Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 163 | Febrero 1995


Central America

Central America's Challenge: Produce And Participate

A summary by Juan Hernández Pico, sj, of the findings of the annual seminar held by the Research and Social Action Center for Central America (CIASCA), in which a group of Jesuits and lay people working in the region analyze the past year's events and emerging trends. The 1994 CIASCA seminar was held in Guatemala in December.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Asymmetric globalization, the new world economic system that is capping the long exploitation of the South, imprinted itself on many facets of Central America in 1994. At first glance we seem to have sunk even deeper.

Fragmented Left, Entrepreneurial Right

It is clearer than ever that Central America's economic orientation reflects the role assigned it by the global model of the United States: our economies are moving from producing goods toward specializing in services such as import installations, tax havens for international commerce and spaces for financial speculation. The worst part is that all this is happening without having gone through the necessary maturation of our countries' productive base, particularly without first assuring an agriculture policy that guarantees food for our people. Central America seems to be putting its bets on an elitist consumer economy that does not correspond to the development level of its productive forces.

In the political camp, the clearest trend is the conflictive fragmentation of the leftist forces that were previously guerrilla movements challenging power or, in the FSLN's case, held power. These organizations have shown themselves unable to deal with democratization by tolerating some level of internal pluralism, either rotating leaders or replacing some of them. Sometimes they seem like organizations of a kind of militant ethnic group, seeing such a gulf between their identities that they are unable to trust each other. The parties of the right, meanwhile, are busy either assuring their continuance in power or trying to pose as government alternatives to a civil society that may vote for them, but does not trust them.

For their part, the owners or top executives of big business are assuming more direct political roles, using them as a platform to carry out projects exclusively aimed at short-term profit for private capital, ignoring their country's human development. The private business associations are better able to pressure the state than the rest of civil society, with the possible exception of religious groups. The wealth of big business protects it better, both inside the country and abroad, from the insecurity and violence generated by the war. Even without the business associations, however, civil society has played roles as important as the one seen recently in the Guatemalan peace process, but the basic problem is that even these cases are too top-down, with shaky grassroots participation.

The national and regional peace accords are in danger of being only partially fulfilled or remaining formal processes that get to neither the end nor the roots of the war. Those governing lack the political will to do more, and the United Nations and "friendly countries" suffer from a tendency to seek quick and superficial successes. Other problems include the organizational and ethical inadequacies plaguing the former guerrilla groups, insufficient international financing and a lack of organized pressure from civil society. This terrain, too, appears to have been invaded by the shortsightedness characterizing today's "quick profit" ethic.

The areas of non--compliance are the triggers for future anguish, instability and insecurity, which will again pit the majorities against the minorities in new conflicts. The angry protests by those discharged from the armed forces in both Nicaragua and El Salvador, and the mounting movement against El Salvador's privatization policy point in that direction. The constant recourse to rearming in Nicaragua since the war formally ended is now becoming a daily problem in El Salvador as well. But civil society's inability to find new methods to defend the fruits of such long struggles could translate into anarchic stagnation.

Who Are Today's Cultural Heroes?

While the media are political forums for the presentation of diverse options, they are also a cultural forum in which life styles and projects of society are implicitly or explicitly set against one another. They are huge lotteries in which values are turned upside down, a screen on global high-ticket spectacles like sports, movies, fashions and guessing games that are presented as the reason for living. The media are helping convert the world consumer economy into a universally valid lifestyle.

Central American society is increasingly dominated by this globalizing culture. Through the media, people see the glorification of sophisticated technology and knowledge as power. But the media are no substitute for the schools, workshops, universities, laboratories and research centers we so sorely lack. Nonetheless, just as we seem to be losing our identity to the global culture, the identity of the Mayan peoples and ethnic groups and nationalities uprooted from their original homelands is emerging with increasing force.

Central American imagination is absorbed today with one "popular resistance hero" that the media never mention. That hero is the emigrant to the United States, who mocks the monster from inside its own belly, living in resistance against "la migra" and in solidarity with his or her own people until things start looking up a bit, then sends remittances to keep life going back home, just as during the war these loved ones sent snapshots up of themselves with "venceremos" written on their olive green uniform.

The strength of Christian values is still felt in economic and political life, but it can be channeled in various ways, even opposite directions. Cardinal Obando y Bravo is Nicaragua's most solid political personality, according to polls. For ten years he insisted that Sandinismo was "bad" and many people now feel history has proved him right. Protestant sects have a tough time making inroads in a sizable area of Chontales, around the town where Obando was born.

