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


Central America

Central America’s Grassroots Movement: A Partial Alternative

Jesuit of Latin America

While there have been encouraging advances in demilitarization and political negotiations between the new governments and revolutionary vanguards in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, the panorama of events in civil society are much more obscure. The harvest of a decade of struggle has given new vitality to political civil society in the face of militarism. But the cost has been growing levels of extreme poverty, assaults and robbery in the cities, cattle rustling in the countryside, drug trafficking and other forms of social decomposition that accompany poverty, imposed first by US "low-intensity warfare" and then by the neoliberal plan. Between 1986 and 1989, there was a gradual shift from "low-intensity warfare," which prioritized military spending in the region, to "market counterinsurgency," which, without giving up the big stick, emphasized the homogeneous and destructive regional economic package.

This section examines the popular movement's response to the deterioration of civil society in 1990, in terms not of the growing number of grassroots organizations but of the material base that sustains them.

From no proposal to a deficient one

For the regional grassroots movement, the fall of Sandinismo was the disconcerting event of 1990, not the fall of Marxism-Leninism. The region's revolutionary movement has endured because of the impoverished masses' radicalism more than because of theoretical schemes. The vanguards and more politicized groups of the grassroots movement, on the other hand, are disconcerted by the crisis of socialism, because only they understand the relation between the special characteristics of Central American socialism and the European socialist project, which arose from a popular revolution in the USSR and was imposed by the Red Army and minority Communist parties in the rest of Eastern Europe. The fall of socialism forces them to review their theoretical Marxist ideas, which had been only partially adapted to the reality of their respective countries. The defeat of Sandinismo and the problem of party/state/popular organization relations oblige a radical transformation in Leninist schemes about the character of a revolutionary party and the transition to socialism.

The discouragement arising from the Sandinista election defeat must be understood in the context of the recent history of grassroots struggle in the region. The 1970s were a time of protest without proposals. During that decade, the grassroots movement mobilized through worker and peasant protests without ever really envisioning an alternative; it was a responsive movement strongly tainted with religious and quasi-religious hopes for justice.

The 1980s, on the other hand, were a time of increasing protest based on a faulty or insufficiently developed proposal. With the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, grassroots protest in other countries intensified and political-military vanguards drew strength from the proof that a people’s victory in the region was possible. Still, though, the FMLN and URNG did not develop their own post-triumph government strategies. It was easier in the midst of a guerrilla war to leave the masses with the image of Sandinista Nicaragua as the promised land. It was time to cultivate in Nicaragua; in the rest of the region, the only goal was to yank out the rotted roots of military dictators, oligarchies and the US Embassy's influence.

After 1985, as the conflict in El Salvador dragged on, with the avalanche of information about supply shortages and persistent poverty in the "promised land" and, above all, about the human cost of US intervention and the counterrevolution, doubts grew about the Sandinista model. This happened both in the grassroots movement and in the vanguard leadership, though the population in the guerrilla control zones found security in mutual solidarity with the Nicaraguan poor. The leadership was better prepared for the Sandinista electoral defeat than the base of the movement; the news on February 25, 1990, thrust the organized population into a state of confusion, not only in El Salvador and Guatemala but the whole region.

These struggles have largely destroyed the military-oligarchy-US Embassy triangle in the region, but not replaced it by revolutionary governments. "Modernizing" neoliberal governments, with incoherent adjustment policies, are instead filling the vacuum, and the grassroots agenda is not yet developed enough to counter their harsh effects. The movement must articulate a long-term agenda with concrete socioeconomic projects that respond to the immediate interests of the Central American masses. The danger is returning to the protest strategies of the 1970s and not capitalizing on the past decade's gains to present alternative proposals—rooted in practice, autonomy and economic feasibility—for social and economic organization.

The grassroots majority: The organized vs. the unorganized

There is a deep division in the Central American masses between the organized, who, despite the confusion of 1990, maintain hope for social justice, and the unorganized, self-absorbed by the economic crisis and disillusioned with the possibility of social change at a national level.

Perhaps the greatest weight on the grassroots organizations is their lack of creativity in narrowing the gap between the movement and this unorganized population and in directly addressing the economic and social material conditions of the majorities. By dividing the people between the "aware" and the "unaware," it reveals its own sectarianism and limited capacity to accumulate forces.

Among the organized, many are clearly aware of their political function and reject militarism and the dominant classes' economic privileges. The ideal of a more just and equal society is still alive among them, the result of over two decades of questioning the status quo. Despite the internal divisions and top-down style characterizing grassroots organizations, many are still willing to make great sacrifices to preserve the economic and social reforms won through struggle in Nicaragua and to continue fighting for human rights and the demilitarization of society in the other countries.

