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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 117 | Abril 1991


Central America

The Popular Alternative: The Agenda and Challenge for the 90s

Jesuit of Latin America

In our countries, the fundamental economic subject for a popular alternative is an organized combination of peasants, artisans and small service sectors together with small merchants of the urban informal sector. Together they represent the real Central American proletariat.

To refer to the popular alternative in Central America as still immature recognizes that it exists and is growing. The following is a provisional list of principles and proposals, accumulated from experience in the six countries of the region—in a sense, a draft manifesto for a grassroots alternative.

A grassroots alternative comes from grassroots experience

A grassroots alternative and the agenda to put it in practice can only grow out of people’s own experience. It will never come from government ministries or research centers, however progressive they may be. It is a problem of historic praxis and not of merely theoretical intellectual schemes. Therefore:

- The currents that run among the Central American people must be listened to with openness;

- All the seeds of struggle and alternative solutions must be gathered through workshops with peasants, artisans and workers, who have formulated and practiced alternative economic and social experiences;

- The survival strategies of unorganized people must be learned and the appropriate technological solutions in their economic practice understood. The poor have already adjusted the most appropriate and cheapest technology to Central America's real market pressures. While they can be improved or developed, any effort to transfer technologies or organizational styles that are not part of the world of the poor, without having learned about the accumulated wisdom, is no alternative; it’s a blind alley.

- Time must be spent with the people, stripped of the leadership habits that affect an open relationship.

A grassroots alternative requires intensive training

A grassroots alternative can only occur through intensive training. Popular education, or systematizing and developing the experiences of the grassroots sectors, is the appropriately rational way of elaborating an alternative. Therefore:

- Economic and social research must be inserted into the dynamic of people’s education;

- The formulation, evaluation and follow-up of small development projects, financed by nongovernmental organizations, must be inserted into the dynamic of people’s education;

- Education about stabilization and structural adjustment policies must be inserted into the dynamic of people’s education. This education must start from concrete experiences of the impact of structural adjustment on the given organization. Such education will only be possible if the grassroots organizations slowly win over professionals who at least understand the logic of adjustment as seen from above;

- A methodology of people’s economic and technological education must be developed and organizational mechanisms experimented with so as to expand their use widely.

A grassroots alternative needs the unorganized

A grassroots alternative requires building bridges between the organized grassroots movement and the unorganized. Therefore:

- Sectarianism and the erroneous identity of one as more advanced or conscious than the other must end;

- Individuals are needed who can act as bridges between existing grassroots organizations and unorganized people. This means living in two qualitatively distinct worlds;

- Encounters must be arranged between politicized grassroots organizations and supposedly apolitical organizations such as the Protestant sects;

- The dialogue between Marxist critique and Christian critique must be deepened at a base level to open paths toward a grassroots socialism, freed from past and still imaginable vices. The fallacious defeatism that this alternative has no future must be eliminated.

A grassroots alternative needs prolonged grassroots hope

The people must face the current crisis of overall deterioration, which appears to have no solution and maintain hope. To do this they need a historic praxis that helps them turn their reserve of hope into "prolonged grassroots hope," taking strength from their most important cultural symbols and promoting solidarity and subjective values. Therefore:

- It is important to start from the spiritual nucleus, which, in religious language, expresses the greatest richness with which our countries' unjustly impoverished peoples can face the material and spiritual deterioration of daily life. We agree with Venezuelan theologian Pedro Trigo, who says that what most demobilizes people is the perception that, to many, they count for nothing. From this arises a self-deprecating identity, which must be combated with the belief that God counts on the people and has faith in them. Within what little their current impoverishment offers, people must find a way to remain human. Therefore:

- It is crucial to combat, alongside the people, the ideology of superiority, uprooting the exploitation, domination and silence that obliges acceptance of an identity inferior to that of the rich, the armed and the white. To this end, we must begin to make way for organizations that truly belong to women at the base, since the ideology of superiority—the culture of the victors—finds its primordial and best ally in machismo, which also flourishes among the poorer classes. We must then continue to seek organizational channels for all unjustly impoverished peoples—indigenous, African-Americans, urban and rural mestizos, etc. We must find communal spaces in society, undermining racist and classist anonymity. At the same time, we need religious spaces that begin to dissolve clergyism. All this must be founded on stirring up faith in the idea that God acts the opposite of the way one acts in a social paradigm based on identities of superiority. Jesus Christ was and is one among many human beings and one among many victims of this ideology;