In El Salvador, the death of Archbishop Rivera y Damas brought out huge crowds over the week his body lay in state. In those days of sorrow, he was eulogized as a man close to the poor, heir to Archbishop Romero, a hierarch able to speak the truth to the powerful and make them insecure in their privileges.

The great protagonists of the armed conflict are disappearing, but everything indicates the need for spiritual impetus, a force of hope that is more radically steady alongside the grassroots majorities, giving a stronger hand in times of frustration and helping in the search for new roads toward a better future.

No Signs of Economic Growth

In 1993 we analyzed the growing "supranational government" of the multilateral financial institutions that are imposing their economic policies on us. The results of this "government" are becoming ever more negative for Central America. The yoke of the foreign debt is still choking our economies and take-off never comes. The failure of the export push is particularly demonstrative, since "development" depends on exports in any structural adjustment plan.

According to UNCTAD, the buying power of Central American exports dropped between 1981 and 1991 in every country but Costa Rica. The reason is probably a combination of inadequate productive investment promotion and the market opening--which creates the need for ever more export income to pay for increasingly numerous and costly imports.

Added to this is the constant deterioration in our terms of exchange. Between 1985 and 1993, the region's exports grew 36% (from US$3.77 billion to $5.14 billion), but its imports increased 83.6% in the same period (from US$4.64 billion to $8.53 billion). The Central American economy obviously can no longer be defined by the volume and value of its exports.

Looking at health and education, the underpinnings of any development, only Costa Rica and Panama have a life expectancy of over 65 years, and are also the only two countries with less than 20% adult illiteracy. In El Salvador, for example, 59% of the school-age population enters high school, but only 29% graduates. These indices are similar in the four other countries of the isthmus.

Finally, the per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) dropped between 1985 and 1991. It finally began to rise again in 1992--except in Nicaragua, which has yet to get out of its stagnation--but the growth indices are not significant. Gross investment in the region barely grew at all between 1982 and 1991, a tremendous turnaround from the previous decade. The ratio of gross investment to the GDP is far below the 25% considered necessary to be able to speak of real development in a given country.

A Change of Model

The capitalist model of accumulation based on agroexports, which concentrated wealth in the hands of a small national minority with little interest in investing its money in the economy's import-substitution industrial expansion is being modified. The model we are moving into now appears to be based on adding tourism, nontraditional agro and agroindustrial exports, and the re-export of imported inputs assembled in low-wage piece-work plants (maquilas) to our traditional agroexports.

But this model concentrates wealth even more than the older one. It is based on a labor force that needs fewer specialized skills than the import-substitution industry required and is forced to accept a lower wage because its only alternative is the vast and growing army of unemployed. These workers are thus less able to exercise organized pressure, particularly in the maquilas, which usually do not even allow unions.

This new model also disarticulates commerce, because it creates no domestic market demand. All inputs and services for maquila production come from outside, in a vertical integration of capital that starts with production and ends with marketing and consumption.

Practice suggests that the new model is only interested in capital accumulation. It is not generating the foreign currency required to pay for the inputs or capital goods the various branches of the economy need, much less the consumer goods imports that the liberalized market causes to continually rise. In fact, unlike the previous model, financing for this model hardly comes from production at all. It comes mainly from emigrants' foreign earnings in the form of family remittances or from international donations and loans.

The most serious part is that the hard currency earned by the labor of the poor does not go to productive investors who depend less on imports. It is used as credits for export production, import commerce or financial speculation. Everything thus indicates that we are in a process of growth without accumulation and thus have no possibility of benefiting from development.

The Salvadoran Proposal

El Salvador's National Development Foundation (FUNDE) reached this same conclusion in analyzing the outline of a new economic plan that the Salvadoran government put out for debate in January of this year. The outline covers four basic measures: fixing a colón exchange rate with the dollar, progressively reducing customs duties over two-and-a-half years until they disappear altogether, increasing the value-added tax from 10% to 12% and modernizing the state--privatizing many of the public services that the state already provides in very entrepreneurial fashion.

The plan suggests that many technocrats from the multilateral financial institutions, as well as Latin American experts who are dogmatically faithful to the neoliberal doctrine, view the production of goods within and for our own countries as ever less important. But if corn, rice and beans will no longer receive financing because capital cannot get the same earning rates from basic grains that it can from currency speculation or importing luxury goods, feeding the majority of the population will depend on imported grains from other countries.

