Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 117 | Abril 1991


Central America

The Nation-State Crisis: Ungovernability

Jesuit of Latin America

The neoliberal model's main weakness in this region is that it is only a patch sewn over the causes of the crisis. Our central thesis in this analysis is Central America's future ungovernability.

The neoliberals' new style makes life no easier for the popular movement than did the old oligarchic dictators protected by US embassies. It leaves the basic needs of the urban and rural poor just as unsatisfied as did those openly repressive systems. The only way out for the poor is emigration, thus directly exporting their cheap labor power to the United States rather than through the goods they produce. In much of the region, this emigration has become the most important export, and the family remittances the emigrants send back the country's primary source of dollar income.

Social and political instability is hampering the new model's success, discouraging foreign investment and forcing a return to military repression in Honduras, Panama, Guatemala and, to a lesser degree, El Salvador, given the counterweight of the FMLN and US congressional threats to cut aid to the army. Only in Nicaragua has the new Right been unable to turn to repression, thanks to political agreements with the FSLN and the fact that Nicaragua has the region's only modern, anti-militarist army.

War between the rich and the poor

Central America's increasing ungovernability, however, is due more to the dominant classes' unwillingness to reach economic agreements with the popular classes than to retrograde armed forces, obstinate revolutionary vanguards or even US interference. The root cause of the crisis is the denial of the full economic and social rights of citizenship to 60% of the region's population.

The war of the region's rich against its poor has been going on for over a century. The war of self-defense and liberation of the poor against the rich has been waged for nearly three decades. As all wars in history show, after the bloodletting, negotiation and accords should follow. The bogging down of the Central American war has opened up possibilities for a negotiated solution and demilitarization, but, if our hypothesis is valid, political agreement will continue to be undermined by the lack of economic and social consensus.

The region's current political and social instability is defined in part by the incoherence of the neoliberal economic adjustments and the absence of a "mini Marshall Plan" sufficient to rebuild postwar Central America, and in part by the popular movements' inability to put forward bold pragmatic alternatives. The two sides of the problem are not just interlinked; they form a vicious circle that leads to desperation, frustration and anarchy. While the only rational way out for the poor is to win their full rights of citizenship, individualist solutions such as drug trafficking, crime and emigration are tempting under the circumstances.

The result is a crisis of the nation and of government. This was seen most plainly in the identity crisis of Panama and Honduras, one directly and the other indirectly intervened by the US military. But it exists in all countries except Costa Rica. El Salvador is still in a civil war, the maximum expression of such a crisis. In Guatemala, the guerrilla movement is still advancing, and the cycle of violence is re-intensifying. It is impossible to speak of a Guatemalan nation when its basic social structures are founded on racism and the nation is rent between mestizo and indigenous nationality (itself complex, given its multiple municipal social structures and distinct cultures and languages). In Nicaragua, relatively the most consolidated nation-state, the problem of economic ungovernability exploded in 1990. In the medium run, this could topple its fragile democratic and political stability, and, given the government's inability to satisfy the minimum needs of the peoples of the Atlantic Coast, endanger the even more fragile national unity.

The new Right has two choices. It can seek support from the military and renew the antidemocratic cycle of the past, or it can hammer out a sufficiently consensual national project with the popular organizations. These organizations, in turn, must find a way to present and defend proposals for their own project—with a national character—or face the threat of another long militarist period. In the first alternative, they must avoid the risk of being co-opted by the bourgeois project; in the second, they would be forced to reactivate the armed defense of their very lives.

There is no foreign solution; international subsidies have ended. Investment and financing will concentrate in two or three countries, at best, and the growing US recession will affect our countries even more. Given current US economic conditions, Bush's Initiative for the Americas is not a motor force for growth in the countries of the South; it is a defensive proposal that seeks to distribute the US adjustments to a wider market.

The few "model" countries of the neoliberal project—Chile and Mexico—have little to commend them. The first came at the price of a decade and a half of dictatorship, with military repression and economic misery for much of the population; the second is marked by electoral fraud, denationalization and the political absorption of any pluralism. Alongside substantial growth rates in these countries, one finds even greater inequalities in income distribution and increased poverty. The greatest perversion is seen in Brazil, Latin America's economic powerhouse. According to the 1990 UN report on human development, a large part of Brazil's population shares the bottom rungs of the economic ladder with Sierra Leone, one of Africa's poorest countries.

Forcing the rich to the negotiating table

Seeking some consensus between the popular alternative and the neoliberal model should not give way to ingenuousness that the dominant classes, the US government and the IMF are open to recognizing their project's insufficiency and incoherence or negotiating it with a popular alternative agenda. The dominant classes' own interests and persistent US interference in the region render them unable to act ethically. It is a lot more rational to believe in the impoverished classes' instincts for democracy than in the dominant classes' self-conversion, even though the neoliberal project will sink without an agreement with the popular movement and a stable social peace.

The only way to further our tiny hope in the conversion of the people's historic enemy is through the hard lesson of grassroots pressure, using democratic means, force and economic proposals for an equitable, democratic-national project for all. Only the popular movement's economic strength and political organization can force the dominant classes to the negotiating table. We believe that the movement already intuits the weaknesses of its resistance to top-down, outside programs, and that its interest in an apprenticeship in how to confront the adjustment is not illusory.

Some recent signs of "softening" under pressure and searching for national reconciliation have shown up in sectors of Nicaragua's Chamorro government. There are also signs of a new style in regionally organized sectors of private enterprise, which may perhaps lead to new social and economic relations. The final document of the September 1990 Central American Economic Conference in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, organized by the Central American Action Group of Miami and the Federation of Private Entrepreneurs of Central America, has a surprising and hopeful logic. It speaks of "transforming human coexistence...a frontal attack on poverty...implementing democracy...incorporating civil society...national identity...ethical requirements...flexibility and capacity to adapt...protection of biodiversity.…" This language is new; it’s too early to tell if it means a new quota of realism and a new awareness of Central America's patent and growing ungovernability. If it does, an equitable and genuine negotiated consensus could be possible in the future.

Whatever the case, reforms in bourgeois society toward the exploited have never, anywhere in the world, come from within. They always result from protest, proposals and negotiating efforts. The fundamental problem of the popular movements, therefore, is the immaturity of their alternative. To protest, or even to negotiate accords without that alternative, represents an unacceptable lack of sophistication, because it assumes that the dominant classes will respond rationally. The popular classes must come up with a real alternative, not just of words, but one based on practice, autonomy, the profitability of popular production and organization and independence from the crumbs that fall from the neoliberal table. To come to the negotiating table with less would be pure romanticism.

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Introduction and Dedication

The United States: Redefining Central America and the World

The Neoliberal Model in Central America: Gospel of the New Right

The Nation-State Crisis: Ungovernability

Demilitarization: The Other Face of Democratization

Central America’s Grassroots Movement: A Partial Alternative

Guatemala: The Civilian Facade Collapses

Honduras: A Grassroots Party Emerging from Grassroots Organization

El Salvador: UN Mediation and Civil Negotiations

Nicaragua: Political Maturity and Economic Immaturity

Panama: Eternally Condemned

The Popular Alternative: The Agenda and Challenge for the 90s
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