|Central American University - UCA
Number 151 | Febrero 1994
Central America's Alternative: Integration from Below
Neoliberal programs are showing signs of exhaustion in the South. Are they doomed to die? If they don’t, it won’t be due just to a lack of a theoretical alternative to this system, but to the weakness of political forces that could vanquish them.
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
The whole world speaks of "globalization" to characterize the process that has been underway in this final decade of the 20th century and in the wake of the end of the Cold War. In Central America, however, this globalization is nothing short of perverse.
Like other previous world systems, globalization is not symmetrical. Central America today is experiencing globalization as a more devastating pillage than what its people underwent 500 years ago with the conquest and colonization. The current globalization model opens the door to possibilities of a decent life only to those countries with integrated economies and creative tendencies towards political and cultural approximation.
The only way to enter into this globalizing world system less asymmetrically is by integrating the Central American countries such that they can assert their advantage as a bridge both between the Atlantic and the Pacific and between the North and the South.
But this integration cannot be the exclusive task of governments or concentrations of capital, nor should its vision be directed primarily outside the region. The grassroots majorities of civil society should be the protagonists of integration. Given the decline of the military dictatorships in the region, there is now a new political space that allows the grassroots movement to reclaim its role in the integration process of the 1990s, in contrast to the integration process carried out during the 1960s. The grassroots movement will thereby be able to rescue the inspiration of the Esquipulas II peace process and work towards an authentic Esquipulas of all the Central American people.
Culturally Homogenous and Impoverished PeoplesThe globalization that Central America is living through has meant a growing impoverishment of the majority of its peoples, an increasing homogenization of its cultures and a growing reduction of the state's role.
There is no doubt that poverty today is a visible, deeply felt reality. It is an unstoppable dynamic that excludes our small countries from the large scale tendencies that are converging in a growing development of the civilization of capital over the civilization of labor. Information, technology and administration are all elements of an accumulation of knowledge as a privileged form of capital. They are put at the service of speculative financial capital, which multiplies money without multiplying production and increasingly consumes natural resources and human labor.
Cultural homogenization depends on the penetration of increasingly similar images through the mass media, on the "cultural remittances" that, along with the monetary ones, are sent by Central American émigrés in the US to their family members back home, and on the uniformity of the religious messages coming from the transnational movements of urban middle classes and religious fundamentalists.
Is the reduction in the state's role as clear? As it is a question of doctrinaire neoliberal content, it is important to understand the reality cloaked beneath the ideology.
With the disappearance of the counterweight provided by the alternative socialist economic model, a secure global space for transnational capital is offered for the first time. In its accumulation phase through increasingly concentrated knowledge, this capital falls like an avalanche onto the nation states in the case of Central America, very small nation states. This avalanche is channeled by multinational lending organizations, particularly the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It operates on four tracks: payment on the foreign debt, structural adjustment programs, market liberalization and control over nation states.
Weakened Nation StatesIt is not true that in Central America the state has been "modernized," no longer has economic influence and has been replaced by the market. The growing weakness of our nation states is not replaced by the market which in Central America is also very small and weak but rather by a strong new transnational state that dictates economic policy and plans resource allocation. The IMF, World Bank, Interamerican Development Bank, US Agency for International Development, European Community, UN Development Program and their ilk are all state or interstate institutions of a transnational character that have much greater economic influence over our countries than the market.
The diverse institutional roots and the contradictions among these agents of the transnational economy mean that planning is still fairly anarchic. The IMF and the World Bank are essentially oriented towards a monetary policy and financial planning that attempts to assure that nation states pay their foreign debts and open up their economies, without restrictions, to products and financial services from the North (when Japan criticizes the World Bank for its excess faith in the market, it does so disputing economic spaces).
The IDB tries to dedicate at least a third of its resources to directly combating poverty. AID follows the lines laid out by the IMF and the World Bank or contributes indirectly to designing them, putting increasing emphasis on cutting aid and shifting the focus towards commerce. The EEC is too absorbed in its own recession and its huge need for capital to finance the incorporation of Eastern Europe. The UNDP insists on human development and the need to educate human capital at a high level for a minority and only the most basic education for the vast majority.
Our nation states, weakened and supplanted to a great degree by this transnational state, have enormous difficulty being facilitators of the national sectors, potential creators of social wealth. In addition, it is hard for these small states to continue credibly articulating a cultural discourse around the idea of "nation" and representing an identity that can pull together all the diverse groups living in a country.
All of our countries are suffering the same problems of social decomposition increasing crime, a structural inability to create employment, the lack of dignity in work due to salaries insufficient to support a family and, as a consequence, an increasing break up of solidarity. These problems are not unrelated to the severe fracturing of national identity, which is relegated almost exclusively to the arena of sporting events among countries. The counterpart to the cutback in the state's role should not be an emphasis on privatization that exclusively promotes individual interests. The current weakness of the nation states can only be overcome if civil society supports them. Our nation states' narrow negotiating room with the transnational state will only widen when civil society reacts to and rebels against transnational programs that impoverish the majorities even more. Only when faced with social rebellion do the multilateral financial organizations make their economic programs more flexible. If our weak states were to ally with their own civil societies and those organized sectors were able to make corrective and alternative proposals, this margin of negotiation would widen more.
Strengthened Civil SocietyDuring recent years, grassroots civil society has increasingly made its force felt with different impacts and rhythms in all the Central American countries. This has been done at times in contradiction to, and at others in alliance with, business sectors that have been exercising pressure on state institutions for a much longer period of time.
In Guatemala, the broad alliance of popular leaders (from unions to human rights and ethnic organizations), professionals (particularly from the media), cultural leaders (from the Church and the universities), and business leaders united with some state institutions, were able to divert ex President Serrano's self coup, as well as the military coup it was covering up, towards a constitutional road that very promising at the beginning. Since then, civil society has taken on a protagonist role. "Viva Civil Society!" is a slogan now painted across walls throughout the capital city.