Will the majorities be able to buy these grains, which are normally higher priced and usually not the varieties to which the importing country's population is culturally accustomed- Nicaragua's experience suggests that the answer is no. San Salvador and other Central American capitals are becoming luxurious commercial capitals in which one can find any product, no matter how sophisticated--or superfluous--it may be. But how many Central Americans will have anything beyond the fleeting pleasure of contemplating these products in the shop windows?

The way El Salvador's new economic plan was presented gives a good clue to what is at stake. It was not imposed, as such plans usually are. The major debate over some of its main measures was intentionally triggered, both inside the country and in the region as a whole. The Salvadoran government thus revealed a belief that the country can only move toward development if it has the consensus of civil society and takes the Central American integration framework into account.

The government's strategy--to the degree that one can be gauged by the partial information provided so far--seems aimed at favoring commerce, services and, above all, the financial sector. Salvadoran Treasury Minister Manuel Enriques Hinds--a World Bank official during the 1980s--has strongly reproached industrialists for not using the import duty subsidies they enjoy to finance productive conversion. But business owners in the National Private Enterprise Association (ANEP) turned the tables by daring the government to claim that it has used "family remittances for productive goals and not to promote consumerism." ANEP also pointed out that the new economic plan seems to have originated in "a recognition of the export model's failure."

The debate on the plan is turning out to be very important. Rarely in the past have top leaders of private enterprise in one of our countries been heard speaking of the negative effects that "consumerism" could have on the economy. Equally rarely have they ever been heard to accept that the emigrants are buttressing the economy with their labor--in other words, that we are being sustained by the work of the poor. Nor are we accustomed to hear them recognize, even implicitly, that economic growth based on exports in the style of the recently industrialized Asiatic countries (that "style" being with employment!) requires different conditions than those offered by doctrinaire neoliberalism, particularly regarding the state's role.

Salvadoran Minister of the Economy Eduardo Zablah tried to calm these new reactions, stating that the government does not want to harm the industrialists. On the contrary, he assured, it proposes that "the growth rate be provided by industrial activity and by foreign investment that brings technology with it."

Can the minister be admitting that this investment has not yet been significant? Will it ever be? Will we ever be "important" and "attractive" enough to globalized capital? Zablah calculates that El Salvador, and Central America by extension, needs a 7% annual growth "to absorb the economically active population and provide it jobs." But he believes that "the Central American market is not big enough to grow at the rhythm we want--nor will national capital gear us up into the velocity we want."

Make All of Central America into a Panama?

The gamble on insertion into the global economy is clear; what is not yet clear is whether the preference is for insertion into transnational productive chains or equally transnational flows of financial capital. Nor is it clear what, if any, capital interests--industrial, agricultural, commercial or financial--will decide to crank our motors and rev up the process.

In the debate, rarely admitted truths about the state of our economies are flourishing. Parts of the plan make it seem that El Salvador would like to propose that we turn the whole region into a Panamanian-style dollarized "free zone." Not a bridge between oceans, continents and hemispheres, but a giant consumer market-place to satisfy the desires, if not real needs, of the tiny upper class and the middle classes--only about 20-25% of our population. Other parts of the plan, however, seem to suggest that the productive sectors should shake off their lethargy, giving the impression that it wants to defend production's role in the economy, a better bet on the future.

It is the first time a Salvadoran President has included union leaders in this call for a consultation around the new economic plan, and state workers are showing signs that they will use the space to fight hard against privatization. The specter of layoffs and unemployment, as well as increased rates for the privatized public services, are behind this fighting spirit. Proposals are beginning to surface for the creation of a consulting body of civil society to advise the government once it starts filling in the details of its economic plan. When that time comes, will society demand the reopening of the Economic and Social Forum that was part of the peace accords? In a region in which few sources of work and income are wage-based, would not such an open forum mainly represent civil society's informal economic sector?

All this has major repercussions for Central America. The plan has already been discussed at a ministerial level with Guatemala, and when El Salvador's President Calderón Sol was at an INCAE seminar in Costa Rica recently, he used the opportunity to consult with the Presidents of the host country and Panama about it and present it to the heads of Costa Rica's Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Panama's President showed interest in the proposal, which he acknowledged to "be very close to our model." Costa Rica's President said little, but his Foreign Minister voiced the ill will engendered by any idea to do away with import duties, particularly if it is unilateral. Honduras' President accused El Salvador of wanting to shatter the Central American integration process, particularly over the duty issue.

