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


Central America

Demilitarization: The Other Face of Democratization

Jesuit of Latin America

Perhaps the most hopeful and promising long-term factor in Central America is the rapid development of the regional aspiration to democracy, in the concrete form of growing demilitarization. The people of Central America tried to find the path to necessary change through representative democracy—for example, in Guatemala in 1954, 1963, 1974, 1978 and 1982, El Salvador in 1972 and 1977 and Nicaragua's innumerable elections during the Somoza dynasty—and were blocked. These repeated electoral frauds pushed the region's revolutionary vanguard movements to seek change by taking up arms. The people still aspire to have their say through the electoral process, and have clearly identified the armed forces, sometimes supported or instigated by the oligarchy, as responsible for the electoral frauds.

In the 1990s, the Central American people are demanding that electoral democracy be assured and that its chief obstacle—militarization—be reversed. In historical praxis, an intrinsic relation exists between democratization and demilitarization. The revolutionary movements are also corning to understand this.

The militarization of society began at the end of the last century, when the coffee oligarchy created its own armed forces, and was consolidated in the 1930s and 40s, when most of the countries were virtually turned over to military dictatorships. They, in turn, were bolstered in the 1960s by a region-wide US counterinsurgency program. In the 90s, the armed forces may well have to go back to their barracks and become a force defending, rather than opposing, democracy.

The popular organizations will have to strengthen and deepen this democracy through active participation. Greater creativity and imagination will be needed to make this possible, not only regarding economic issues, but also transforming top-down political organizing styles to forge authentic and deep links with the unorganized population.

The resistance to changes as radical as these will be enormous. A considerable popular sector still longs for military dictatorships, which they have idealized in their memories as hard-line, but equally unjust with everyone, paradoxical as it might sound. General Ríos Montt's popularity in Guatemala, for instance, can be explained by this nostalgia for a sense of order against generalized crime and increasing economic hardship.

It is of relatively little importance to them that the expansion of a country's military force as a "solution" to the crisis is in fact one of the most important causes of the fiscal deficits which, in turn, provoke inflation and economic instability. In the countries we’re looking at, this nostalgia comes from very selective steps back in history, idealized images in the memory of a people on the very brink of desperation.

Any discussion of demilitarization, then, must be dialectical, taking into account not only the logical resistance that this process will awaken, but also the possible emergence of authoritarian candidates at the ballot box. We may see either governments headed by democratically elected military officers or civilian governments weakened by abstention at the polls or by a metamorphosis of existing armies into internal security forces.

The Pentagon could back this process throughout the isthmus to protect the stability of the new "free" market, presenting its longstanding role as regional police as key to the noble cause of fighting drug trafficking and terrorism.

The Sandinista years:
Democracy, peace, demilitarization

Demilitarization already exists to a greater or lesser degree in the Central American countries today, linked to popular democratization as well as the demand for peace. It responds to a long tradition of popular resistance against the humiliating way the armed forces have treated the Central American people—identifying themselves with the culture of superiority that characterizes the dominant classes.

Demilitarization has progressed farthest in Nicaragua, where the popular struggle enjoyed victory for an entire decade. There people began to realize that an indefinite protraction of the war, even though it was a war for sovereignty and self-determination, rendered virtually impossible the satisfaction of basic human needs and the conditions necessary for real economic development.

By 1989, achieving a lasting peace that would permit the country's reconstruction became the main goal of both the Nicaraguan people and the Sandinista government. Submitting to a second electoral process as soon as possible was seen as the only way to stop the war. To ensure its legitimacy, the elections were conducted with all possible guarantees for international verification of their honesty and openness. The aim was to get the contra forces to demobilize simultaneously, but that failed. The United States essentially militarized the elections, keeping alive the threat of reactivating the counterrevolution if their results were not to its liking. The elections, then, were a democratic process submitted to military blackmail.

Once the electoral results were known, negotiations leading to the relatively rapid demobilization of the contra forces began. A Transition Protocol, signed by teams from the outgoing Sandinista and incoming UNO governments in March, committed the new government to respect the institutional integrity of the Sandinista Popular Army, including its chain of command. Army members were prohibited from occupying leadership positions in any party, though they may still be party members. The Protocol also provided for further professionalizing the army and reducing its size. At the same time, commitments were being reached to demobilize the contra forces.

Both commitments have been largely fulfilled. The army has reduced its size from about 100,000 members to less than 30,000. This has meant compensation, including land, for the retired officers, though seldom for the soldiers, which caused some resentment. All contra groups in the umbrella Nicaraguan Resistance demobilized.