In Honduras, the activities of human rights organizations, environmental associations, base communities, some media representatives and business leaders, supported by many common citizens, have kept the armed forces in check. They have denounced the military's arrogance, impunity and responsibility for human rights violations, as well as questioning its economic power, which diverts necessary economic resources away from the impoverished majorities.
In Nicaragua, the strong organizational capacity left by the revolutionary government's decade in power has been expressed on an ongoing basis. In 1993, for the first time, it took a direct stance against the neoliberal adjustment programs with the national transport strike of mid September. The strike was autonomous from what has been a debilitating battle for quotas of political power. It was a struggle by grassroots civil society to redirect the fiscal policies imposed by multilateral organizations and accepted submissively by the increasingly weak Nicaraguan state. Other expressions of the vitality of grassroots civil society found their only outlet in armed struggle.
In Costa Rica, it has been the state workers who, over the last years, have forced the Costa Rican state to negotiate, with a certain amount of strength, the absurd and draconian conditions put forth by the IMF. Thanks to these struggles, the social security system and health and education budgets have not suffered as greatly as had been originally feared, in view of the IMF's insistence that they be dismantled altogether.
In Panama, the mobilization of civil society was broad and constant over the past year: peasant producers, indigenous ethnic groups, the unemployed, state workers. Although few of these movements had national support, they should be seen as deep undercurrents that stir up the surface calm of a discourse of democratic transition. This discourse cannot hide the absence of democracy reflected in the economic policies imposed by the transnational state.
In El Salvador, in contrast, civil society's passivity in pressuring for compliance with the peace accords stands out. It is not that there has been a lack of activity. A lot has been centered on searching for and consolidating new grassroots economic projects among the groups returning from the refugee camps as well as other groups affected by the war. But the more traditional labor movements, historically linked to the vanguard revolutionary forces in the region, are going through the difficult transition of reorganizing autonomously, overcoming political divisions and teaching their leaders economic literacy so they can move from protest to proposals. Some of these leaders have also been promoting the FMLN's party organization quite successfully. Only by acquiring important quotas of power at all levels in the March 1994 elections will they be able to assure continuity in the process of compliance with the peace accords and, with that, the framework for a new social coexistence in which power is inclusive and there are new spaces for actions by civil society.
One of the broadest convergences of civil society in the Central American nations is a high consciousness regarding human rights. Civil society is demanding a truth that would leave morally tainted those who do not respect it and would institutionally block impunity for new violations. Behind these surges in activity by grassroots civil society is the conviction increasingly understood by the UN's own experts that a reduction in inequality is as important as economic growth. Democracy cannot coexist with the continuing impoverishment of the majorities without suffering tremendous deterioration, including tendencies towards authoritarianism and social decomposition.
Demilitarization and DispersionIn the four countries where the army still has notable power, civil society is increasingly pressuring that its size be reduced and limited, its budget be diminished and rechanneled, and its functions be restricted separating it from the tasks of internal order and security. In short, that its autonomy be weakened. The tendency towards demilitarization is taking hold. The push by some to make Central America a "peace zone" is influential in this process. People's fatigue in the wake of prolonged military conflicts, the responsibility of Central America's armies for extensive and brutal human rights violations, and private business' annoyance with the increasing tendency of the region's military forces to economically and competitively intervene from their platforms of power, have all contributed to this pressure on the military. Despite all this, the Central American armies are still strongly resisting submission to civilian power.
In those countries where revolutionary movements have been strong, a centrifugal tendency is revealing the internal divisions within the revolutionary forces that were latent during the periods in which they either had power or were attempting to take it through armed struggle. These divisions cause dispersion among the movements' bases and lead to fissures between the professional, bureaucratic and business style leadership and the grassroots. The most important factor is the contradictions that emerge in the way in which to understand the need for national agreement reaching and which tendency should be the binding force: the middle classes and modernizing capital or the grassroots majorities. This trend also converges with a division that can be seen in the region's rightwing parties: between those business sectors who supported and benefited from the structural adjustment programs and those who lost out.
These tendencies open the door to a recomposition of political forces, more evident in the context of electoral events, in which winners and losers become willing to engage in new interclass alliances within an ever more complex civil society.
Opaque PowerAll the movements in Central America that attempted to move towards the overcoming of social inequalities in the 1980s aimed at taking state power. The experience of the Sandinistas, who did so in Nicaragua, demonstrated that state power presents serious limitations to eliminating poverty.
One of those limitations perhaps the most serious is the tendency towards totalitarianism, albeit it a paternalistic one that establishes a policy of generalized subsidies aimed at redistributing wealth to the impoverished majorities. This is the limitation on "power from above." Both complementary and dialectical to it is the limitation on "power from below." As long as power does not really sit with the people themselves, in their local environments and in their daily lives, there will be no capacity within society to carry out changes towards a more just order.
The evolution of power in Central America and in the world is leading to an increasingly complex understanding of what power is. It is not only the hegemony of one class or an alliance of classes, nor is it control over the state apparatus. Such a conception and, more than anything, a practice of power leads to the exclusion of those citizens who do not belong to the alliance and to the bureaucratization and distancing of governments from the people. Instead of contributing to the just resolution of societal conflicts, it promotes polarization.
This concept also leaves to one side fundamental realities of the essence of power. The decade of the 1980s has shown us that power is increasingly opaque, dispersed and heterogeneous. It is not only within the national or transnational state. It is also found in the market, in civil society and in culture. Today it is particularly present in technology and information.