There is no talk of consulting the Civil Initiative for Central American Integration (ICIC) or any of its member organizations, such as the Association of Central American Agricultural Producers' Organizations for Cooperation and Development (ASOCODE) which represents 30% of Central America's agricultural GDP. But even if no representatives of "bottom-up integration" are consulted, the potential of most small and medium producers in the cities and countryside to create national and regional wealth is attested to in structural economic studies of Central America. The problem is that, now more than ever, the need for financing to bring them into an integration process is not connected to any productive effort.

Gaps That Never Close

The debate underway in El Salvador shows the very limited success of agricultural and industrial exporters and the victory of the traders and bankers, although bank scandals such as those in Costa Rica--the most successful country as an exporter--illustrate how shaky globalization is in the financial terrain. Central America's linkage into transnational productive chains in textiles, fruit, flowers and some vegetables, as well as in the tourist services chain, have not yet even begun to narrow the trade gap or the social and ecological gaps in our countries, to say nothing of the huge gaps in capital and knowledge (science, technology, information and management).

Our national economies, already strongly conditioned by the multilateral financing institutions, are now being subjected to greater and greater intervention by these institutions through "letters of intent" that condition international credit. Despite strong and mounting doubts about the effects that persistent poverty have on the effectiveness of their measures, the stubbornness of these institutions became patent in 1994, when they imposed the second phase of structural adjustment in Nicaragua and permitted few negotiated modifications to it in Honduras.

For years these institutions, particularly the World Bank, have been designing and contracting infrastructural projects in our countries with little or no consultation. Now they are also intervening in the design of all kinds of agricultural, financial and administrative modernization projects and even of economic policy itself.

Most recently they have also begun trying to coopt NGOs, letting them participate--through governments-- in the implementation of projects, but not in their design. They hope to thus blunt the critiques these organizations make of them, capitalize on their grassroots contacts and despoil them of their "nongovernmental" character. It is a curious hostility toward private initiative that complements the state's role.

The multilateral financing institutions' effort to control our economies is based on the contradictory interests of the three huge political?economic blocs that are forming (America, Europe and East Asia) as well as of the transnational corporations. The opening they require of us is asymmetrical, a one-way door. Xenophobia is growing in the US, fed by the loss of jobs there and immigrants' supposed lack of tax contribution. This reaction is endangering the real motor force of our growth today: the dollar remittances our emigrant labor force sends back home. The recent approval of Proposition 187 in California and the hard swing to the right in Congress are the crudest signs of this perceived threat.

Poverty: The Major Obstacle

Latin America and the Caribbean are crucially important to US competitiveness. The United States strongly depends on our ability or inability to import its products. North America's own ecological integrity also depends on us, since the tropical forests and their biodiversity are in our South. The United States also needs us to continue fighting drug traffic. Relative Latin American well?being would greatly help reduce emigrant pressure on its borders and the swelling ethnic diversity in a country that no longer has the capacity to forge all nationalities into one in its cultural melting pot.

But all these interests cannot be defended harmoniously. Growing commercial land traffic through the isthmus, for example, will clash violently with the conservation of ecosystems. We also must not forget that Central America has had more relative European investment than any other region of the world and that Latin America's Mercosur is where Europeans have most economic relations. It is very important for America not to lose this market diversification.

What kind of "small peripheral countries" are projected for Central America? Will we simply be an appendix of NAFTA or of the Free Trade Area of the Americas? Or could we achieve a development like the Newly Industrialized Countries so we can enter into continental free trade agreements with some negotiating weight? Some people emphasize that we do not have either the time the "Asian Tigers" enjoyed or the brutal dictatorial context Chile had. This worry could lead to agreement on El Salvador's project to "Panamize" Central America. Or it just might snap our governments out of their passivity, forcing them to shift the investment potential represented by the remittances and the two or three seasons of good international coffee prices into getting our countries' productive capacity on track.

To assure a productive model, and from it insert ourselves in the world economy, we must also make better use of foreign cooperation, which the United States is reducing in any case. This cooperation is one of the major sources of corruption. Though our governments must be open and above board with the multilateral financing institutions and donor countries, their main lifelines, they feel no such obligation toward their own citizens. This corruption, including the use of political power to get the best goodies being privatized, must be pursued to its core in truly independent courts if we want growth to be sustainable and translate into human development, closing the gap of absolute poverty.

