Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 81 | Marzo 1988


Central America


Envío team

In 1987, an event of such importance took place in Central America that, for the first time since 1979, we can speak of a fundamental change in the regional panorama. On August 7, 1987, Esquipulas II established real conditions that bring into sight an end to the Central American conflict. The Peace Accords signed by the five Central American Presidents in August opened a door to what envío's 1986 special issue referred to as "revolutionary peace... with economic justice, popular participation, liberation and cultural reconstruction."

It's important to look at Esquipulas II as more than just the work of the five Central American Presidents. Clearly, they had their part in the plan. But, while many in the US media portray the plan as the brainchild of Costa Rican President and Nobel Prize winner Oscar Arias, it is not solely his work either. Those who have shaped Esquipulas II, not with respect to its official text but rather to its profound dynamism, are the bulk of the Central American people, who have demanded their rights, having suffered in untold ways during the long process of sustaining their dignity, and have acted with indomitable spirit and the decisiveness to catapult their small part of the world to a place of historical importance.

Unquestionably, a significant part of the Central American population has passively experienced the progression of radical changes that have shaken the region for decades and resulted in Nicaragua becoming the first revolutionary process in the area in 1979. We cannot minimize the bewilderment of so many who have seen events snowball into an avalanche, destroying the stable world to which they were accustomed. These masses reacted to the chaos by leaving the region; remaining inert and neutral in a conflict that has slowly obliged people to take sides; grasping at security through different forms of religion; or trying to wait for the final outcome in order to again make sense of the world and of life itself.

Nonetheless, many have made themselves into the region's new historical subject. These active creators of a new history have turned Esquipulas II into a new reality and opened the door to revolutionary peace.

The Central American governments signed the accords to give legitimacy to their own states. That demonstrates an important dialectic, as one of those governments, Costa Rica, was interested in strengthening the legitimacy of a model of democracy unknown in the rest of Central America and giving it a regional character. Three other governments (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) wanted to legitimate their recently unveiled democratic facades, as they could not cover up the anti-democratic reality of their brutal counterinsurgencies and shamefully anti-national policies. And the fifth government (Nicaragua) hoped to legitimate a revolutionary process marked by popular power and a strong national liberation project, but threatened by the economic erosion both caused and deepened by an ongoing war.

Meanwhile, the Reagan Administration was nearing the end of its term without having achieved its goal of "pacifying" the region. Reagan's low-intensity warfare strategy didn’t bring the desired results in Central America and his administration found its influence in Congress waning and its honor tarnished as a result of the Iran/Contra scandal. Esquipulas offers either the Democratic Party or a more pragmatic Republican administration the possibility of not having to begin 1989 with a discredited Central American policy and no way out other than direct US military intervention.

Lastly, the Central American people who are organized into varying degrees of popular power obliged the Presidents to sign the accords. Moreover, the dignity with which they have responded to all the attempts to break them through hunger or terror has forced Washington to consider seriously the new context created in the wake of the Esquipulas Peace Accords. For the new Central American subject, Esquipulas II represents a challenge to make use of this new instrument of revolutionary peace.

The challenge is to weave together the different variables at play: a) the new political subject organized in massive form; b) a vanguard political subject that, while aspiring to leadership, is a political or political-military movement and the dialectical combination between a revolutionary vanguard party and revolutionary state in transition; and finally, c) a cultural subject that, in multiple convergences and at very different levels, elaborates the ideological sustenance (theoretical, religious, mythological-historical, artistic and ethical) for a new society.

This revolutionary interweaving has not been perfected in any of the five Central American countries. It is under construction at varying levels in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. Honduras still lacks a unified leadership and the incipient level of revolutionary organization Costa Rica has declined substantially. The region's countries have five distinct cultural experiences and precisely for this reason have given birth to five perspectives from which spring different national versions of the new historical subject.

Various factors and the degree of their development affect the real possibilities available to the new Central American historical subject in each country to forge a tool for revolutionary peace from Esquipulas II. These factors include: a) the level of political imagination of each revolutionary movement; b) the history of pressure on the standard of living for the majority; c) the takeoff point in each country's economic development, d) the consolidation of each state and overall the participation of each nation’s army in nation-building; e) the level of state dependence vis-à-vis the United States; f) the level of influence exercised by the United States over each government; and, g) each country’s success in projecting its image in the international arena.