The diffuse nature of power is a key characteristic of the current period in Central America. It is not enough for people to mobilize to gain state power. They must visualize a mobilization in which people have access to diverse forms of power and knowledge, to spaces of influence regarding resource allocation as well as to increasing the importance of their own symbols and cultural values. Only in this way will a more convergent offensive be sparked, one that can claim more capacity for life; more justice that values work particularly productive work well done; more institutionality to share; a deeper vision of the link between justice, austerity and conservation of natural resources; and a more deeply felt motivation towards life. This is why the development of local leadership and authorities has such great value and why the life seeking projects posing an alternative to neoliberal economic programs are so valuable.
Local and Autonomous DevelopmentLocal, autonomous development means, in the first place, that there be popular groups in society that have the know how to organize and administer, a knowledge that today is monopolized by the richest and most privileged sectors of society. It also means bringing out and empowering the latent capacity of the multitude of small and medium producers in the countryside and cities who have fought so tenaciously for survival. This struggle for survival of the majorities who are today excluded bears witness to their deeply rooted faith in themselves.
Local autonomous development implies a process of social interaction among new researchers, new professionals, new base leaders and new politicians. It means awakening the will to participate in local arenas and shaking up top down styles and inertia. It is here at the base where we must insert the work of a Church that channels resources to the poor but does not become paternalistic or take on, at the local level, the power of a mini state because of its economic resources.
An analysis of the 1980s speaks to us of the will of small elite groups who wanted to change structures and rushed into gigantic development projects that never transformed most people's way of life. This was the concrete case in Nicaragua and was also the dream of other revolutionary movements a state centered experience that favored subsidies for most large industrial and agricultural businesses. Marked by lack of investment, productivity and technological advancement, it did not transform reality. For the majority, there was a transformation in the structure of property, but it was not accompanied by training or resource allocation credit, applied technology, small scale administration and the like.
In the 1990s, projects of a new grassroots economy, born among the poor and nourished by some universities and a number of NGOs, have this local autonomous development as a goal. It is, however, absent from neoliberal programs, which only plan charitable programs for the poor.
The door for these new development projects has many openings. It will depend on the concrete demands that emerge from democratic discussion between the grassroots base and professionals, researchers and politicians endowed with a service ethic and a will to learn. The bases today stress economic projects over political or ideological organizational ones. The experience of deepening poverty brings them to this logic. But it could also be that they are stressing the recognition of their cultural diversity (indigenous problems) or the political need for organization around topics like human rights.
Exchanges and New ProfessionalsFor local autonomous development to have a chance to influence structural changes of a national and even regional scope, it is important to hold forums for exchange and consultation (not precisely coordination) on local experiences that can be replicated or that offer guidelines for new organizational forms.
The fundamental challenge for the effectiveness of a local development program is its connection with a program of national scope based on these experiences. What defines the current lack of alternatives is the absence of a relation between local experiences and a national project the divorce between the sectoral (micro social) level and the national or regional (macro social) level. The nation state's growing inability to design efficient national development projects and its submissive adoption of projects imposed by the multilateral financial organizations point to the need to let local autonomous development experiences emerge in a non technocratic form by non state entities. The universities and research and development NGOs can and should fill this space.
This implies a new generation of universities, researchers and professionals moving in interaction with the leadership of small local autonomous development projects in the communities. A generation must emerge of professionals who are more practical than theoretical, concerned not only with the question of what to do but also how to do it, committed to a specific territory, able to link the macro with the micro that is, professionals who train the trainers.
A Necessary SpiritualityIn the revolutionary experiences there was always a utopia of fraternity. The new politicians should keep that vision alive in their attempt to hammer out national projects and, in the case of Central America, regional ones. They should take into account that the objectives of the local communities also face obstacles in achieving this fraternity and are not connected with the larger objectives of the nation or the region, except at moments particularly conducive to revolutionary structural change.
We have experienced the disintegration of the communitarian mystique at all levels in Central America: among politicians, academics and professionals. It has also been seen among cooperativists, union members and those organized in neighborhood movements. The "alternative left" should be based on rigorous research and be both technologically and administratively competent, but if it is not a left with values of community service, it will differ little from the faceless technocracies.
In order to direct a movement to overcome unjust poverty in the current Central American situation, spirituality is necessary at all levels. A spirituality that continues to place God or human fraternity before money, that challenges selfish individualism with a collective vision. A spirituality that combats a fundamentalism en trenched in a party based, academic or union point of view, that cannot hear any other point of view. A spirituality that overcomes the feudalism of those institutions that underscore their own contributions without opening themselves up to any cooperation. Only in this way will we be able to overcome so many omissions: economic, political and cultural contributions that we do not channel to the poor, and from the poor.
Neoliberalism: World CrisisAnother fundamental characteristic of the Central American situation today is the lack of viable development in our countries as long as neoliberal programs continue to be imposed upon us. It is not only in Central America; these programs have led the world economy into productive stagnation.
According to Dutch researcher Wim Dierekxsen, the world Gross Domestic Product grew more in the 1960s than in the 1970s and more in the 1970s than in the 1980s. In the 1990s, it will probably grow less still. In the years between 1975 and 1984, the GDP grew by 3.4%. In those between 1985 and 1993 it grew by 2.9%. Over these two decades the growth of the Latin American GDP fell from 3.2% to 2.6%. Exports increased in volume but fell in value.
To this data must be added the disintegration of entire zones on the global periphery, particularly in Africa, as well as structural unemployment and the structural deterioration of wages in the developed world. The downward tendency in the production of goods and services for humanity is what explains the growth and predominance of speculative financial capital over productive capital.
The neoliberal project is political. In all countries, neoliberalism has meant a frontal attack on the capacity of industrial workers to negotiate their salaries. The deregulation of the labor market and the fight against unions, with serious rollbacks in labor codes, has served to increasingly disarm the working class.