It is increasingly clear to all that poverty is not just a human tragedy and an example of injustice in social coexistence; it is an obstacle to any development process. Investment in human capital--from basic health and education all the way to scientific research and technological training, including about the circuits of information and new management forms--is the only way to multiply the development opportunities. We cannot expect the region to shed the pain and instability enveloping our societies as long as investment in participation schemes is not promoted and a fairer and more efficient tax system and less exclusively monetary, commercial and speculative use of remittances is not put into effect.

Without a social policy, without equitable development, without adjusting the macroeconomic adjustments so their costs do not fall so unfairly, there can be no stability, much less economic growth, as Mexico's crisis shows dramatically. Poverty cannot be dealt with through compensatory measures, because there is no way to "compensate" for human well?being; it is essential. Precisely for this reason, democratizing our societies and culturally valuing this process is at the heart of the issue. A balance must exist between public and private in human coexistence.

Elections Throughout Central America

At the end of 1993 and in 1994, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama had presidential elections; Guatemala had legislative ones and a constitutional referendum; and Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast elected its second autonomous regional government. These processes followed no single pattern, nor did they automatically help deepen democracy.

Costa Rica stands out as a case in which formal democracy (the electoral process) does not seem to erode as in other countries. Both the presidential and legislative contests were hard fought and the incumbent party lost both, and voter abstention did not go up. Voters did not abstain more in Panama either, despite the traumatic political experience there following the 1989 US invasion. Honduras was an intermediate case, since a third of eligible voters abstained, more than in past elections.

El Salvador and Guatemala are at the other extreme, with strong abstention rates. In Guatemala, the roots of this go back at least three decades. Since 1966, when Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected President with a high voter turnout, abstention has climbed steadily, peaking at 87% in the January 1994 constitutional referendum then dropping back "down" to 79% in the legislative election seven months later.

In El Salvador's elections in the 1980s, over 40% of registered voters abstained; the rates would obviously be even higher if the eligible voters who did not register were also counted. It is claimed that the poor turnout in those years was due to the war, since the country previously had a certain tradition of electoral participation, but in the first peacetime elections about half of the registered electorate did not vote.

Are people just not interested in elections? Everything suggests that they still want this form of democracy, which consists of electing representatives and delegating power to them. Perhaps the main problem is the low level of real power our governments enjoy. Participating in electoral democracy requires a collective perception of being in a country with a strong correspondence between the elected government and real power. But the evolution of the world system toward a predominance of capitalism with no counterbalance has strongly diluted this correspondence; our governments have given over much of their real power to the international financing institutions.

The army in Guatemala and the death squads in El Salvador reduce the power of those countries' governments even more because they themselves are the real but unelected, and even sometimes clandestine, power. People thus do not take the elected civilian government very seriously. Persisting fear of this real power and its influence on the electoral process scares them off and sometimes they are even physically blocked from participating.

In contrast, the army's recent loss of influence in Panama and its disappearance--at least in name--decades ago in Costa Rica gave the elections more credibility in these two countries. In Honduras, the electoral cycle initiated 13 years ago has been a real civic event since then, in an increasingly anti?militarist atmosphere.

Will the huge amount of money needed to compete in "democratic" elections ultimately discredit them? This money increasingly ends up in the hands of the media, the privileged channels of values and lifestyles that can make or break a candidate. In modern campaigns, the mass media replace the ancient Greek "agora," or public square; they now have much more influence than street gatherings or rallies. They might appear to be a new, less elitist form of "public life," since they reach many more people than the old rallies. But in reality they tend to privatize politics: the multitudes to which they are aimed and whose vote is solicited by one alternative or another are isolated individuals, not associated ones. In addition, the way candidates and their message are "packaged" follows sales guidelines. In this game, the debates become media spectacles in which the winner is rated on a charisma meter, not by a yardstick of issues.

Power Alternatives?

Despite all the packaging, the perception of real alternatives may even be a differentiating factor in some of the region's elections. Voters seem to have perceived alternatives in Costa Rica, for example. Both traditional parties have already often shown that they can govern and they offer some important differences within a shared basic orientation that supports the bourgeois republic. There also seem to have been collectively perceived alternatives in Panama, this time within a common populist framework, but still at the service of a bourgeois republican state. Hondurans even see the National and Liberal parties as alternatives of a sort, creators of jobs and other patronage for their loyal following.