The fundamental logic of the organized people is political struggle for economic benefits—street demonstrations, strikes in factories with no conversion alternatives, building takeovers and demands to maintain state salaries without cutting public services. In addition to confusion about the Sandinistas' electoral defeat, some of the most radical sectors do not understand the complexity of the structural adjustment imposed on the region. They also do not grasp the political negotiation and economic concertation between the vanguards and the new neoliberal governments. Confusion weighs even more heavily when these new political processes take the form of high-level negotiations, without sufficient participation from the base in formulating the agenda for the negotiations. Some are discouraged by the fear of losing new battles waged with old weapons, which they believe will happen either at the negotiation table or later in daily life. Discouragement and confusion also take their toll when the international scene changes so radically and rapidly that it becomes an indecipherable enigma. We are using old navigating charts in unexplored waters, inventing with imagination and acumen the new coordinates that will allow us to orient ourselves again.

Like the organized, unorganized people feel the drastically deteriorated living standards in their own flesh and blood. It is a deterioration accumulated during the war years and the long economic crisis, exacerbated by the imposed economic adjustment. The difference between them is that the unorganized have lost the hope of finding a just solution to the crisis. Above all, they see no possibility of a collective solution and are tired of political instability, afraid of war and unforeseeable violence and overwhelmed by the economic crisis. They are consumed with the need to find and keep a job and the daily struggle to guarantee food and shelter for their children. If at one time they had hope, they are now disillusioned with politics; they fear the repression of those who seek alternatives outside of the established order and are convinced that, whatever the alternative struggle or its strength, that order is not going to change. In fact, they see its reconstruction as the only meaningful possibility for a peaceful future.

Some abandon their faith in historic action and think "only God can make things better." All this reverts to conflicts between the resignation of traditional Catholicism and the apocalyptic vision and individualist morality of the evangelical sects. It is difficult to speak of confusion among the unorganized. They seek alternative family survival strategies in the urban informal sector or emigration to the United States and take refuge in evangelical sects. The sects provide a counterweight of social cohesion to their individualist "everyone for himself" logic and offer purity from vices like alcohol, tobacco and matrimonial infidelity, which consequently improves the family's use of its scarce economic resources.

The fundamental logic of unorganized people is the individual, family and local struggle for economic survival and psychic stability in an unstable and cruel world. Like the organized, they do not believe in the established political system, as shown by growing electoral abstentionism, but the organized find no ally in that, because the unorganized also do not believe in a political alternative.

If the fundamental strength of the Central American grassroots movement is the growth of a new historic subject, its fundamental problem is that it is still a minority compared to this unorganized population. To the unorganized, grassroots organizations seem like another sect, one whose "god" has failed and whose members are exposed to persecution and lose time needed to dedicate to economic survival. In their eyes, the wealth of experience in struggle and the moral reserve for the region's democratization and transformation are downright foolishness.

In this context, the result of the Central American grassroots movement's heroic sacrifice is a protest too weak to be even partially accepted by the people as a whole, who are tired of protests without proposals for an even minimal immediate improvement in their difficult economic situation.

Confronting the adjustment

In practice, the grassroots movement emphasized political over economic struggles in 1990, and couldn’t deal creatively with the breach between the political interests of the organized and the economic interests of the unorganized. Three primary tendencies emerged in this relation between the political and the economic, each in different countries. In Guatemala and El Salvador, the movement seldom challenged the economic adjustment and, when it did, as in inter-organizational meetings in El Salvador, business and government associations were intransigent. In Honduras and Panama, the movement was not strong enough to force even the beginnings of a concertation with the new Callejas and Endara governments. In Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the movement participated in the socioeconomic concertation process, but fought mainly over the size of the state sector and the fiscal deficit, which turned out to be the terrain most favorable to its neoliberal rival.

Guatemala and El Salvador:
Political over economic struggle

In Guatemala and El Salvador, the most repressive countries in the region, the grassroots movement has been strongly conditioned by the guerrilla struggle and the demands imposed by the vanguards' project. That project has evolved from an emphasis on taking political-military power in the 1980-86 period, to a new strategy, with the protraction of the war, to force demilitarization and democratization.

The most important advances in the movements in both countries took place in the war zones. More important still was the impact on urban grassroots identity of what has happened in those zones, where experiences in development compensate, as a hopeful model, for the loss of government power in Nicaragua.