- It is important, alongside the people, to keep alive the historic memory of those who resisted the apparent impossibility of changing hearts and minds, of changing society; those who, believing in the possibility of this change, gave their lives to the struggle to bring forth better human beings, a better society and a better land. We must integrate the failures, making sense of the struggle for justice from what indestructible love means in personal biography and in history. The temptations of resignation or cynicism must be converted into patience and willingness to learn new methods. Only this way can the dead become martyrs, testimonies to the fact that love cannot be dislodged, that it is the only source of sensible fertility. For this reason, the future of the poor matures slowly through historic practice.

- From a Christian perspective, we must promote the popular reading of the Bible. Theologians such as Carlos Mesters, Jose Luis Caravias, Milton Schwantes, Pablo Richard and so many others have said that reserves of spirituality, ethics and inexhaustible commitment are hidden there. The Bible, read from communal faith in present history, is a huge and accessible source, which can be understood more deeply in workshops and passed along in homes. It is a force because it puts the people in touch with the living Word of God, which provokes creativity, prophetic critique, constructive self-criticism and hope even in the face of the victimization of the poor. The people will be able to accompany their daily and historic travels with that word. Read from a grassroots perspective, the Bible will give the people the authority, dignity and resources to conquer their fear, live with dignity and overcome their imposed inferior identity. If read faithful to the spirit in which it was written—from within a poor and believing people—it will give the tools necessary to forge communities of faith and brotherhood, and to find the historic practice that, "taking responsibility for society, shouldering it and taking it in hand" (as Ignacio Ellacuría, the martyred liberation theologian, said), will slowly reform and humanize that society.

- A culture of dignity, the spirituality of feeling welcomed and respected, a religious community and society moving toward communal structures, an ethics of taking responsibility for life and for history with active patience will lead us to creatively confront the apparent blind allies that deteriorate the conditions of existence of the earth's poor. From there, preserving humanity despite the dehumanizing currents that appeal to God only to justify themselves, we can face the crisis of civilization, a crisis that is dehumanizing victors and vanquished alike.

A grassroots alternative requires local space

The grassroots alternative will begin locally and develop slowly (within three or four years). People's roots are local and their rhythm always slower and surer than that of hotheaded protagonists. Therefore:

- Prejudice against any project not linked to those formulated nationally must be broken. In the course of such a project, this link will have to be overseen together with its subjects;

- The myth of progressives that what is immediate is always better than a slower rhythm that pursues medium-term results must be broken;

- Local territory (the village, neighborhood, rural district) must be recognized as the natural space of grassroots politics and ideology, while national space is the natural one for the dominant class' politics and ideology;

- Nuclei of local political power must be developed through municipal-level coordination, without compromising their style and autonomy;

- Entrenched strongmen in the structures of local power must be persistently challenged;

- The moment will come in which local power nuclei will comprehend the need to make authentic alliances—those that truly respect and conciliate the interests of all groups in the alliance—not only at municipal levels of popular power but also at the national level.

A real grassroots alternative must be built regionally

There can be no grassroots alternative in a single country, much less in a single region of a country. Although the seeds of the alternative germinate locally, their maturation depends on breaking with localism, which only the poor who are condemned to it can do. This does not mean that they do not need the solidarity of others who have identified with them, but to think that any organization not committed to a locality can mitigate and transcend localism in the medium run is to fall into one of the most famous errors of Leninism. It will harvest verticalism instead of increased popular participation. Therefore:

- Popular education workshops at a national level are needed between different focal points where alternatives are developing;

- Popular education workshops about the grassroots alternative are necessary at a Central American level;

- Local practice is necessary for those who have a more universal vision, but one unconnected to the roots from which a global practice must be structured.