In addition, fiscal reforms have been applied in all countries with the aim of reducing taxes on capital and offering profit incentives. Moreover, services that should be supplied by the state were transferred to the market: communications, energy, health care, education.
All these measures could not stop the tendency towards reduced world economic growth. Taking advantage of the technology of information, capital transferred its investment from the arena of productive material goods and productive services to that of financial and real estate speculation, commerce in gems and art, or the arena of nonproductive services: stock exchanges, insurance, international currency trading.
Nonproductive speculative capital competes with the productive capital generated by workers. The tendency is to reduce salaries and thus avoid the inflation provoked by this money "coming from nowhere." Instead of investing in the generation of social wealth, capital invests in technology and the means that allow it to improve its competitiveness in speculation. All this has provoked a severe crisis; a broad international recession.
East Asia: The ExceptionThe only region in the world that has seen both economic and employment growth for these past 20 years is East Asia. It is a clear example of how, when economies formerly strong in manufacturing production become consumer based and speculative, other economies replace them in the necessary production of goods for humanity. The role of productive leadership first shifted from Britain to the United States and from there towards Japan and the European Community.
Now East Asia stands poised as a possible successor. And it is precisely in this region where all the "dogmas" of the neoliberal programs have been disregarded: the state has played a decisive role in regulating the economy, carrying out important agrarian reforms aimed at modernizing agriculture, assuring food self sufficiency, applying selective protective measures in its market and promoting policies of human capital formation and transfer of appropriate technology. East Asia is the only region where reality is contrary to the generalized impoverishment throughout the world. Over these 20 years, hundreds of millions of poor Asians reached middle class standards of living in China and in other countries in the region.
Neoliberalism: Moribund Animal?In the North, the neoliberal model still shows vitality and capital is being restructured at the cost of and against the workers. In the South, the model has been exhausted with no alternative on the horizon. In Central America, the adjustment and stabilization programs are not bringing the desired results. They have brought inflation down and maintain relatively stable exchange rates for our currencies. But the trade opening presented as the salvation has not promoted national exports; it has benefited only the commercial elites who import foreign goods, particularly luxury consumption items. Nontraditional exports do not compensate for the drop in value of traditional ones. Fiscal deficits have not been reduced. Poverty and unemployment are on the rise. In reality, the neoliberal programs have gone forth solely so that our countries can punctually pay the mounting interest on their foreign debts.
Neoliberal ideology has managed to create the image that the foreign debt problem is solved and thus effectively bury the concern and mobilization over this key economic issue. Nonetheless, it is still important to analyze the evolution of an unpayable debt that governments continue to pay on at the cost of increasing the social debt with their own people. Preventing the threatening presence of this variable continues to be key; a hike in international interest rates will once again cause an explosion in the debt situation on a continent much more chaotic and convulsive than it was a decade ago.
Today, the speculative economy has hegemony at the world level. It is 300 times superior to the productive economy and is destroying social coexistence and nature's biodiversity. The countries on the capitalist periphery appear to be increasingly caught up with this speculative economic model.
The broad tendencies of globalized capitalism have also acted in Central America. Long before the region's majorities were able to consume what is necessary for survival, the region began moving from a productive economy towards a speculative and consumer based one that the minority enjoys while the majority only sees it in showcases and on television. Capital has emigrated towards the financial system and import trade, abandoning the economy's productive areas. Our trade balances show increasing deficits and are only compensated by the entrance of dollar remittances immigrants are a growing export product and by the maquilas, which make use of a super exploited work force.
The neoliberal programs are showing signs of wear throughout the world. In the South, are they "moribund animals"? If they do not die it is not only because there is no theoretical alternative to this system, it is also because there is not a sufficient correlation of forces to break the inertia of decision making. Interests in the capitalist North impede the testing of another, different development model for peripheral countries such as those in the Central American region. And there are interests in Central America even more weighed down due to inertia. They feed off the moribund body of neoliberalism in crisis. Lenin said that the survival of an exhausted social process without an alternative leads to the rotting of society, making coexistence impossible. The world boom in corruption and the renewed and public justification for racist ideologies in Europe, the restriction of broad immigration laws in Canada, the United States and Japan and the growing ungovernability of countries such as those in Central America are some signs of this social rot.
What Strategic Alternative?A popular alternative strategy to neoliberalism must develop both a theoretical and a practical component and then integrate them in a new praxis of struggle for justice by the majorities. The following theses may contribute to the search for a new theory.
* The growing exclusion of the periphery nations of the South, like ours, is necessary to provide the countries of the North with access to our material, social and natural resources without paying their full value. There is no possibility of development in this system of dependent capitalism. To that end, any strategic development alternative in Central America has to be anti system.
* This strategy cannot be conceived of in traditional forms of resistance and social claims. It is blocked by the weakness of our nation states and the development level of our technology and productivity: no reformist position will be able to satisfy the basic needs of the majorities. The other limitation is imposed by imperialist interests, willing to halt any revolutionary breakthrough in the region.
* The anti capitalist alternative strategy must be tested in those spaces in which our countries have been relatively unpenetrated by capitalist labor and productive relations: peasant communities, grassroots urban neighborhoods, marginal zones in the cities. In these areas excluded from the market or unequally inserted in it the grassroots majorities have the ability to react. The praxis of a new grassroots economy should be developed based on these experiences.
* An authentic alternative should know how to combine the transformation of the relations of production with that of the system of distributing the surplus. The new grassroots economy will not be a viable alternative if its agents do not politically join forces with others more "hooked into" the real or potential dynamic of the state (the ill, children, elderly, dependents on a state social security system), the dynamic of the reproduction of the work force (women) and capital's wage workers.