In El Salvador, the struggle for human rights and "humanizing" the war gained legal status for the civilian population in Morazán. Refugees from Colomoncagua, Honduras, repatriated and founded "Ciudad Segundo Montes" to the south of the guerrilla control zone there. In Chalatenango, although the grassroots organizations in the liberated zones did not achieve legal recognition, the civilian society was revitalized by repatriations from Honduras and significant relocations of displaced peoples. In all such cases, new economic and social organizations have sprung up, and grassroots autonomy has taken important steps forward. In Guatemala, the Civilian Population in Resistance in Quiché has slowly strengthened in the silence of repression. As we detailed above, by 1990 it was impossible to stop it from coming to public light or meeting with the human rights movement.

Guatemala. The key national issue of the year was the economic adjustment and modernization project, which meant 75% inflation and only a 10% salary increase and serious effects on small producers of a policy favoring exports at the expense of basic grains and other goods for domestic consumption. Despite this, the grassroots movement directed its energy to human rights and new issues budding from the class struggle, i.e., women's and ethnic rights.

The growing anti-militarist consciousness shows that there were some gains, including a new law taking jurisdiction over Civil Self-Defense Patrols away from the military. But it offered the poor no concrete economic alternative to the denationalizing effects of migrating to the United States and sending home family remittances. Devoid of an economic alternative, the movement was vulnerable to the country's triple polarization: between Catholics and evangelical sects, between ladinos and indigenous peoples and, above all, between militarism and civil society.

Reduced by this, it was notably weak in mobilizing against price hikes in public transport and other public services, which in previous years provoked riots. The business-promoted Solidarismo movement of labor-business associations was able to move into this relative vacuum with some success. In addition, the movement's absence from the electoral campaign demonstrated its inability to forge class alliances to open a space in the national economic debate.

El Salvador. Here the dialogue process and negotiations on demilitarizing society occupied center stage. It is understood that socioeconomic problems and social justice will enter more concretely into the negotiations after this first stage. Thus, the Salvadoran popular movement in 1990 was primarily political, mobilizing around military repression, the murder of the Jesuits and proposals to purge the armed forces.

The FMLN offensive in late 1989 shut down grassroots organization in the city. Many people went to the countryside with the guerrillas, and fear after the offensive froze the movement's ability to mobilize. In early 1990, however, it demonstrated its capacity to resist and rebuild, and the organized sectors showed their commitment to take to the streets again. For the rest of the year, though, the movement's organizational style did not change; it offered no ideological opening toward the unorganized sectors. Its organizations depended too much on slogans and the FMLN's very politicized arguments, facilitating greater repression and slowing the accumulation of forces. As in Guatemala, the movement did not prepare sufficiently to play a role in the National Assembly elections, which could end up even more rightwing than before if ARENA, whose candidates this time are almost exclusively from the D' Aubuisson camp, wins.

Honduras and Panama:
Repression and failed concertation

The Honduran and Panamanian popular movements have been heavily conditioned by the nation-state crisis of the isthmus' countries. Both are occupied by US troops, though that military presence is much more extensive in Panama. In both, there has been a clear recomposition of their grassroots movement in the face of the military situation and the economic crisis, and it has made important advances. But despite mobilizations against the economic adjustment and the Callejas and Endara governments' promises of a social and economic accord, no negotiations took place. Even worse, Callejas' use of the Honduran army to repress the movement and the threat posed by US forces in Panama revealed not only the character of both governments but also the weakness of the recently reborn movements.

The two new governments, incapable of dialogue, tried to give an impression of strength but increasingly lost the popular support they had a year earlier. Nevertheless, neither movement has been able to pull together discontent, because they lack both connection to the unorganized masses and concrete alternatives to the economic adjustment and stabilization policies.

Honduras. This country has a much greater level of grassroots organization than Panama, but it is fraught with divisions, corrupt leaders and top-down styles. Pronounced ideological divisions, little connection to the popular masses and an attempt to imitate the Nicaraguan, Salvadoran and Guatemalan vanguards mark the several political-military organizations. Recognizing in 1990 that they have no future as long as the masses continue to believe in alternating the traditional parties in power, these revolutionary groups sought to negotiate with the Callejas government on full amnesty for political prisoners, annulling the anti-terrorist law (used more against the grassroots movement than against them) and withdrawing US troops from Honduran territory. They also promised to join the civilian struggle for participatory democracy through elections and help achieve mass consensus for mobilization around limited and viable immediate objectives. This shift was preceded by efforts within the civil organizations themselves to overcome sectarianism, excessive politicization and authoritarianism and to rebuild ties with the unorganized masses based on economic needs.

