Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 145 | Agosto 1993


Central America

The Hour of Civil Society

The 12 days between former President Serrano's self directed coup and the election of President Ramiro de León Carpio will go down in Guatemalan history and in the history of Central America's poor.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

The 12 days between former President Serrano's self directed coup and the election of President Ramiro de León Carpio will go down in Guatemalan history and in the history of Central America's poor. For Guatemala, it has meant the flourishing of democracy, but it is still uncertain whether the gardener who was able to save the tree of democracy from decay at this moment will have the power to fertilize the earth, fortify its roots, prune its branches and thus make it able to bear healthy fruit, not only this year but for many years to come.

It was not one gardener, really, but a team of gardeners. A notable group of civic organizations and several individuals from the state apparatus itself managed to unite and mobilize no small part of the Guatemalan people. In this world society that has already ushered in the 21st century, the reaction and pressure from the international community, and especially from the United States, flowed in favor of democracy, thus uniting this improvised team of Guatemalan social and political forces.

These 12 historic days in Guatemala help us to, among other things, analyze the differences between the democratization processes in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Nicaragua: Little Development

In Nicaragua, the triumphant revolution of an armed leftwing movement had the unanimous, militant support of a people from a poorly developed civil society. The transition toward a socialist state, influenced by the Cuban model, led to important economic errors, the absorption of the Sandinista movement into a party state, the bureaucratization of that movement and its progressive detachment from civil society.

The brutal intransigence of US imperial interests under Reagan and Bush magnified the Sandinistas' errors and fed and financed a counterrevolutionary peasant war, which also served the interests of unproductive national capital. The Catholic Church hierarchy was unable to join the promotion of democracy with a constructively critical opening to the historic transformations made by Sandinismo.

The transition to political pluralism and to the democratic alternation of government through elections was attained. The FSLN, a statized party, internally undemocratic in contrast to its project of a politically pluralist society paid a high price through its electoral defeat and forced into retreat a project that had given hope to the poor throughout the South.

Civil society increased its organizational levels during the Sandinista administration but was unable to overcome the urban rural gap. In general, the predominantly urban revolution, which venerated large industrialization projects, treated rural peasant farmers and small urban artisan manufacturers as socially retarded minors.

Little by little, the Sandinista party state's failure paid its price in corruption among its members a price far greater than that of the electoral defeat.

History did move forward in Nicaragua, however. A small country claimed and won its rights with respect to the imperial colossus at the International Court of Justice at The Hague and mobilized immense international solidarity. But the revolution remained a long way from incorporating the unorganized majorities into participation in democracy and economic power, despite having made one of Latin America's most important agrarian reforms, which has remained, though not always with financing or definitive land titles.
In Nicaragua we saw that the option for the poor, in terms of true economic, political and cultural participation, is a long term task, and even more so in the current international context, globalized by transnational capital, which has accumulated a monopoly over science and technology.

El Salvador: Exclusion and Exhaustion

In El Salvador, the 1970s witnessed the tremendous development of civil society, above all in its popular organized component. The transformation of the late archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, into a prophet, theologian and pastor gave civil society access to the truth, closeness to the popular majorities and history's indulgence to challenge monopolized wealth, oppressive power and top down elitist organization, denouncing them as idolatries that cause the death of the poor. D'Aubuisson's death squads assassinated Archbishop Romero, and the Catholic Church hierarchy, except in the archdiocese of San Salvador, remained divided, not following his path.

Confronting the militarization of the state and of the sectors dominating capital, the revolutionary political military opposition also militarized the civilian organizations or burdened them with top down leaders. Here, too, the imperial interests of Reagan and Bush played a role, financing and technifying the state's militarization, covering up brutal and systematic human rights violations and prolonging the war, thus provoking even greater bloodshed among the people.

The convoking of a "third social force," launched by the rector of the Central American University, today a martyr, won support and led to the National Debate for Peace and to the continuous encouragement that Salvadoran society gave to the peace negotiations. But that society was virtually excluded from the high level peace negotiations. That, together with the overwhelming fatigue resulting from the drawn out armed conflict, deprived the democratization process fashioned in the peace accords of the strength that the grassroots component of an active civil society could have given it the strength to plant the roots of democratic culture in all aspects of social life. In contrast, the part of society encompassed by private enterprise is showing enormous strength; together with the government, it is using the media to put the brakes on this democratization process.

The politicizing of social life currently noted in the obsession about the next elections is no guarantee that, in today's El Salvador, any men and women have become "new" as well as intelligent politicians, or that there is a counterpart of social leadership from the grassroots majorities. This short term electoral frenzy could even devour the long term process of social and personal humanization.

Guatemala: Flourishing and Hopeful

In Guatemala, the armed revolutionary movement has had neither the strength nor the openings that luck and particular moments gave the armed revolutionary movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Capital and a brutally efficient army after the privileged counterinsurgency training Kennedy's United States gave Guatemalan soldiers killed the main leaders of the democratic political class and massacred people wholesale.

Bereft of quality political leaders, the parties nosedived into politicking and corruption. The task of demanding democracy, and integrating into it the historic reversal of the Spanish conquest by respecting the indigenous groups' growing identity of struggle, was left to the grassroots component of society. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church reached unity and modestly practiced with no Romero, but with intelligent and upright men a prophetic word and a daily pastoral of closeness with the poor and, among them, the indigenous peoples.

What happened in Guatemala in those 12 historic days revealed a lesson: neither the state and the political military organizations are sufficient to implement historic transformation processes without the cooperation of civil society. This new flourishing of civil society is still historically insignificant it is not yet known what fruit it will bear and, given the efficient cover up of so much blood and terror, its people have won the least international solidarity. Nonetheless, in the mosaic of Central American peoples in conflict and on the path to peace today, Guatemala reflects the indispensible role of civil society and its grassroots majorities in any democratization process. At stake in that process are dignity, respect, compassion, development and justice as paths to liberation.

All authentic revolutions begin with an extremely high degree of participation by the grassroots majorities. The challenge is to find lasting channels for that participation that do not become elite, bureaucratic, corrupt, closed off or coopted.

In Central America, the hope is that politicians will listen to the clamor of those majorities, which are demanding not only new policies but also new politicians. The challenge is for these majorities to come to the conclusion that no political organization, neither the state nor any party, can govern without them. The humanizing potential of popular participation is still untapped. But in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, the blood of the martyrs who threw their fate in with the poor created a well of the water of life from which the people can draw the everyday heroism of responsible participation in social coexistence.

It would be of great benefit for each of our peoples to integrate the failures and successes of the rest. This mutual enrichment would be one of the true expressions of Central American integration.

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