* The changes underway in the capitalist world structure merit reflection, particularly globalization and the social changes provoked by the revolution in information. Information appears today as a third dimension of matter, along with mass and energy. These changes affect not only the relations of production, but also the conditions for reproducing social life, which are definitive determinants in the historical process.
* An unmasking of neoliberal ideology and of the class interests underlying it is necessary to confront the contemporary logic of transnational capital. A new critique of political economy is key, one that would force a new definition of human economy and of the nucleus of economic science: value.
* A new economic policy that would replace capitalist price accounting with social value accounting in the macroeconomic arena is absolutely indispensable. And in the arena of productive activity, the ruling criteria of financial profitability (monetary cost benefits) must be replaced with that of social profitability (human and ecological cost benefits).
Whither the Strategy?An alternative grassroots strategy also needs a new practice. This practice should accentuate its political content, because the neoliberal adjustment is a political project of the world capitalist class. A political movement that struggles for this alternative springs from a local vision, but must not exhaust itself in that vision. Nor can it be exclusively national. The neoliberal adjustment is much more than a national project. Precisely because of that, the movement that attempts to pose an alternative strategy cannot be stuck in a context of party and national organizations, because that would make it impossible to either offer resistance or present adequate proposals.
The character of the strategy must also not be exclusively focused on a more just redistribution of income through salary hikes or improvements in health, education and social security. Although these struggles happen and must not be underestimated, the strategy must go beyond that. It must be anti capitalist and emphasize a redistribution of social wealth.
This means that the struggle must be for a reallocation of financial capital. The people must fight for existing banking resources, multilateral or national. The sectors that have most access to these resources today are the bankers and import capitalists including those running the maquila industry. It is impossible to fight against the maquilas in today's context of acute job shortages, but it is important to fight against the large importers and financiers. The resources they absorb could be used in a more efficient and productive way by small and medium producers, both rural and urban. The alliance should be made between workers and small and medium producers against capitalist financiers and importers, the strong national allies of the transnational economy. This means improving people's capacity to absorb resources, in an endogenous model that provides selective protectionism and integration in the market. To be successful, the arena of activities requiring foreign aid must be reduced and existing technological capacity must be strengthened.
In our countries, the possibility of this endogenous model depends on agroindustrial conversion. An effort is needed to create a new state that permits the entry of grassroots projects as economic agents who collaborate in designing national and regional policies. Conditions must be created that convert the grassroots sectors at the regional level into counterparts for the multilateral financial organizations that make up the transnational regional state.
As part of this grassroots strategy, it is also important to struggle in the terrain of images and mass media, to awaken the cultural potential of our peoples, today buried under an avalanche of messages that stand opposed to any national alternative. The current cultural dependence on consumerist ideology is a brake that impedes the popular sectors from becoming a pressure force on the nation states and the transnational state in favor of labor and production. Without a spirituality, without a mystique of dignity that values people's own identity, the weight that threatens to crush any alternative will remain in place.
To carry out this strategy, a political organization is also needed. But since the most logical level to carry the political weight of the popular alternative strategy is regional, the Central American confederations of social movements, including their intellectual consultants, should be the focal points from which this political organization should spring, whether or not that includes the current leftwing political parties.
Central America: 20 Years of ChangeTwenty years ago, the Central American panorama had a certain amount of homogeneity, both in the reality of its powerful economic minorities and among the impoverished majorities. In some of our countries, large political mobilizations supported reformist policies through the electoral route. Throughout the region these alternatives tried to challenge the armed forces, the protectors of the traditional minority economic interests supported by US geo strategic interests.
The electoral frauds carried out with US consent reinforced the alliance of agroexport capital and the military and led to a consolidation of militarism in the region. These same frauds meant that most of the grassroots movements began to gather around revolutionary movements. The Central American integration project carried out during the 1960s, based on import substitution, was emptied of its protectionist content by the conditions the US imposed and was unable to disconnect itself from its dependence on agroexport capital. The model exploded with the Honduran Salvadoran conflict, and the subsequent military political conflicts throughout a number of countries were the coup de grace.
The revolutionary processes in Central America in the 1980s demonstrated different rhythms in the different countries, resulting a very heterogenous situation. Today we return to a certain degree of homogeneity. The pacification processes and the need for negotiated agreements, the diversification of the multiple spaces of power, the structural adjustment processes, the cultural and economic influence of emigrants, the emergence of grassroots civil society, the awareness that none of our countries is viable on its own, are fundamental characteristics of this new homogeneity. From all these elements, a new perception has emerged regarding the need for Central American integration as well as a new dynamic to push it forward.
Integration from Outside and AboveA number of integration models coexist in Central America today.
* The integration model of the multilateral financial organizations. Its fundamental characteristics are debt payment, macro financial adjustments, total market opening and control of the nation states. It is a model to integrate Central America into the needs of capital and the transnational market. It is not a model without contradictions, both among the multilateral organizations and among the different countries fighting over Central America as a gateway to Mexico and the United States.
* The process of integration promoted in the most recent summit meetings of Central American Presidents. This is in reality a process that causes its own demise, because it looks principally towards integration with the outside. Today, 80% of Central American trade is with the rest of the world, and only 20% within the region. This contrasts significantly with what is happening in the European Community, where 65% of trade is with other community members and 35% with the rest of the world.
This "official" integration process has feet of clay: the foreign debt burden continues, the trade deficit climbs, productive investment is very low equivalent in essence to a prolonged capital strike and human capital is increasingly scarce. The growth in unemployment and poverty is leading to sheer ungovernability in addition to enormous human suffering. The reduction in foreign aid and the nonproductive use of family remittances in dollars makes this integration process non viable in the medium term.