Despite the demobilization of the contra forces, arms appeared in the hands of former contra soldiers during two of the most dangerous moments in 1990: the July FNT-led strike and the rightwing uprising of November. Nonetheless, demilitarization in Nicaragua has taken a gigantic step forward. Although both sides still have some arms caches, guarantees of lasting peace have grown; democratization has been strengthened through the existence of modern, non-party armed forces obedient to civilian government; the popular organizations can act without fear of repression; and military spending will no longer have a disproportionate cut of the budget.

Both the demobilization of the Nicaraguan Resistance (contras) and the reduction of the army translate into increasing pressure on the government to broaden the agrarian reform as the least costly and most realistic alternative to leaving these people dangerously unemployed. The Sandinista Popular Army, now under the Chamorro government, has been the motor force of demilitarization in Central America. It is pushing to convert Central America into a peace zone, taking up the proposal made by the Sandinista government as early as 1983 as part of the failed Contadora process.

El Salvador moving towards demilitarization

The process towards demilitarization is also underway in El Salvador. The revolutionary movement there has learned much from the obstacles placed in Nicaragua's way during the Sandinista government, and has modified the goals of its political-military struggle. The FMLN is now aiming to spark democratization, rather than insisting on state power as its ultimate goal. In the April 1990 commitment to negotiate signed in Geneva, as well as in meetings held in Caracas the following month, the FMLN used the Salvadoran armed forces' bombing of the civilian population and assassination of the six Jesuits during the November 1989 FMLN offensive to demonstrate the military's weakness and brutality. As its key negotiating point, the FMLN put forth the purging of the armed forces as a first condition, to be followed by demilitarization of Salvadoran society. This has prolonged the negotiations, but has also lent them a decided seriousness and realism.

These demands have been assisted by the growing weight of the public's desperate desire for peace, linked to a demilitarization of society. The military's prestige has been seriously damaged, particularly with the implication of the highest levels of the armed forces in the murder of the Jesuits. It has also experienced a serious decline in morale with the FMLN's access to missiles, which greatly cut into the military's key advantage—the ability to carry out an air war. For its part, the Salvadoran bourgeoisie realizes that there’s no hope of turning the country's economic deterioration around as long as the war lasts. Even the US government has made clear that it would support an accord that includes a certain degree of demilitarization, to the point that the Salvadoran armed forces feel "betrayed" by their US allies.

Guatemala: The army loses its edge

In Guatemala, the military's "state stability" project, described in previous issues of envío, has suffered a serious blow. Its key elements were to restore Guatemalans' confidence in a democratically elected civilian government, while maintaining military leadership as the lynchpin of such a government. This was intended to attract significant private national investment as well as a considerable injection of foreign funds while continuing to chip away at the URNG revolutionary movement.

Government credibility—the cornerstone of the project—seems to have nearly completely evaporated, as we detail in the Guatemala article. It would seem that there is also a growing lack of public confidence in the Guatemalan army itself. It is accepted as part of the bourgeoisie itself, but no longer seen as the essential force capable of fueling significant economic growth or providing needed economic leadership in the country. The growth in the URNG's strength, moreover, has forced the Guatemalan army to broaden its recruitment efforts in the city, rather than concentrating primarily in the countryside. This has touched off growing opposition to the army that joins those, including groups within the church, who have expressed their opposition to the so-called Civil Self-Defense Patrols. The selective repression against the growing threat of the URNG guerrillas has also created profound currents of opposition to the armed forces.

Growing crime, which according to all indicators involves the public security forces, particularly the National Police, has also led to a public backlash against militarism in Guatemala. And finally, there has been a lot of friction between the army and the US Embassy, with the Embassy demanding that officers responsible for the death of a US citizen in the countryside and the kidnapping and rape of a US churchwoman be brought to justice. The Embassy also has repeatedly accused high-level military officers of involvement in drug trafficking.

Moreover, the URNG's growing strength has had a divisive effect on the armed forces, turning the war into an increasing problem. For example, in 1990, the army could not make a dent in the Civilian Population in Resistance (CPR) in the Ixcán jungle. Since its 1987-88 "year-end" offensive, the army has been unable to successfully regain the tactical advantage in this region bordering Mexico.

In this context, a number of army commanders saw Ríos Montt's candidacy as too polarizing, likely to spur a reaction in favor of the URNG by many people who remember Ríos Montt's scorched earth policy in the countryside. The flip side was that the officers who run the war in the field saw in him a spark of hope.

