new period, it will have to rethink fundamental questions:

1. Who are the subjects and what is the character of the alliance that supports the project?

2. How is that alliance, as well as the political character of the projects' social and material base of democracy, determined?

3. What is the logic of hegemony for defining the projects' priorities and rhythms?

4. What is the regional and national space for the self-determination of the projects' protagonists?

5. What is the boldest time frame for bringing the project into being, acknowledging the need to accept limits, contradictions and rebellions of reality witout losing the vision of a more utopian civilization?

This agenda for developing a new strategy and tactics can be enriched by an evaluation of the accumulated successes and errors of popular projects in Latin America and the rest of the Third World. The liberal project is only “neo” for the oligarchic, militaristic Central American region.

The dialectic of the two projects could create an honest and verified negotiation to prevent a repeated cycle of prolonged war destructive to both alternatives. Negotiation, however, has been present in Central America in one form or another for the last decade. With what results? Will negotiation become the key element of the popular agenda?

The Character of Negotiation

The two negotiating efforts of Contadora and Esquipulas gained international legitimacy. Aiming to create a legal framework of accords to confront US intervention and arrogance, they tested Latin America's ability to overcome Reagan's “unilateral globalism,” to work for a genuine multilateralism in the resolution of regional conflicts.

Central America's experience shows that even internationally supported regional accords have major limitations. The World Court's inability to make its verdict against the US stick and to halt aggression against Nicaragua also demonstrates the limits of international law. This weakens the possibilities of finding peaceful and negotiated solutions other than through strong, even armed, popular pressure.

The contra demobilization accords signed in various Esquipulas summit meetings are a prime example. Contra demobilization was agreed to in El Salvador in February 1989, planned in Honduras in August and ratified in Costa Rica in December, putting demands on the US to transfer contra funds to the International Support and Verification Commission (CIAV). It was reaffirmed in Montelimar, Nicaragua in April 1990, this time with the approval of Honduras' new President and, most important, Nicaragua's President-elect Violeta Chamorro.

The contras, however, have not demobilized; they have moved back into Nicaragua in full sight of the CIAV and of United Nations forces who are supposed to demobilize them. What use are high-level government negotiations with repeated formal accords if an agreed-upon condition as fundamental as the simultaneity of contra demobilization and the forwarding of Nicaraguan elections cannot be implemented?

The mistakes and weakness of the Esquipulas process show that if a multilateral verification mechanism with implementation powers is not accepted by all the countries, negotiations have little power to guarantee security in Central America. The US invasion of Panama illustrates the same with regard to the Torrijos-Carter canal treaties. The Geneva accord between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN, in which the UN Secretary General had a mediating role, may be a step towards making negotiations a working tool to resolve regional conflicts.

The Democratization Process

Democracy has gained a primary place on the Central American popular agenda. Historically, it was the banner of the bourgeoisie rather than of popular organizations, but in the Central American crisis this tendency has been reversed.

The character of this democracy, however, is still up for debate. False democracies under military tutelage, with electoral facades in which the bourgeoisie pays 'democratic homage' in order to receive US support, must be changed to authentic representative and participatory democracies. They must include all strata of society: state, parties, popular organizations, family and church.

Perestroika and Third World Demands

The crisis of Eastern Europe undoubtedly has economic causes, but it is fundamentally a democratic crisis. Perestroika and glasnost did not emerge from the discovery of market forces or private property, but from demands for democratization.

These countries now face a dilemma that’s beginning to be discussed in meetings between defenders of perestroika and third world leaders. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe have two choices—join the competitive world of the capitalist market and try to speed up their economic clock or align themselves with the Third World's demand for a New International Economic Order and a New International Legal Order that would truly democratize power at a world level.

With the first choice Eastern Europe would rapidly “Latinamericanize,” becoming dependent on debt, exploitation of natural resources, imported technology and a transnationalization dominated by the three capitalist world powers. With the second it would join the accumulated forces of the Third World to push for international economic and legal restructuring, as well as international demilitarization and collective security, ecological consciousness, legal and economic equality of women and the suppression of racism.

Participatory and representative democracy at the national, regional and international level has become the great demand of the poor, in both the North and the South. Without it there is no way to overcome poverty and military conflicts, or even to deal with the world ecological crisis. Overcoming the “democracy” of the market, of capital, of private enterprise, which excludes the well-being of the great majority, has been Latin America's popular project for years; it has been put down with interventions, embargoes and low-intensity war—that subtle, ubiquitous mechanism that destroys peoples' self-respect, representation and participation.

The East-West conflict was reduced by deepening democracy in the East. Conquering the North-South conflict, which will dominate the rest of this century, can only take place by deepening international democracy, above all democratizing power relations and international organizations.