* The integration model that attempts to promote the sector of Central American capital known as modernizing. This sector is grouped in the Federation of Private Businesses in Central America and Panama (FEDEPRICAP). It has strong conflicts with some of the more radically traditional private sector organizations (COSEP in Nicaragua and CACIF in Guatemala). It receives a significant amount of financing from AID and is connected to the US administering, for example, the compensation funds of neoliberal programs. It has formed a Central American Committee of Intersectoral Coordination (CACI), with participation from union organizations (CLAT/CCT) as well as from solidarismo, private and national universities (AUPRICA and CSUCA, respectively), cooperatives (CCC CA), the Central American section of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (CORPI), the Central American Federation of Transport and the Central American Confederation of Education and Cultural Workers.
This group criticizes the indiscriminate opening of the market, supports a certain degree of protectionism for national industry and calls for a stronger state. It has supported special considerations for Nicaragua. Its modernizing character is found in its admission that the time of the old agroexport model has passed, and in its disagreement with the model pushed by the multilateral organizations, as well as its understanding that there is no possibility of governability without some type of accommodation with the labor force. This sector's focal points of accumulation are in finance, nontraditional exports, integrated Central American agro-industrialization and free trade, or maquila, zones.
Integration Emerges From Below An alternative integration model is emerging today, led by a series of new grassroots organizations at the Central American level. They are forces with no small potential. The Confederation of Cooperatives of the Caribbean and Central America, for example, controls 30 35% of the region's agricultural GDP.
Since 1991, these forces have been demanding of the Central American Presidents a role in the design of Central American integration, with a vision that complements an economic perspective with a political, social and cultural one. All these regional organizations came together in October 1993 to present the presidential summit in Guatemala with their Civic Initiative for Central American Integration (ICIC). It was the first time that debate and the preparation of a proposal for the integration process emerged from such diverse sectors. The ICIC requests that the Presidents recognize it and incorporate it into all the consultative bodies that are part of the integration process.
A Critique From BelowIn an annex to its letter, the ICIC offers a critical analysis of the integration process currently underway. Its analysis springs from the need to strengthen a global strategy of integration through greater consultations with, and increased participation by, civil society to achieve necessary consensus and the full implementation of integration plans.
The ICIC notes that spaces for civic participation exclude agricultural producers, small and medium producers, unionists, cooperativists, neighborhood organizations and professionals linked to development organizations. It declares that the current integration process is centered in economic and trade elements, neglecting important sociopolitical and cultural factors. United with the type of economic policies promoted by the governments of each country, this slant stamps the process with a neoliberal character and leads the region towards a free trade zone. The absence of a development strategy with autonomous and sustainable proposals indicates that there is neither an authentic regional alternative nor thought towards building a Central American community. In the process there is no discovery of a path towards integration, but rather, and only, a model of limited cooperation, incapable of promoting joint negotiation between Central America and third countries without being subordinated to the economic blocs now being consolidated as part of the globalization process.
The ICIC also points to deficiencies in the process: making decisions that affect certain sectors without consulting them; lack of follow up to accords; inattention to the different rhythms of countries; and a lack of compensation mechanisms and industrial conversion strategies as well as of competitive development; and a lack of a sense of process given the absence of reflection on the limitations and opportunities generated by the integration process of the 1960s.
The Priorities From BelowThe ICIC presented its proposals to the summit meeting based on this analysis. Its proposals brought together the priorities expressed by the different grassroots organizations of civil society. The Confederation of Central American Workers affiliated to the ORIT (CTC) stresses the preparation of a Social Integration Charter, while the Central American Coordinator of Workers (COCENTRA) put forth a proposal regarding mobility and free circulation of the work force.
These regional union confederations have been insisting, among other things, on the organic link between social and economic policy, transformations in the tax structure, the transfer of resources from defense budgets to programs designed to confront structural poverty the real enemy in the wake of the region's pacification programs. They also insist on an ecological policy that would prohibit the use of Central America as a site for firms producing toxic wastes or as a toxic dump, on a harmonization of labor codes accepting the ILO's agreements and recommendations and on the effective functioning of the Central American Council of Social Integration as a focal point of permanent tripartite concertación.
For their part, the confederations of agricultural producers (ASOCODE, CCC CA and UPROCAFE) give priority to the vertical integration of production in the hands of small and medium producers, the search for a commercial strategy to strengthen self supply and food security, access to foreign markets and the development of appropriate technologies to reduce the levels of foreign dependence.
Concertación, the Central American grouping of development organizations, emphasizes proposals to channel foreign cooperation as well as alternative proposals to structural adjustment. The Central American Confederation of Small and Medium Businesses (CONCAPE) would strengthen competitiveness and supports industrial conversion. As do the agricultural producers, they underscore the need for a reallocation of resources, particularly in terms of credit.
Finally, the Central American Federation of Community Organizations (FCOC) asserts that community organizations must be taken into account in the different decision making processes in the region and should be considered active subjects of the development processes. The importance of this position is underscored when one reflects on the accelerated urbanization dynamic in Central America, the weight of the informal economic sector and the activities based on mutual support in grassroots neighborhoods throughout the region.
A New Development ModelThe ICIC's letter to the Central American Presidents emphasizes the need to make Central American integration a multi dimensional socio economic, political and cultural process to create a community of interests and lend some sense to peace. It proposes that the state play a significant role in regulating a market that cannot be the absolute and invisible organizer of coexistence. It also emphasizes training and formation of human resources, the region's most important resource. As principles to guide the integration process it proposes solidarity, cooperation, autonomy and respect for national and regional sovereignty.