The 1821 Independence Act was far ahead of the actual emergence of real conditions for an authentic national liberation process. By the same token, the Esquipulas II Accords, embryo of a regional Constitution, may have to wait some time before encountering the conditions in some of the signatory countries for actually putting it into practice. Whether Esquipulas II turns out to be more than one more social treatise with no base in material conditions depends on how the region’s grassroots forces confront the challenge. It also depends on the economic and political support that region’s new project will be able to garner from the rest of Latin America, Europe, Canada, the socialist countries and the Third World.

Central America’s importance internationally

The emerging regional historical subject has been able to catapult Central America to a role of great international importance, primarily because our region is located in what the United States considers its "sphere of influence." The Reykjavik summit demonstrated both Mikhail Gorbachev’s audacity and Ronald Reagan's ill-preparedness and the inconsistent way the United States treats its main foreign policy allies. The response to this new flexibility and creativity by the Soviets signified the probability of an attempt at a more pragmatic US policy towards Central America.

This favorable new international correlation of forces is due to the dynamism of its own revolutionary protagonists as well as to a number of other factors weighing heavily on the US Administration that contribute to a new world context and the opening of new international political spaces. But a fundamental question is how long Central America will be able to count on this new correlation of forces.

We must not forget that the US foreign policy objectives have not changed. Walter LaFeber, who has lucidly chronicled this policy, argues in his book America, Russia and the Cold War (1945-1984) that after the Second World War, the United States wanted an open world market and Roosevelt began to put this policy into practice with Churchill in the Atlantic Conference in August 1941. Article 4 of the Atlantic Charter declared that all states should enjoy "access, on equal terms, to commerce and the world's raw materials necessary for their economic prosperity."

Nevertheless, "equal terms" was defined in 1948, by George Kennan, former US ambassador to the Soviet Union and head of the State Department's planning group in the postwar years. Kennan defined it this way: “...we have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction...We should cease to talk about vague and—for the Far East—unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.” (Cited in Noam Chomsky’s 1985 book, Turning the Tide, US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace.)

If, instead of the "Far East" (the statement was made in the years of the final confrontation between Chiang-Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, we substitute "Central America," we can also realistically discard any illusions we may have had.

The US foreign policy objectives did not change between 1941 and 1980. What did change was the world in which they were to be put into practice. Ronald Reagan came to the presidency with the primary objective of "rolling back" already successful revolutions and consolidating the US sphere of influence to demonstrate to the Western world that the fluctuations in US hegemony, provoked primarily by its defeat in Vietnam, were not permanent. The specific area in which the policy was to be demonstrated was Central America, the US “backyard.” Central America will probably continue to have historical importance in the immediate future because it’s the tip of the Latin American iceberg of self-determination, that confrontation with the US policy of maintaining the region as its sphere of influence.

During the Reagan years, the United States has never accepted the peace initiatives by the Contadora Group, later backed up by the Latin American Support Group countries. In May 1986 the first "Esquipulas" meeting of the five Central American Presidents took place, concentrating almost exclusively on economic issues. In June of that year, the US Congress authorized $100 million to the contra forces. From that time on, facing what seemed an unending conflict in Central America, the Central American Peace Plan (first known as the Arias Plan and signed in a different version in the Esquipulas Accords of August 1987) emerged.

The so-called Arias Plan has gone through three different versions. The first corresponded closely to the Reagan Administration’s interests and, in fact, emerged after a meeting held in Miami that included Costa Rican Foreign Minister Rodrigo Madrigal Nieto, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Eliot Abrams, Abrams' assistant William Walker and US Special Envoy to Central America Philip Habib. The core of the plan was for the other Central American countries to pressure Nicaragua into "substantial negotiations," in other words political negotiations, with the counterrevolutionary forces. Their goal was to trade off new elections in Nicaragua for the suspension of military aid to the contras. This first version was a resounding failure, due to Nicaragua's strong reaction, along with Guatemala's unwillingness to go along with the plan. In addition, it is quite likely that Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) was influential in suggesting significant modifications to the plan's first draft.

While Nicaragua characterized the second Arias plan—presented in a February 1987 meeting in San José to which Nicaragua was not invited—as "constructive," it came as rather a shock to El Salvador and Honduras and, in the end, none of the countries signed it. From the first moment, the US demonstrated its opposition to any regional accord. When the Central American countries agreed to a second summit meeting (Esquipulas II) on August 6-7 in Guatemala, the Administration quickly put together the Reagan-Wright peace plan which boomeranged badly in the end. The historic Esquipulas accords recognized the structural reasons for the Central American crisis and conflict—injustice, misery, social inequalities, absence of real democracy and lack of national independence. They also created the International Commission for Verification and Follow-up, effectively freeing verification from US manipulative pressures, given the involvement of the Contadora and Support Group countries as well as the OAS and UN. For the first time in history, the United States was no longer both part of and judge to a Latin American conflict.