A grassroots alternative needs selective export production

A grassroots alternative means stopping the neoliberal model's tendency toward denationalization and emphasizing people’s production with multiplier effects in the domestic market. This, however, does not mean rejecting people's need to increase their exports. The problem is not exports as such. It’s their monopolistic control by the agroexport class. This class aims to impoverish peasant and artisan production by forcing such producers to decapitalize and sell their labor cheaply, in the worst case in sweatshops in free trade zones or home assembly operations. These operations use the country's poverty for their own gain with no multiplier effect in the national economy, even through taxes. The popular alternative is based instead on the concept of selectively "de-linking" from the international market; it emphasizes diversified peasant and artisan production leading to an optimum combination of production for the home market and for export. It protects the development of small national industry by converting and rationalizing its use of imported inputs. Therefore:

- A strategy of selective de-linking is necessary, understanding that the fundamental economic subject is neither the industrial working class nor the bourgeoisie—both of which are minority classes in our economies and are more willing to submit to denationalizing tendencies in a transnationalized market;

- Priority must be given to labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive production;

- The poorer classes need professionals who can open up international trade channels normally dominated by the national business strata and foreign enterprises;

- The design of a popular economy must not eliminate space for capitalist production that strengthens the national economy. For this, concentration of capital must be controlled through grassroots struggles for a progressive tax system that guarantees that the oligopolies cannot use their market power to hide their high levels of inefficiency;

- In this strategy of selective de-linking, we must guarantee ecological preservation, preserving our region's comparative natural resource advantages for the future.

A realistic grassroots alternative learns how to negotiate

Once dissociated from an emphasis on the search for state power, a grassroots alternative will have to specialize in negotiating not only with any government in power but also with other social classes. Therefore:

- Forms of pressure and organization that advance the interests of the urban and rural poor through negotiated consensus must be consolidated. They must learn how to govern the trade circuits "from below" and influence economic policy through contacts with progressive governments and representatives of multilateral agencies. The poorer classes must take a "literacy course in the international sphere" which, by being participatory, will help them overcome their discomposure when faced with changing international circumstances;

- Grassroots organizations should participate in political alliances with revolutionary political movements seeking power, but without losing their own autonomy;

- They must win over a strong nucleus of professionals able to represent the grassroots alternative in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and the multilateral banks.

Preparing a grassroots alternative to the neoliberal agenda

In addition to embarking on the long journey of adding to and strengthening the variety of grassroots experiences with their own multiple cultural expressions—Amerindian, African-American, urban or rural mestizo, etc.—and thus achieving a base-level democracy and an alternative economy, people have the right to an agenda that allows them to prevent the neoliberal project's macro-social policies from having an even more destructive effect on the structures of daily life. Therefore:

- The grassroots organizations must start by recognizing the need for a structural adjustment that restores equilibrium in the fundamental macroeconomic balances, accepting that there can be no development with a hypertrophied and bureaucratic state apparatus, that the state cannot spend much more than it receives in taxes, that salaries cannot expand without increasing productivity and that subsidies not leading to greater productivity cannot be maintained. In summary, a sufficiently equitable economic policy is required to promote a work culture; without this, it is neither just nor acceptable to demand a greater part of the social product;

- The grassroots organizations must require their governments to formulate a stabilization and structural adjustment policy that goes beyond restoring government solvency just to be able to continue paying the foreign debt. They must demand the formulation of steps toward development once the fundamental macroeconomic balances are recovered.

- The grassroots organizations must demand that reducing the state to an efficient size must not be based on pro- or anti-state dogmas, but on the role the state should play in accord with the country's stage of development (or underdevelopment). We address the kind of role we think the state in our countries should play below:

- The grassroots organizations must also demand a reduction in size and a reasonable professionalization of the armed forces to avoid wasting capital on repressive or useless weaponry and move toward the demilitarization of our societies;

- The grassroots organizations must demand that privatization, where and when advisable, not reproduce patterns of concentrating property in few hands, but rather extend it to more and more sectors of society, making the legal forms of property (individual, family, cooperative, shareholding, etc.) varied and flexible. Legally stable forms of co-administered private goods and of benefits for non-owner workers should also be recognized.

- The grassroots organizations should demand an end to subsidies for inefficient capitalist production, as well as for services;

- The grassroots organizations should demand a policy that promotes national production, gives priority to the production of food, and offers food security for the country and the region. The availability of credit and technology should be treated differentially, according to the producers' greater or lesser availability of capital, always favoring those with less cash reserves;

- The grassroots organizations should demand national policies that consider the region. For this they should assure that the demand for negotiated consensus between governments and grassroots organizations in the other countries of the isthmus always be included in their own national programs. They should also move to federate themselves with grassroots organizations in other countries, similar to what the Central American business federations do, so as to have a presence in regional forums that discuss economic policy.