The Civil Initiative for Central American Integration presumes a new presence of grassroots organizations at the Central American level. This type of Central American regionalization from below announces a new force in civil society to make effective the vision of participatory democracy, forgotten time and time again in the coexistence models designed by the party bound right and left wings. It aims to propose at a new and broader level a confrontation with the cause of such heartbreaking conflicts in Central America: the right to participate in development that has been denied to the majorities. A design is emerging from these grassroots, civic Central American organizations for a much more humane development model, one that sidesteps the economic focus of the region's current governments and includes the battered cultural identity of our peoples, the environment and the need to work towards a political community.
The Civic Initiative for Central America Integration is one of the important elements of the current moment in this region. The emerging regionalization will only be authentically new if it avoids the bureaucratization of high level organizations and maintains close contact with local autonomous development projects as well as a new respect for their real participation, and the need for constant debate around initiatives springing from the local level.
Cultural Changes To ExamineBoth the impoverishment of our peoples and the increasing ungovernability are closely related to the power of the hegemonic culture of those who cause the poverty. If this culture conquers us, it will likely crush people's capacity for innovative creation and patient resistance.
The value of our cultures had significant weight in the struggle of our peoples for survival over the last 20 years. But this value could well be suppressed today by a cultural homogeneity that hands our capacity to dream, imagine and create over to the powerful who dominate economic and political globalization on the planet. This aspect of culture is one of the central points of the current situation and demands prompt examination.
Over the last two decades, our Central American societies have been submitted to significant social change processes. If we go back to 1979, the year of the Sandinista revolutionary triumph in Nicaragua, we can set out a hypothesis. Between the poor majorities in the countryside and the cities there was a very qualified minority that was nonetheless significant its magnitude could be measured by its massive participation in public demonstrations. This minority had values and expectations of rapid and profound social change that we could call "revolutionary" and which included economic elements of agrarian transformation and redistribution of income, along with political elements calling for suppression of the power of the armed forces and the economically powerful classes. Its cultural content revolved around national affirmation in the face of the United States, an end to repression, full human rights, enthusiasm for prophetic religious figures and austere lifestyles based on solidarity in contrast to the ostentatious and arrogant lifestyles of the powerful.
This minority was, additionally, willing to be the agent of change to reach these expectations. Added to this large and qualified minority of the poor were important pockets of the middle classes, frustrated in their attempts to gain political power as well as those defending a more mestizo, less gringo style culture.
In 1994, the panorama is different, as is the hypothesis. The expectations of revolutionary change and the will to contribute actively to it have diminished considerably among the poor majorities and the middle class. Our peoples' social imagination has undergone a fundamental change in which the majorities are more firmly rooted in the terrain of daily life and its struggle, and have fewer expectations of leaders and movements with no local roots as they transfer their identity towards those globalizing values of a capitalist consumer culture. The lifestyles, the ways to be happy, the heroes with whom people identify, the dominant music, the vision of the future, all this has become homogenized in line with the triumphant patterns of the society of abundance. The strong weight of individualism in these cultural patterns is fast becoming the greatest enemy of those utopias built around fraternity.
Religion and the FamilyTo examine the reality of this cultural change, numerous factors that have influenced the change must be explored. The first one is religious. Religious symbols have been the key channel for cultural expression in our societies. In the 1970s, the Catholic religion, including its hierarchy from some bishops to many priests meant for this active minority of the poor a change in the image of God. This change led to a conception not only of God as present within people and in rituals and sacred moments, but of a God who is also present in the history of the people. At that time there was a prophetic style, brilliantly personified by El Salvador's Bishop Oscar Romero, which captured the imagination of so many people.
The downturn in this prophetic vision is all too evident in the current Catholic Church. At the same time one notes the ascent of transnational movements, originally urban and middle class based (Catechumen, charismatic, Opus Dei, etc.), turned primarily towards a privatized vision of religion, with a community sense restricted to moral support or ritual expressions. It is also important to note the growing weight of a confessional Protestantism, particularly those "enthusiasts" who expect imminent change, but one that comes solely as a result of action by God. In their links with the electronic religions of the US, they aspire to individual abundance as a sign of God's blessing.
It is important to explore to what degree religion has once again become a refuge in the midst of the wave of conflicts or a space for the justification of suffering, versus how much it is still the terrain from which to spark a search for improved conditions for fraternity, greater justice or for initiatives that deal with the pressing needs for community life.
Secondly, we must look to the family. It can be assumed that the Central American family, within the accelerated urbanization process, is moving from the large, extended family towards the kind of family in which only the nucleus of parents (or single mothers) and children counts, and in which the children rapidly become independent. It is important to explore whether the family today is the place of social pressure that it was previously, which transmits and maintains values and cultural habits, or if this pressure has diminished due to migration, conversion to a different religion, much time lived under conditions of clandestinity, etc.
In terms of family networks, the migration phenomenon is very important. War pushed hundreds of thousands of Central Americans up to the United States. This migration has transnationalized the Central American family and, through it, the region's countries. In many cases, it has meant improved family income, but it also means a transfer of culture, of the over arching consumer values in the United States. The most important "project," the most transforming element of reality today is, for many, a sound system or a television, a motorcycle or car, even though they may be used, and better, more fashionable clothing, often second hand as well.
Truth or Falsehood?The media are the primary transmitters of this homogeneity that works against cultural biodiversity. The boom in messages entering Central American households through radio and television has been tremendous over the last 15 years. Soap operas, music programs, violent films and, more than anything, advertisements, have captured the collective imagination. All these messages interact to transmit the illusion that the privileged classes' life of abundance and their values of individual ascent and moral frivolity are within reach of the majority, and are the only way to be happy. The sheer volume of news regarding disasters and conflicts generates powerlessness and passivity. Information for conformity would seem to be the goal of the powerful. Nations and peoples, wars and peace go in and out of fashion like musicians or artists. How much truth is really communicated by the news entering homes via the media? What are the sources today of authentic alternatives to the mass media?