Esquipulas II, signed on August 7, is really the third " Arias Plan," but it varies significantly from all earlier versions. Behind the challenge that the peace accords represented for Central America lay an even greater challenge—that of a new international economic order. In the political and ideological arenas, it also calls for the restructuring of international law so that all nations are on equal terms, a concept that questions the UN Security Council statute ceding veto rights to the five "big nations."

Clearly, no US administration can remain indifferent to such an important and complex challenge as that currently posed by the Central American countries. The huge fiscal and commercial deficits provoked by the neo-trilateralists oblige us to remember that the theoreticians of the first trilateralism believed that the world capitalist system required less democracy, arguing that excess democracy would make Western societies "ungovernable."

The authentic democratization process proposed by the Central American people and implied in the principles of Esquipulas II is a demand for more, not less democracy. This call democracy is also raised by the black majority in South Africa, forced to live under the unjust apartheid system; by the Palestinians denied a state; by the Central American countries and by the Contadora and Support Group countries, which comprise 90% of Latin America's population.

It's not surprising that the Reagan Administration, so out of touch with the changes happening in the world and the push towards a new set of relations between the first and third worlds, would react so virulently against Nicaragua and the Central American people. One would hope that the next Administration—Democrat or Republican—will be more pragmatic and view the world with the same complexity employed by the majority of the European nations.

Our analysis leads us to conclude that Central America will continue to occupy an important and conflictive place in the world arena. At the same time, it will maintain its current position, however fragile, of demanding a diversification of its inevitable economic and political dependence on other countries, as well as insisting on a Latin American solution to the region's problems. The likelihood of this conclusion being proven true would be greater if the Central American countries were to intelligently use the differences in the world capitalist system by continuing to bring their claims and concerns to international and regional forums and opening their doors to strengthened relations with other third world nations, as well as socialist bloc countries. The path that the Central American countries take depends, to a large degree, on the level of grassroots pressure brought to bear in each country.

A demilitarization process in Central America?

In our 1986 regional analysis. we stated that economics is the most important long-term factor in the region's overall situation, although the military variable is currently dominant and has been since the 1979 Sandinista victory. We also argued that the decisive factors are political (level of mass organization, etc.) and ideological (the type and level of cultural identity and the consequent options). Nevertheless, the character of the international variable (the role played by the United States, Latin America, the socialist countries, Europe, the non-aligned nations, etc.) conditions the political actors in the conflict.

In 1987 we've adjusted, by country, the decisive weight we earlier gave the political-ideological factors. We reiterated the relative importance of these subjective factors in both El Salvador and Honduras. The economic crisis in Nicaragua means that the economic factor is ascending, while the importance of the political-ideological elements has declined somewhat. In Guatemala, the economic factor had become the most important. Due to editorial limitations, we did not do an in-depth analysis of Costa Rica last year.

The fundamental question posed by Esquipulas II revolves around the predominance of the military issue in the regional situation. The peace accords would appear to give an important, and new, emphasis to the methods being used in the search for a solution to the conflict. The military conflict is balanced by the search for political-economic solutions based in a growing national identity that tries to give a greater margin of independence to the Central American region, thus supporting growing Latin American unity. For the first time in many years, the Central American peoples' desire for peace and the pressure the war puts on each government’s ability to manage the economy have given rise to a dialectical confrontation between a military and a political-economic resolution to the Central American conflict.

A significant part of the Central American people, willing to fight for their rights and dignity, have experienced first-hand the horrors of war and now have a profound longing for peace. In a supreme distortion, these people have been characterized as "terrorists," although they took up armed struggle only after every means of peaceful struggle had been tried, and failed, in their quest to bring about the necessary changes in Central America's social and economic structures and end what the Bishops' Conference at Medellin in 1968 referred to as the "institutionalized violence" of poverty and injustice.

It is these forces for peace that have confronted Reagan's militaristic policies in Central America. On the other hand, the Central American governments have seen an increasing level of disorder and irresponsibility coupled with the lack of any serious or far-reaching reforms. For these and other reasons, the Central American economies now face a downward spiral given unequal terms of trade; increasing strangulation due to their foreign debts; the unwillingness of the world system to respond to their concerns; the collapse of the regional economic integration mechanism; capital flight; the tenacious unwillingness of the bourgeoisie to undertake serious investments or pay higher taxes; and the enormous costs of the military conflicts.