The state's function in the crisis

The state is necessary and irreplaceable. It’s not an end in itself, but a support and instrument of civil society. But its potential for differentiating society into political classes—governors and governed—rooted in their material base is multiple and serious. This power, entrenched in the state's apparatuses, makes it bureaucratic and coercive. Its role must thus always be limited according to two criteria: the level of the given social formation's concrete development and the ever greater counterweight that civil society must exercise over it.

For all that, we must not be confused by the neoliberal project's traditional anti-statist dogma that "the best government is the one that governs least." That dogma permits an array of "parallel states" ("advisers" imposed by the IMF, the World Bank, AID, etc.) and preferential programs for national monopolies or oligopolies (and even more so for transnational ones) that take possession of the market and control it in anything but perfect freedom of competition. In so doing, they end up transforming it into a kind of "invisible state." In addition, the precarious Central American state has been imposed from above; it is weak, inefficient and controlled by the military. The Left, in turn, has emphasized the state as an instrument of change, bureaucratizing and castrating the real social forces of change. Therefore:

- The grassroots alternative needs the state dialectically. In other words, it both needs it and must try to make it ever more unnecessary. The state must represent the general interests of social groups, and has different functions in each phase and stage of economic development and in other dimensions of Central American societies. It must be counterbalanced by developing civil society to control and increasingly reduce the need for it—a process that will probably never culminate in completely replacing "the power of the state by the administration of institutions," as Engels hoped. The state that the poorer classes need must, with their participation, create the social framework that facilitates the creation, multiplication, consolidation and growth of grassroots organizations. For their part, the organizations must define the new character of the state, subordinated to and subsidiary to them.

- The state's fundamental economic tasks to overcome Central America's crisis and begin its reconstruction are to:

1. promote and consolidate the domestic market, integrating it into the regional market;

2. encourage domestic savings and avoid the current decapitalization, promoting autonomous and decentralized productive projects among all social sectors. The creation of a mixed economy, balanced between the public and private sectors and a popular economy of peasants, small and medium producers and the urban informal sector, will permit greater domestic stability and international negotiating capacity;

3. negotiate the foreign debt in collective Latin American governmental forums, emphasizing in their plans and programs the linking of the market to the social debt and national economic reconstruction;

4. move toward becoming a small, efficient state that promotes self-sufficient and profitable production and distributes the costs of development through the fiscal system in a way inverse to the distribution of earnings of the different social groups in their respective economic activities;

5. move toward becoming a state that negotiates consensus between opposing economic interests, seeking the common good in an authentically democratic fashion, i.e., from the logic of the majorities;

6. play a negotiating role at the international level, contributing to the formation and consolidation of the Central American Community, viewing the future framework of its development as complementary to and not in competition with that of the other Central American states;

7. make every effort to contribute to the development of the regional project so that it builds an economic and political basis for the political unification of Central America by the end of the century.

The grassroots alternative internationalizes the agenda

This vision of the alternative grassroots project, though extracted from the accumulated experiences and principles of thousands of Central Americans, may appear to many as utopian and mythical. It is, however, surprisingly familiar and close to numerous grassroots experiences in the rest of Latin America. Most surprising of all is how welcome the rough draft was when presented at the first encounters with grassroots movements of Africa and Asia—including Japan. Therefore:

- These experiences must be internationalized to demonstrate their universal nature, which can be understood, supported and even adopted in other cultural spheres, particularly among religious sectors. This cross-cultural character is due to the common content of their mutual values and interests. The transnationalization of capital in all its forms (particularly in technology, finances and administration) requires in turn the internationalization of labor and of the grassroots organizations' technology, organizational structures, financing and forms of local power. Without this, local and even regional experiences could be suffocated and destroyed by boycott and low-intensity war, including its new, more sophisticated form, which we call "market counterinsurgency." This latter produces "economic Darwinism," progressively eliminating the weaker of the economic species that enter the market.