In September 1990, the demands and charges by the CPR in the Quiché mountains of Ixil were publicized both nationally and internationally, attracting attention to the army bombings of the civilian population and detention of a large number of civilians. All indications are that, in brutal response to the accusations, army intelligence killed Guatemalan anthropologist Myrna Mack, who had published her rigorous research on displaced people and refugees. The outrage over Mack's death spread far beyond Guatemala's borders. Many organizations belonging to the Catholic Church had taken on the responsibility of opening media doors to the experiences of the Communities of Resistance. But seeing the tremendous cost that the Salvadoran armed forces had to pay for murdering the Jesuits in the UCA, the Guatemalan army chose its target outside the Church. Guatemala's academic community, US universities and many other institutions have filled the Guatemalan media with denunciations demanding protection of the right to search for truth in society, including to carry out scientific research. The reaction demonstrates that the Guatemalan army can no longer count on fear to cover up its atrocities.

The Guatemalan army has entered into crisis. The dialogue with the URNG beginning with the 1990 Oslo accords, discussed in the Guatemala article, implies supplanting the armed forces, especially given that both the country's political parties and the business association CACIF have agreed to be interlocutors with the URNG. The bourgeoisie, political parties, revolutionary movement, popular organizations, university community, nongovernmental organizations and Church today share a determination to do away with militarism. The army's arrogance, which led it to carry out a war over US objections with primarily national funding, has been responsible for severely draining the national economy. As the 1970s ended, the country had $800 million in reserves, but a decade later, all national accounts were in the red. The knife of militarism in Guatemala, then, is beginning to lose its edge. The anti-militaristic current is so strong that it could overwhelm the URNG itself if it proves to be inflexible at the hour of negotiations.

Honduras: Militarism retreats

The examination of the three countries above reveals a paradoxical trend. The military force of the revolutionary organizations, which saw themselves as vanguard parties, provoked such ire on the part of Central American and US militarism that it in turn touched off strong anti-militaristic currents in society. Thanks to this current, the popular movements and, in some cases, even the unorganized, have recovered the possibility of fighting for their dignity against the dominant system that has long humiliated them. It is not so much that the Salvadoran and Guatemalan armies have accepted the need to reduce their forces, but they are certainly under varying degrees of pressure, from both civil society and revolutionary movements.

In this context, the case of Honduras—where the armed forces are staunchly resisting the new trend—stands out. To maintain its defense budget and troop size, it has had to recur to thinly veiled threats of a coup and project the most stale vision of a "national security state" as the solution to the country's problems. Within this national security doctrine, the mass organizations are the "internal enemies," bent on destroying Honduras from within, while the country is portrayed as surrounded by external enemies—not only Nicaragua but also its traditional enemy, the Salvadoran armed forces. With such resistance by the armed forces to demilitarizing the country, the National Congress attempt to cut military spending ended in failure.

In reality, no credible revolutionary armed organizations exist in Honduras; those that modeled themselves after the revolutionary movements in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador have ended in disaster. Although the US military has had a strong presence in Honduras since 1982, US military aid to Honduras was cut following the FSLN’s 1990 electoral defeat in Nicaragua.

While this explains the Honduran military's strong resistance to demilitarization, it also demonstrates its weakness. Only by recurring to threats has it been able to oppose a legislative initiative to abolish military conscription. For the first time in many years, the profound split in the Honduran armed forces has become public. It is not, as in other Latin American countries, an ideological split, but one linked to the rhythm of promotions, and has increased to such a degree that many officers have no positions of power or prestige to use to increase their own wealth. This conflict led a number of colonels from the "5th promotion" to resign in protest over the way former armed forces chief General Arnulfo Cantarero assigned high-level positions. Cantarero was forced to resign in the wake of a virtual military coup caused, according to his wife, by the lust for power of other high-level officers and an internal shakeup following accusations that Cantarero's predecessor, Humberto Regalado Hernández, was involved in drug trafficking.

Cantarero's wife even accused President Callejas of allying with the officers who pushed Cantarero out. It is likely that Callejas is counting on the army to block any opposition to his economic adjustment program. In any case, the Honduran military will have to pay the price for having forced the population to accept a decreasing standard of living in the years to come. The army has militarized plantations and otherwise forced Hondurans to accept the government's economic measures. It will also finally have to face up to the specter of the disappeared population and the proposals for amnesty routinely denied to the country's political prisoners.