Taken as a whole, these real forces for peace brought Esquipulas II to seriously question the US strategy of military intervention as a solution to the Central American conflict. Also being seriously questioned is the "triple alliance" common to Central and Latin American countries—a coalition of the country's oligarchic classes with the armed forces and US Embassy personnel.

The survival of Central America's peoples and governments—threatened by the indefinite prolongation of the military conflict—has brought the economic factor to center stage. Before beginning an analysis of each country, we should tackle this question: Has the economic factor in Central America become its determinant long-term variable? In 1986 we said the "interminable" prolongation of the Central American conflict had cruelly exacerbated the crisis of basic necessities imposed on people by the countries' unjust social structures. International studies show, for instance, that poverty has increased considerably in Honduras—the "poverty gap" (conceived of as the percentage of the gross domestic product that would have to be invested to close it) is 21.8% in Honduras, one of the highest in Latin America.

The living standard, or basic needs, of the majority has fallen considerably throughout Central and Latin America. "Basic needs" is a social concept encompassing elements such as food, health, housing and social welfare, as well as political elements (that is, the popular participation necessary to insure that these basic needs are determined and distributed democratically). In the case of Central America, religious elements (symbols, faith and values) must also be taken into account.

The wars and the large number of displaced people in Central America have meant a sharp reduction in basic food production, and the scarcity has created a burgeoning black market. The repressive conditions with which the counterinsurgency has carried out its war on the civilian population in El Salvador and Guatemala and the terrorist contra attacks on the Nicaraguan population, along with a growth in the fundamentalist sects, encourage a passive religious sentiment among the people and restrict grassroots participation.

There is a real danger that the struggle for survival will undermine authentic Christian images. Low intensity warfare not only tries to demonstrate that revolutionary attempts are counterproductive, but also tries to destroy daily life as well as the strength that an important part of the Central American population has historically drawn from religious or indigenous beliefs.

As the national analyses will demonstrate, Esquipulas II offers the possibility of a peaceful coexistence of reform efforts alongside the revolutionary project in Nicaragua. But, instead of a decrease in military activity, military actions have actually intensified in the short run, at least in Guatemala and Nicaragua. The conflict has also not diminished in El Salvador, although the popular forces have not dealt the government any spectacular blows since August. For his part, President Reagan has done everything possible to keep the military option alive in Central America. Since August, he has won three votes in Congress that mean a continuation of US military pressure on the Sandinista revolution.

It would seem to be too early to draw any real conclusions about the ongoing role of the military variable in Central America. Nevertheless, we can say that Esquipulas makes it clear that the military option is losing its centrality and that all the Central American governments must seriously consider political action if they are to resolve their country's conflicts. The challenge of seeking a political resolution is one that neither the Central American governments nor the United States can afford to ignore.

Esquipulas II was signed by governments so diverse that in 1986 we referred to some as them as "pawns." But it was also signed because all the Presidents are aware that neither modernization projects nor survival economies can replace a peace-building political climate. And those sectors of the Democratic Party that have supported Esquipulas are aware that a policy of intervention (which would become more profound as the "low intensity war" grinds on) does not have support among the US public. They also realize that, in order to maintain US political hegemony in the region, political negotiations are absolutely necessary and the United States must reach some accord with the Nicaraguan revolution and the revolutionary movements on the isthmus.

We advance the hypothesis that a solution to the conflict in Central America today is impossible unless a much more creative synthesis is sought between the military and political-ideological elements. We would also argue that the sharpening of the basic needs crisis requires the search for much more imaginative connections between military and economic pressures as well as between "subjective" factors and the material basis of basic necessities.

Meanwhile, the realignment of forces in the United States suggests three possible alternatives: 1) the triumph of Reagan's vision and a continuation of his attempt to recover total US domination over Central America through military means; 2) the introduction of political negotiations while military pressures are maintained; 3) a new road that would try to maintain US control over Central America, easing the military pressure on Nicaragua at least temporarily and trying to roll back its revolutionary process through a series of political pressures, including the normalization of relations between the United States and Nicaragua. There is a fourth alternative—a policy of respect for authentic self-determination in Central America. That alternative seems quite improbable, or at least very distant as things stand now.

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Modernization and Militarism

Military Solution in Crisis

Dependence and the Military

Steps on the Road to Peace

Between Dignity and Submission

Conclusions: Whither Central America
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