The grassroots movement came together in the joint May 1 protest, formulating a "Platform of Struggle" in response to the government's economic package. The street demonstrations that day surpassed expectations, not only in Tegucigalpa but also in San Pedro Sula and Tocoa, where the transnational banana corporations operate. But organizational problems and the isolation of the organized population deflated the protest as rapidly as it had inflated in the first months of the year. Since it had no concrete alternatives for reducing the fiscal deficit, the government was able to reject any change in policy.

Concertation thus failed in Honduras as much from the movement's weaknesses as from the state's crisis and Callejas' need to strengthen his government. But later in the year, four of the strongest grassroots entities came out in favor of creating a pragmatic political party, with a viable government program based on popular economic and social organization. They will first try to reach agreement within the movement and form three ideologically pluralist fronts: one of peasant and urban unions, another of neighborhood employer organizations and a third of small and medium businesses. Their goal is to win a third of the votes in the 1994 national elections and then negotiate a pragmatic agreement with the new government favoring popular interests.

Panama. Because of Torrijismo's corruption and Noriega's negative influence, Panama has the region's weakest grassroots movement. Weak on both structures and ideas that might give it organizational coherence, it has only taken up a few responsive demands. It has, however, taken some key steps, forming the National Coordinator for the Right to Life, the Committee for the Defense of Sovereignty and the General Workers Union, whose leaders, for the most part, were not party to the previous leadership's poor management. These organizations have existed for less than six months, so they are still hard to analyze, but it appears that an autonomous and independent grassroots movement has begun to grow.

In 1990, the scene in Panama was similar to that of Honduras. Grassroots groups, organized or not, tried to respond to the economic avalanche and the instability provoked by US intervention. There were 21 land takeovers in the first 5 months of the year alone, mainly in the metropolitan area and half on private property; most were spontaneous and minimally organized. There were only three strikes in that same period, and only in the community service sector. While there was no lack of motives, the military government's destruction of the union leadership, the menacing presence of the US military and the danger of losing one's job made strikes difficult to organize.

The newly reborn grassroots movement did manage to hold large public protests and close down streets, beginning in August and culminating in the significant October 16 and December 5 marches. Those mobilizations have been important to the people. War refugees in Panama City and Colón, families of the dead and disappeared from the US invasion, students, workers and public employees, retired people, journalists and even teachers and professors—a large base of support for the Civilist Crusade that gave birth to the alliance backing Endara—have, at one time or another, joined them. All of this indicates growing discontent that the government is increasingly unable to control. Mobilization in Panama has been even more spontaneous and reactive than that of the grassroots movement in Honduras.

As in Honduras, the new Panamanian government has responded to popular pressure with a refusal to dialogue, a rejection of concertation with the people and repression. At the beginning of the year, a witch-hunt began of those tied to Noriega and members of the Committees for the Defense of the Country), in which a number of public employees were fired. In 9 of the 21 land takeovers, specifically those on private properties, the people were violently removed, usually with the help of the US Army. In some of the indigenous and peasant areas, the occupation army has jailed people, searched houses, swept land and intimidated and, above all, humiliated the people, all with the excuse of looking for "guerrillas."

Perhaps what generated the most repression were the two large marches in October and December, both of which were met with accusations of sedition, as we detail in the Panama article. It was a response notably similar to the classic reaction of Noriega and, currently, of Callejas in Honduras.

Nicaragua and Costa Rica:
Concertation and the danger of cooptation

In both Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the grassroots movement's confrontation with the neoliberal adjustment encountered very different conditions than in the rest of Central America. Since the 1948 reforms in Costa Rica and since 1979 in Nicaragua, a broad public sector has developed with differing degrees of sophistication but with an awareness of their nations' social and economic policies.

Nicaragua. The economic adjustment was affected by the strength of the FSLN, which has no equivalent as an opposition party in the rest of the region, and even more by the Sandinista mass organizations, which have become more autonomous and independent since the electoral defeat. During the March-April transition period, the outgoing Sandinista government abandoned its own adjustment measures, put into affect in June 1988. It brusquely increased salaries and stopped devaluing the national currency, turning over a chaotic economy to the Chamorro government. The discipline the FSLN had imposed at such cost in 1988-89 was broken in a few days.

The Nicaraguan grassroots movement, led by the National Workers Federation (FNT), an umbrella organization of Sandinista unions, continued this disarticulation by opposing the new government's attempts to take away from the workers and public employees what the FSLN had given them. Strong protests included taking over public buildings and barricading streets. Finally, in October, the government was forced to negotiate an agreement with the FNT.