Democracy is the political expression of the dignity and identity of new historic subjects, the classes that are the protagonists of the popular project. With the deepening of democracy, the neoliberal projects will soon stop appearing as alternatives; they will be shown to be just “more of the same.”

The US Poor: The Crisis of US Democracy

US democracy is not representative, much less participatory. Its increasing political abstentionism and widening economic stratification make the United States one of the most hierarchical societies in the world today.

While it is said that the US people generally agree with the new consumerist capitalism pushed by Reagan and Bush and with the aggressiveness of their foreign policy, it is crucial to define “the people.” The 1980s saw enormous growth of an underclass that has not benefited from economic growth and does not vote in elections (more than 50%), read newspapers or even care enough to have its views represented in opinion polls (nine people hang up the telephone for every one who agrees to be interviewed). Most of these people are apathetic to polities that do not include them in the riches of the wealthiest country on the planet.

While the average income of the 20% of US families that have shares in the stock market rose from $9,000 to $85,000 by the end of the decade, the poorest 20% suffered an average income loss of $576, finishing the decade with an income of $8,880. Some 32 million people, 12.8% of the population, live in poverty, as compared to 11% in 1980. More than 3 million citizens are homeless and live in the streets; by 2005 that number could grow to 18 million. Recent studies show that 25% of US children are born into poverty.
The following simplified chart shows the social classes in the US.

The chart illustrates that the United States, even after the civil rights movement, continues to be a racist society with a new and sophisticated cultural and economic apartheid. Bush is President of 50% of the people and will respond to their values, not those of the multiracial underclass.

This underclass will surely grow throughout the 1990s. During the 1980s, international capital was restructured through transnationalization. The 1990s could well see a period of unprecedented capital accumulation through the oppression of the working class in the North and the peoples of the Third World. The slogan for those trapped under the avalanche of capital will be “Capitulate or Don't Eat.”

Central America and the United States

The most important point for Central America is that the people with neither voice nor vote in the United States will not affect US policy toward the region in the remainder of the century. But there are contradictions and a series of debates within the US that can.

Important relationships have been built in the last ten years between the people of Central America and the United States. The region has also begun to be understood by the academic world and a large sector of US public opinion, all of which facilitates the possibility of a geopolitical solution if the relations can continue. The millions of Central American emigrants to the United States should be won over to this active solidarity, to open new democratic alternatives in the region's relations with the United States.

The assassination of the Jesuits hit hard at peoples’s ethical consciousness. Washington now has to worry about an “infection of ethics” in the US population, given such human rights violations by US-supported governments.

Overcoming inflammatory statements against the US could help improve cultural relationships, Central America, however, also plays a certain role in US ideology. For eight years, Reagan sowed the idea of recuperating hegemony through controlling its “backyard”; Bush is reaping the harvest. The crisis in Eastern Europe eased the way for controlling Central America, provoking Cuba and invading Panama. Drugs, too, have offered an excuse for intervention, even in ally countries like Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador.

In addition to the ideological and symbolic factors that Central America represents for recovery of US hegemony lost through Vietnam and Watergate, Central America presents other interests:

1. The possibility of internationally legitimate revolutionary and democratic processes, which set dangerous examples for other third world countries, must be eliminated. The electoral defeat of Nicaragua's Sandinistas is not enough; as the strongest party, the FSLN is capable of winning elections in six years, if the now established democracy holds.

2. As the Cold War ends, the Panama invasion becomes a prototype for post-Cold War intervention and Central America a testing ground for policies toward conflictive third world countries. Being the "police" of the South provides an excuse for maintaining the US military budget following the reduction of nuclear arms and troop levels in Europe.

3. The invasion of Panama confronted not Soviet military bases, but the threat of economic competitors in the US “backyard.” The great losers, in addition to the Panamanian people, were Japan's economic interests. Japan may recover its economic power in Panama, but it will now have to negotiate directly with the United States.

The US wants the Caribbean and Central America to be part of the Canada-US-Mexico bloc, with Panama the economic frontier. This is the US answer to Japanese dominance of the Pacific basin. None of the causes of the Central American conflict would be resolved and the crisis would continue. Confrontation with Cuba, already foreshadowed in Operation “TV Martí,” could extend the conflict to the Antilles.

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On the Verge of Peace, or Civil War?

Whither Central America? Coopted Negotiation or Participatory Democracy?

The Monroe Doctrine and the End of Torrijismo

Costa Rica
Showcase for Democracy and Economic Reformism?

Low Intensity War and Revolutionary Maneuvering

El Salvador
Forcing Negotiation

Neoliberalism Unopposed

Challenges to the Military Model

Final Reflections
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