- The end of the Cold War—assuming the Gulf crisis does not revive it—offers new opportunities for South-South grassroots alliances, overcoming all old ideologies and building common values and interests, as well as a common praxis. Solidarity among the poor, facing the crisis of first-world civilization—which is savagely exemplified by the cold and impassive way in which the first super-technology war has been conducted—paradoxically offers new potential for taking up the search for interdependent human cooperation at the end of the 20th century;

- Some requirements for and possibilities of internationalizing grassroots experiences suggest a few of the common democratizing challenges that must be faced:

1. Democratization of power. The main demand of grassroots experiences, both old and new, is the need for more participatory democracy at all levels. Without it there is no development. The greatest obstacle to democracy in the South is the concentration and centralization of power in the North and among a minority of elites in the South who share those privileges;

2. Democratization of the state. Former President Reagan has said, "We have no problems with the state. The state IS the problem." This "metaphysical" anti-statism seeks the absolute affirmation of what German theologian Franz Hinkelammert has called "the totalitarian world market." In Central America, however, we have "precarious states," imposed from above, traditionally authoritarian when not openly dictatorial. Our motto would thus be to redefine the character of the state from below.

3. Democratization of the market. The market cannot be accepted as a substitute for the state. Both inevitably tend toward totalitarianism if they do not respond to the logic of the majorities. The character of the market is just as ambiguous as that of the state. Both become more positive as civil society produces a greater and more pluralist multiplicity of associations that maintain their autonomy from any power that wants to interfere in, infiltrate or co-opt them. The market's automatism makes it an altar on which the weakest who enter it are sacrificed. The creation of an alternative and autonomous productive power is the only way to prevent being sacrificed in and by the market.

4. Democratization of culture, and, within that, of the religious institutions. Only by communicating diverse grassroots experiences in these two cultural camps will the countries and peoples of the South be able to foster the empirical confidence that a different world exists and can be consolidated over time. Only in this way can the people, particularly the unjustly impoverished, have a sufficient basis on which to make the leap from experience to the hope of solidly surpassing it. This will be the most crucial element for creating a shared identity which, retaining all the richness of its differentiation, is enriched even more and eventually replaces what Pedro Arrupe, recently deceased former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, called "homo consumens" (those fascinated by massive consumerism) for a new "homo serviens" (those dedicated to service, those who are "for others"). Democracy within the Central American Catholic Church, i.e., moving from mottoes to the real, fully egalitarian participation of their members in the churches' tasks and functions, has been one of the most difficult tasks. The complexity of Bishop Romero's religious life, prototype of this possibility, testifies to the difficulty.

5. Democratization of international institutions. The first victim of the Gulf war was the United Nations, which went from being a supranational organization promoting peace to one in danger of endorsing the exorbitant militarism of President Bush's superpower government. The UN's crisis of democracy and participation and the now traditional similar crises in the World Bank, the IMF, the IDB, GATT, etc., respond to the character of these institutions, which are products of the Cold War. The right to veto in the Security Council only strengthens the concentration of world power in the arrogant decisions of a single superpower. Although it may seem the pipe dream of an inveterate idealist, we must struggle for an organization of United Peoples, or at least a second, complementary chamber in the UN General Assembly, which has always responded more to governments than to peoples. This proposal is determinant, at the least, for structuring a new economic, political, legal and ecological world order.

6. Democratization of Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs). New potential exists in the last decade's NGO boom. Their linkage to and subsidiary role with grassroots organizations is determinant for creating organizational ties between these groups of international civil society to support and link grassroots alternatives at the productive, technological, financial, marketing, research and educational levels.

Internationalizing these experiences and values can help interpret them for churches, pacifist and environmental movements, women's, youth, neighborhood, Amerindian, African-American, peasant and other organizations in Latin America, as well as their counterparts in Africa and Asia and those of minorities in the First World, and aid in finding common overall proposals and goals. All suffer the immensely serious consequences of what the martyred educator Father Ignacio Ellacuría called "the civilization of capital," and of its ethical crisis, a veritable crisis of civilization. It is a regressive crisis, one that moves backwards from the richest patrimony of humanity toward uncontainable and deadly dehumanization. It is not rhetoric to say that western civilization, imperialized by the United States with complicity of the partners in the Group of Seven—the "North" par excellence—is in a de-civilizing process that cannot be contained without radical change. It is simply the most savage face of the essence of our current historical reality.

At times, it seems that in this civilization heading toward technological homicide, the nightmare of 1984 will be fulfilled not in the world of Stalinist communism, as Orwell predicted, but in the world that adores the Statue of Liberty. Fortunately, in Central America and many other parts of the Third World, we live with the anguish of survival, counterbalanced with greater hope for humanization. This is the hope and the human and humanizing sense of life revealed in the Haitian refrain, "We hope to live, to live with hope." Neither Ignacio Martín Baró nor Myrna Mack, to whom we have dedicated this work, would settle for less.

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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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