In contrast, Guatemalans do not seem to have seen any genuine alternatives. The corruption of political parties that accompanied "democratization" may be one essential reason for this. The history of Guatemala's parties only goes back to the 1944?54 revolutionary decade and they have no national expression. The new rightwing parties do not carry the stigma of economic corruption, but they have either failed to make people forget the unscrupulous repression by their leader (as in the case of General Ríos Montt) or have not managed to expand their influence beyond the capital. Ríos Montt's significant win in the legislative elections gave a clue of what the future portends, but the final proof will have to wait until the presidential elections in December 1995. Much will depend on whether or not peace accords are signed and whether or not this will reduce the army's power within the state.

The majority of Salvadorans also do not appear to see any real alternatives. There was a solid vote for ARENA in the 1994 elections, as there was for the left, although a smaller one, but neither got enough to guarantee a majority. The third minority vote--most of which went to other rightwing parties--did not feel that the formerly guerrilla left would be able to govern the country, probably assessing that most of its leaders lacked preparation. The culture of university degrees and professional practice is very strong and the right is the beneficiary of it. Perhaps at a deeper level, the left was viewed as lacking any alternative project for society or any programs that could really correct the right's project. It was also probably seen as without new policies or attitudes toward power. It is evident that accepting the media as the main forum for competing in the elections redoubled all these perceptions and favored the right.

The Privatization of Politics

The majorities are absorbing essential individualism as the focal point of their culture, a lifestyle and way of thinking that reflects the culture of the US middle classes, even if not all of its symbols have the same cultural meaning in both places. Even the poor and ethnic youth who are still discriminated against in the United States have an influence. Their models of resistance?delinquency are reflected in the style of the youth gangs in our own countries. Central America's gangs are organized the same, they establish and defend their turf the same way, they dress alike and even sing rap in Spanish.

All of this makes it possible to venture the opinion that the cultural message sent through the media, as well as through the emigrants who have already gone through their stage of heroic resistance to la migra and are now becoming part of the American "dream, is that the giant economic corporations are the ideal of progress--particularly those in commerce, services and finance. People see that this is where power comes to roost, as personified in the top executives of such corporations. They have won the battle of lifestyles. The crumbling of the socialist bloc has left no other alternative. The victory of the private economy--which in the midst of its own crisis wants to deprive emigrants of social services --leads to the privatization of politics.

The state is absenting itself from what is specifically political: it is less and less a source of social organization from power, guarantor of the general interest, arbitrator between social classes or ethnic, language, or religious groupings. It is now, more than anything else, a police force to protect private rights. We are attending the privatization of politics, in which the state does not have the slightest intention of representing public interests. It is politics without dreams or myths for the majorities. Dreams and myths are for the individual or, at best, for the family, for private family organization. Politics no longer has utopias, because the consumer abundance and the dazzling spectacles appear as the unsurpassable utopia.

A generation of young people who were idealistic and at times heroic fighters for a political ideal in the 1980s have reached adulthood in the 1990s, a time of disenchantment and cynicism, of exhaustion and confusion about norms, of unemployment. Many of these youth threw themselves into the struggle to promote and defend a political project of national liberation and found that what they most "liberated" was a flow of migrants to the United States, source of dollar remittances and an opportunity to escape poverty and economic stagnation. That experience was so generalized that it can denationalize both dreams and reality.

Corruption: The Only Growth Rate

Corruption is the other tendency helping to culturally undermine democratization. With it, politics itself loses meaning as a source of social organization. Politicians are increasingly seen as fabricators of lies, constructing images that have nothing to do with reality, and as ambitious individuals seeking only their own rapid enrichment.

Revolutionary left political groups have helped give new life to the old and cynical image of politics as a dirty game. The ethical stigma that has branded the left organizations has a multiple dimension. These organizations are seen as destroying each other when they are no longer in power. Some of their leaders prefer rhetoric to action--saying that people are hungry is more important than the hunger itself and making people believe that they are the ones who can find solutions is more important than seeking those solutions. Others have so identified their own destiny with that of the people that when they are recognized or start living better, they act as if the people, too, have been "liberated."

To all of this must be added the persistence of criminal political groups, which today have turned to organized crime, linking into drug traffic, transnational car theft and other forms of "productive" crime. This "criminal capital," which dovetails with the politics of the most fanatical right, is another element that helps associate corruption with politics.