Terror and PoliticsIn the countries that experienced prolonged armed conflict, a culture of terror developed. This spread to other countries like Honduras and Costa Rica, which were not directly affected by armed conflict but served as platforms for aggression against or intervention in neighboring countries. This terror has left its mark in difficulties when it comes to fighting for human rights, expressing political preferences or voting for the left.
In the case of El Salvador, the principal causes of this terror were publicly pointed out in the Truth Commission's Report, but that was an exceptional case and even so was unable to eliminate impunity. It is important to explore to what degree terror continues to act, cloaked by the mask of common crime. Also to be explored is what weight the culture of terror has had in domesticating the expectations of the majority vis-à-vis alternatives different to those of the powerful, in a context in which many of the revolutionaries of yesterday act today with values similar to the long powerful. The degree to which our societies remain polarized, in spite of the pacification processes, should be explored, because there has been neither authentic harmonization or reconciliation.
What do politics mean today to the majority? There is total frustration with traditional parties in virtually the entire world, either because the public is well aware of their corruption or because they perceive in a confused fashion the inability of the politicians' macro social positions to improve their daily lives. At the same time, politics especially, although not exclusively, in its right wing manifestations is increasingly a capitalist marketing operation.
The need to organize and govern society today produces new political options. People vote for those options and touch off veritable political earthquakes, or they massively abstain, expressing their rejection of the inefficiency of public life. Where do our poor majorities position themselves? Do they see politics as something dirty, inevitably corrupt, irrelevant to their daily lives? Or do they see it as something that could still bring solutions to their daily concerns? In light of international interventions in our countries, are the poor when they are aware of these interventions "nationalist" or are they "internationalist" in the sense of looking favorably upon national sovereignty opening up to foreign pressure?
Central America's Main Dilemma in 1994Politically, Central America has gone through many
changes in the past year, and will go through even more with the upcoming presidential elections in several countries. The region is not the same as it was in 1990 or even in 1993.
In 1990, six model neoliberal Presidents governed our
countries. But the recent election of Reina in Honduras, the limits that Guatemalan civil society could put on Ramiro de León Carpio, the new quotas of power that the progressive forces will win in El Salvador's elections, the political realignments underway in Nicaragua, and even the tone of the electoral campaign in Costa Rica, indicate that civil society is seriously questioning the economic structural adjustment the transnational state imposed in the region. This will force neoliberalism to make a "political adjustment" in Central America. "A truce," as ASOCODE leader Wilson Campos calls it.
Despite the positive significance of all this, the Central American economy is following the same road that the IMF and the World Bank set it on toward the end of the 1980s. Both institutions are now talking about an "adjustment to the adjustment," but they only mean to increase compensation programs for the poor and newly impoverished masses created by their macroeconomic adjustments.
The policies of slashing public spending, indiscriminate commercial and financial openings and strict payment on the foreign debt are left intact. And it is precisely those policies that should be changed, because they prevent the economic reactivation that would increase the competitiveness of our economies and strengthen regional integration from and for within. If this does not change, no "political truce" will prevent the coming years from bringing us more social disintegration and poverty, and also greater macroeconomic instability.
In summary, Central America has more political space but less economic space. How long will the political mask hide the economic reality of the neoliberal program? How long will the truce last?
Economy and PeaceIt is also important to explore the anguish to live, or survive, in material life, in the economy of the people. Has the value of land varied fundamentally and, with the accelerated process of urbanization underway, do jobs and one's wages have the greatest importance, along with the cost of living and the prices of basic products? This change makes culture more uniform among the residents of the world's cities than among rural inhabitants. Beginning with this change, the value of services increases: drinking water, sewage and drainage systems, electricity, gas, transportation, schools, health centers, childcare centers, housing units, sports and recreational opportunities.
Consumer products in a developed capitalist society are more visibly present in the imagination of people who live in the cities. These are transferred to the countryside in the form of expectations, through the adolescents whose families have sent them to study in the more urbanized areas or through the emigrants who return from abroad on vacation.
In connection with the economy, it is important to examine the current content of peace. In the pacification processes, will the impoverished majorities conserve their consciousness of the connection that exists between aspirations for peace and the reduction of these inequalities? Or does all the fatigue and the insecurity of war mean that their understanding of peace is limited to the termination of armed conflicts?
Does peace resonate with greater justice, greater access to land, jobs, education, health care, financial resources, housing and recreation? Or has it, due to fatigue, bought into the ideology that inequality is God's design and those who are poor are poor because they do not work?
The scope of solidarity also has to be explored. Are people reduced to helping each other only when it is a question of other family members, or does solidarity extend to the neighborhood? Does the "everyone for themselves" mentality win out or do people accept the need for cooperation and community organization?
It is clear that these years have been rich in utopian prophetic proposals bathed with the blood of countless martyrs. They have also been rich in the multiplication of organizations of civil society: of the defense of human rights, development, health care, environmental protection, the affirmation of ethnic groups, the awakening of a women's perspective, research, etc. And much of this cooperation has gone on among the poor majorities or in cooperation efforts with them. It is clear as well that this means precisely an enriching of cultural diversity. What is the bottom line of all these initiatives of imagination and alternative action in light of the imported consumer showcases or the television screens that sell a single, irrational and even boring style of happiness?
Has hope, against all hope, and the struggle for a different world, succumbed to the religious messages that speak of a refuge or of passive waiting? Has it succumbed as well to massive disillusionment in light of the failures of what people attempted to create during the last decade?
Although there are compasses and paths to be followed, the analysis does not lead to facile optimism. It instead calls for greater boldness and creativity, always recognizing the complexity of the moment we are living in. The processes of change in Central America must emphasize the long term if we want the processes to be truly participatory and the changes to be profound.