While Nicaragua was the only country in which the movement could somewhat offset the government-imposed adjustment, in which salaried workers finished the year with a 63% increase in real buying power, this does not mean that the Sandinista movement took on the adjustment problem any better than the Honduran people; it simply took it on with far more strength. The crucial factor in 1990 was the civilized and non-repressive character of Nicaragua's army and police, whose function, in contrast with the rest of the region, was to maintain order for all Nicaraguans, not just the wealthy.

The Sandinista grassroots movement focused its efforts on state jobs and salaries, neglecting the denial of credits to peasant farmers, decapitalization of the productive urban informal sector and industrial conversion—without which many workers were left unemployed not by the government but by the market. It was able to stop the immediate privatization of state farms and enterprises, though probably just temporarily since the issue is still on the government and International Monetary Fund agendas. Since October, after the concertation, salaries have begun to erode. The government has also been able to form parallel unions in the public sector and in strategic industries, which will make it much more difficult to repeat 1990's mobilizations.

The Sandinista movement's confrontations with the Chamorro government’s economic adjustment were thus also a reactive protest without an alternative that encompasses their class interests. Many sectors suffered from the absence of this alternative, and the FSLN itself failed to consolidate, overcome its internal divisions or advance significantly in its program to "govern from below." Violeta Chamorro's ministers, independent of their differences, all agree that the Nicaraguan government's main problem is the country's economic "ungovernability."

If the Chamorro government can reach a broad accord on fairly mild terms with the IMF and World Bank and obtain significant new international financing, such piecemeal mobilization could be successfully co-opted in the next several years. But it is improbable that Chamorro will have such luck; the governability problem will more likely continue to be the main characteristic of 1991.

Costa Rica. While cooptation of the popular movement is a far-off possibility in Nicaragua, it is already a reality in Costa Rica. That country's new President, Rafael Angel Calderón, shines as the "Fujimori of Central America." He came to power with a discourse about more moderate economic measures, new social packages for the people, benefits for retired people and the like. Once in power he applied an economic "shock" plan to maintain Costa Rica's adjustment rhythm.

The Costa Rican grassroots movement's response to his deceit has been minimal. In fact, there were fewer strikes and protests in 1990 than in 1988-89. Although this progressive decline in protest against the adjustment is a general rule in Latin America—one that Central America's neoliberal governments count on—unique conditions in Costa Rica explain the movement's cooptation with respect to the adjustment. Thanks to special treatment from AID, Costa Rica has enjoyed generous financing, moved forward in industrial conversion programs and successfully expanded nontraditional exports. In addition, the sophistication of the Costa Rican state, the institutionalization of any kind of social or productive problem, the interweaving of the state with nationalism and the popular view that its democracy is closer to Switzerland's than Central America's all exercise enormous weight in dividing the grassroots movement. The many social and productive associations find their counterpart not in Calderón but in a certain bureaucrat, ministry branch or AID or nongovernmental organization program.

This institutional and cultural cooptation has been extremely effective in fragmenting the progressive wing of the movement, including a three-way Communist Party split and ideological embryos in the left wing of the National Liberation Party (PLN). In addition, the Solidarismo movement in Costa Rica is one of the strongest in the region; divisions in the popular movement increase its influence on the working class.

In summary, the grassroots movement in Costa Rica faces the best-prepared and most capable neoliberal opponent in the region. The challenge of escaping the state's cooptation of its interests is enormous.

The future: More adjustments, more neoliberal sophistication

Up to now, we’ve made only a cold, objective analysis of the region's grassroots movement, which must prepare to face an increasingly sophisticated neoliberal enemy in the years ahead. Nevertheless, the most important factor is the humble and hidden potential of the Central American masses.

The power of the unorganized population's daily struggle to deal with the economic adjustment is not sufficiently included in the movement's plans. New everyday survival strategies—rationalization, conversion and diversification of economic activities—are emerging from within the peasant population and urban informal sector, alongside the decapitalization of their economy, still the core logic of Latin American adjustments.

The Central American people surprised both the imperial state and political analysts of the Latin American Left with their rebellion against dictators and oligarchies in the 1980s. Now, in the last decade of this century, a grassroots response to the new neoliberal enemy, like a seed under soil, is germinating. To the degree that people’s organizations can capture the unorganized masses' hidden potential, a new proposal can arise to give new life to the Central American grassroots movement.

Nonetheless, the road through the 1990s will be narrow and difficult. The immediate prospects for this movement would offer us only illusory hope were it not for the international weaknesses of and internal incoherencies in the neoliberal program for Central America.

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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
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