Part of the religious culture--that which is elaborately transmitted through liberation theology, for example--exalted the importance of history and political commitment so it could affect it, and denounced traditional rightwing politics and national security as anti-people.

Today, with the failure--or at least crisis--of political projects that were promoted as liberating, a critique by this theology could feed skepticism or an inability to assume in a Christian manner the historic ambiguity contained in all politics.

And Civil Society?

Can civil society, by participating more, create a resurgence of the real possibilities of politics? The challenge that will define the future of democratization lies in social participation. That is what can push institutions to counteract their own tendency toward formal bureaucratization. Central America shows many indices of an increase in the organization of civil society. Naturally, the greatest levels of organization are still in the umbrella associations of big capital (CACIF in Guatemala, ANEP in El Salvador, COHEP in Honduras, COSEP in Nicaragua, etc.) and their member federations organized by economic activity. It is easier for them to organize because they are few and very concentrated. Today's governors come from their ranks, which multiplies their influence.

The other sectors of civil society--worker and peasant unions; cooperatives; human rights organizations; organizations of women, environmentalists, indigenous peoples and ethnic communities, religious workers, teachers, university students, researchers, demobilized combatants, war disabled; every kind of NGO; groups linked to municipal, neighborhood or village development projects--all have organized leadership and upper echelons of activists. Not all of them, however, have big grassroots social movements behind them. Some have not yet managed to pull together the representation and participation of their sectors.

And here lies the challenge. Democratization does not yet have a culture of broad social participation behind it. It began to have in it the 1970s, with huge mass mobilizations. But the activities of some are still associated with war tactics, which today produce real fear that they could take us back to armed confrontation. This was experienced in Nicaragua with the use of street barricades in some strikes. El Salvador experienced it in September 1994 and again in January of this year with the occupation of public buildings and taking of hostages.

The militarization of the conflict snatched away the civic character of participation, branding it as exclusively military. People wore down under the dramatic abnormality of weaponry, generator of so much pain, intolerable over long periods. Now, in peacetime, dialogue, pressure, negotiations and proposals, all necessary for participation, are being invented anew. We do not know how much capacity for organization and public mobilization they will guarantee in all the struggles that will be needed to confront such a complex reality.

The Clearest Tendencies

At the beginning of 1995 we can identify several political tendencies from which serious challenges could spring. The most important of them opened with the pacification process that culminated or is culminating in peace accords. It cannot be said that the countries or the region as a whole are as bad as or worse than before, but the accords are either unsatisfactory or some of their crucial points have not been fully implemented. The region's conflictiveness, in which minimum social justice and democracy are denied to the majorities and fundamental human rights are repressed when people mobilize to demand basic changes, was what led to the war. In Nicaragua and El Salvador, where "peace" has not responded to the need for land and credit so rural and urban producers can actually produce, these two countries remain unstable. In Guatemala, the investigation into human rights violations is not permitted to name the individuals responsible, which is deeply distressing and unsatisfactory. It will be even more serious if the Guatemalan peace accords do not recognize some form of real autonomy for the Mayan peoples.

Another tendency is the division, conversion or dissolution occurring within the revolutionary groupings, together with their failure to obtain a majority vote in recent elections. Why is this happening? Some political conditions marked by the war still persist--fear, in particular--and the left groups also find it difficult to participate in politics without having state power as their only objective. Since they have not figured out how to be a creative opposition, it is hard for them to stay united and active without the unifying magnet of a common military or state administration strategy.

The political parties' loss of prestige is another clear tendency, expressed in the growing abstention rate in elections. But political parties are necessary, as is an imaginative effort to recreate them with new agendas, new tasks and, above all, new ways of training their active membership. The parties will be unable to recover their credibility without new politicians able to forge and participate in broad alliances, concerned about honesty, openness and consultation with civil society, and whose lifestyle is much closer to that of most of their constituency.

At a geopolitical level, we face a growing link between the political parties--old and new--and those who control the world of images and spectacles. The parties may pick their own candidates, but the media create them. Italy's Silvio Berlusconi is a paradigmatic personality, the political expression of capital transformed into spectacle. After imposing products through merchandising, capital is now using the same merchandising in the monopoly media to try to impose the consensus necessary to govern. The ability to deal with this will depend on the cleansing or independence of the judiciary, on the fidelity of political parties to the people and their Constitutions and on the participatory strength of civil society.