Costa Rica and Panama:
Dependent demilitarization

Costa Rica and Panama represent a very different kind of declining militarism. With reason, Costa Rica is proud of its tradition of more than 40 years of civilian democracy, which has depended only on a police force to maintain social order. Panama, in the wake of the December 1989 US invasion, is also attempting to get by with a public security force that will never again take on the characteristics of a full-blown army. The fact that Panama will not be able to defend the canal’s security with such a force implies that its sovereignty will remain mortgaged to the US Southern Command based in the Canal Zone.

The capacity of these countries to defend themselves against foreign aggression has been removed, leaving them dependent on the Southern Command in Panama, or a highly sophisticated military entity under another name at the end of the decade. It is a model wholly in the US interest, as it is much cheaper over time than the huge amounts of military aid it has had to put out to other Central American countries. The US inclination to support a certain degree of disarmament and reduction in the Salvadoran army, along with the State Department accusations against both the Salvadoran and Guatemalan armies, indicate that Washington most likely intends to homogenize the "anti-militaristic" models of Costa Rica and Panama throughout Central America. If that happens, it will turn into a ticking time bomb. Referring to the possibility of a semi-permanent presence of US troops in the Middle East, Henry Kissinger said, "The cultural gap between them and the population would be insurmountable." The situation would be similar in Central America.

This is the significance of the Central American Presidents' decision in Puntarenas in December 1990 to declare the region a "Peace Zone." The proposal was first made by Panama's General Torrijos, taken up again by the Nonaligned Movement in its January 1983 meeting in Managua, then proposed officially to the State Department by Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto in October 1983, a few days after the invasion of Grenada.

Unfortunately, the approval of the Peace Zone declaration in Puntarenas is a cooptation of this project, in which a large part of its meaning and potential have been lost. A healthy demilitarization of Central American society will only take place as the result of negotiations with the popular resistance, surrendering arms to dialogue and negotiation as the key protagonists in the demilitarization process. Without that, both demilitarization and the Peace Zone are condemned to US military protection. The phenomena in the Gulf and their outcome are thus extraordinarily relevant for Central America.

Dialogue and accords: A new grassroots activity

Demilitarization, as the flip side of democratization, is thus a process firmly rooted in the Central American popular movement's ability to dialogue and negotiate.

In Nicaragua, where demilitarization has gone the farthest, the democratization of society has given the popular organizations power not only to influence the road towards peace, but also to function as active subjects in an economic negotiation known as concertation in September-October 1990, which shaped the character of the economic measures taken by the government at the time.

In El Salvador, where the FMLN and a significant part of the organized civilian population gained political space to pressure for demilitarization of society, the government has had no other choice but to enter into serious negotiations. That the popular organizations could not obtain sufficient autonomy from the revolutionary armed movement, however, means that a more popular and just economy is not one of the key negotiating issues, as it is in Nicaragua. The demand for demilitarization would have had even more force if it had been clearly linked to the vital need to free up resources for a just and popular economic program. The Salvadoran case shows that, in order to democratize the economy, not only is political-military organization necessary, but so are the popular organization's social autonomy and their intimate connection to the unorganized population.

In Guatemala, the opposing parties have yet to come to the negotiating table, although a dialogue is underway between the URNG and diverse sectors of civil society. The political-military strength of the armed revolutionary movement is not as substantial as in El Salvador, and the grassroots organizations have been subjected to much greater repression than that carried out by the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua or by recent Salvadoran governments. Severe economic deterioration has also weakened their organizations, which partly explains why the URNG has been unable to build firm alliances with them. That, in turn, explains why the current move towards demilitarization has only resulted in a dialogue to date. The need to build a more popular economy is perhaps as present in this dialogue as it is in the ongoing Nicaraguan concertation.

Dialogue, negotiation and agreement are three stages of popular participation that become viable only to the degree that the population understands that the state is being strongly challenged by a political-military force with increasing strength, and that grassroots organizations can maintain their autonomy even as they give indirect support to that political-military force.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Introduction and Dedication

The United States: Redefining Central America and the World

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

The Nation-State Crisis: Ungovernability

Demilitarization: The Other Face of Democratization

Central America’s Grassroots Movement: A Partial Alternative

Guatemala: The Civilian Facade Collapses

Honduras: A Grassroots Party Emerging from Grassroots Organization

El Salvador: UN Mediation and Civil Negotiations

Nicaragua: Political Maturity and Economic Immaturity

Panama: Eternally Condemned

The Popular Alternative: The Agenda and Challenge for the 90s
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development