We are also witnessing the camouflaging of the armies. It is not yet clear if internal security in the countries will end up in the hands of a police force separated from the army and under the command of civilian state institutions. That is the scheme set up by the peace accords in El Salvador, but the door was left open for a President to call out the army in cases of "great national emergency." Some forces in both the army and civil society are conspiring to get this door opened more often, and thus return to the previous situation. The armies, bereft of justifications for their swollen budgets, are trying to disguise themselves in development tasks, disaster relief, environmental protection and the like to retain their influence in other state institutions and their business and financial capacity in civil society. The failure of efforts to get the armies to accept restrictions on their functions and real subordination to civilian authority could be the greatest threat to democratization in some countries.


At a supranational level, the confidence of the multilateral financial institutions in their structural adjustment plans is withering. Some critics already see enough confusion to expect new opportunities for our countries. The fact of the matter is that the neoliberal model is having no success in Central America; it is not achieving a take?off toward development. The multilateral agencies' ability to act still has its limits.

This contradiction is where the need to recover the state's role can be best appreciated. The state needs to be strong, but it must receive its strength from a social consensus that buttresses it from below rather than from its authoritarianism or its bias toward the social forces that have the greatest concentration of wealth. It must be a state that assures the public the things that, although necessary, cannot be bought and sold in the market because they do not offer quick profits: basic health, fundamental education, environmental protection.

Thus emerges the challenge of delimiting what is national, what cannot be diluted into globalization without losing its cultural richness. A state that cannot or does not know how to favor the development of its own national productive forces or of increased national productivity, and thus settles for the primitive method of superexploiting workers in the maquilas, also cannot create its own set of relative prices that function within its territory.

Such a state will end up abdicating this right and duty, denationalizing itself. It will cease to have a national economic discourse, and will submit to transnational prices, accepting that the functioning of the economy be based only on the maquila, imports, banking and remittances.

Parallel to globalization and very much in spite of it, we are seeing a revitalization of diverse cultures, national minorities and ethnic communities in the world, including Central America. Centralized states and, even more so, imperialism have tried to extinguish the flames of this mighty diversity. But economic growth--which makes even ethnic or racial groups develop social classes and progressively converts them into nationalities--combined with technological revolutions that unify the world into a global village permit the encounter with diversity and raise consciousness about the differences.

There is greater awareness of dignity in our countries today, although it does not immediately translate into political conviction or participation. It is an awareness of the right to advance and is seen in various forms: emigration, voting, working and struggling in the maquilas, forms of grassroots economy, new kinds of property ownership and ways of being proprietors. It is a form of awareness that disconcerts the revolutionary political organizations.

We have seen that, with this kind of awareness, many refuse to vote for the left, even though they have probably not rejected their dreams, since the left sometimes only lives out these dreams in rhetoric. Generosity goes hand in hand with manifestations of opportunism, because one must nudge one's way forward this life, which at times seems like a broken?down bus, slow and jammed with passengers.

Regionalization Full Speed Ahead

The globalization scheme imposed with iron will and disconcerting speed by the current world economic system threatens to exclude us while continuing to exploit us. Efforts to relaunch Central American integration dominated 1993, but at the end of 1994, this plan took on a continental dimension. The Summit of the Americas in Miami imposed the creation of a Free Trade Area of the Americas by 2005. Even if the real deadline is delayed another five or ten years, the plan will be put in motion and the rhythm will continually speed up. This continental scale does not facilitate the emergence of broader and more grassroots participation.

Economic power in the region is as dynamic as the regionalization process itself, although when the state proposes opening up rapidly to global trade by dropping all protection barriers, private enterprise strongly warns about what is still needed before it can become competitive. The dynamism of the state and of grassroots civil society, on the other hand, is much slower.

Regionalization should not be seen just as a way to integrate into the US market. The United States obviously has a leadership role in this process, but also depends on Latin America to keep it competitive in the 20th century. The US market is not the only one that we should consider. We must also keep the Latin America and Canadian markets firmly in mind, and maintain our important trade relations with the European Community and East Asia.

But most important of all is for grassroots civil society to make a strong effort to become more relevant in this process. It must make maximum use of the space for expression that has been obtained with the peace processes and the general commitment of all sectors to democratization. We must not lose sight of technical preparation, political education, and a better understanding of the culture in which we live. Nor must we lose sight of the faith, hope and solidarity hidden within our peoples' religious reserves. There are many real spaces from which we can continue engaging in the struggle for life in these times of broken compasses.

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