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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 179 | Junio 1996
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Central America

Authoritarian Roots and Democratic Shoots

By Victor Hugo Acuña Ortega, director of the University of Costa Rica's Central American Historical Research Center. This paper, edited by envío, was first presented to the Multidisciplinary Encounter on Nationalism and Identity, organized by the Institute of History of Nicaragua (IHN) in May 1995. It also appears in Nicaragua en busca de su identidad, published by the IHN and the Central American University of Managua, September 1995.

Víctor Hugo Acuña Ortega

In 1929, after his first visit to Costa Rica, Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre tried to describe and explain what he termed "an acute and restless curiosity" that he had felt on being in that country. In an article published in Diario del Salvador, the Peruvian leader said he had found a "peasant?based agrarian democracy," whose existence had been explained by General Jorge Volio, the controversial and multifaceted founder of Costa Rica's socializing Reformist Party, as being due to the absence of indigenous peoples.

The racist implications of such an interpretation were not lost on Haya de la Torre, who sharpened Volio's thesis by suggesting that "the absence or insignificance of the Indian does not permit the conflict that creates resistance." Both leaders agreed that, based on this missing personage, small property ownership grew, which, in turn, resulted in peasant?based agrarian democracy. It is well known that the explanation of Costa Rica's uniqueness based on supposed characteristics of its agricultural structure has become a sort of common sense of experts, both local and foreign. It is interesting to see the longevity of this explanation.

Two decades earlier, in 1910, Paul Cherington, professor of graduate Business Administration at Harvard University, of the State Department his impressions of the regime of Guatemalan President Manuel Estrada Cabrera. In his opinion, the president's power lacked effective constitutional limits, such that he could modify taxes, contract loans, offer or annul concessions, devalue the currency, close roads and send any citizen to jail or to eternity through executive decrees. To Professor Cherington, this seemingly constitutional regime was in reality a type of absolutism.

In 1922, from his exile in Mexico, Guatemalan Unionist Party leader Julio Bianchi, architect of Estrada Cabrera's fall two years earlier, offered the State Department??again obligingly??a diagnosis of and remedy for Central America's political ills. The isthmus, according to Bianchi, suffered from the fact that its Constitutions inspired veneration, but did not oblige obedience. In this part of the world, government meant the executive branch, and that, in turn, meant the President of the Republic. For Bianchi, the basis of despotism in the isthmus was the ignorance of the majority of the people. To eradicate it, he proposed excluding illiterate people from the right to vote, as well as proposing the union of Central America into a Federation.

Durable Authoritarianism, Elusive Democracy

For over a century, observers from within and without have tried to formulate explanations and solutions to Central America's political problems, often resorting to comparing Costa Rica to the other countries. In so doing, Costa Rica's own political deficiencies have been dissimulated by the defects of others. To construct diagnoses and cures, there have also been appeals to the most diverse factors, from climate and racial characteristics to institutional and economic and social order issues.

We will engage in a similar task, although cautious and modest in terms of solutions, prudent and doubtful with respect to diagnosis, oriented to a search for historical conditions??or, if you prefer, for the long?term factors responsible for making the efforts at reform and democratization fragile and transitory, while the authoritarian systems have shown themselves to be durable and recurring. We begin with the assumption that we need to seek the rationale or causes of the authoritarianism and dictatorships that have dominated the region's political history since 1821. We consider that we must establish what have been the social bases of those political regimes and their forms of legitimacy. On the other hand, we postulate that it should be remembered, and thereby explained, that aborted attempts at democratization and reform have also occurred in other stages of the region's history. These failures can serve as an empirical base to identify the conditions that have made democratic development unviable, with the exception of Costa Rica. These two postulates attempt to put the commonly accepted ideas about political exclusion in the region's oligarchic systems in parentheses and suggest that it is necessary to specify just what that much?discussed exclusion is. Remembering failed past democratic processes can be useful in studying the present, which frequently confuses because of its apparent novelty.

A critical look at authoritarianism in Central America as an object of study and not diatribe, and as a summing?up of democracy that distinguishes between desires and realities, are the basis of these reflections.

Continuity of the Dominating Classes

According to official notes from September 1821, Central American independence was declared by the elites and notables of Guatemala City and some other provinces of the Crown to "prevent the fearful consequences of the people themselves declaring independence." In this region of America, political emancipation did not come through a war of independence or some other type of colonial rupture or discontinuity, but had a preventive character, a sort of self?coup, to preclude any potential popular ardor. Old authorities were not overthrown or dominating groups displaced in 1821. In this sense, the Old Regime remained in place.

That appears to be the first manifestation of a long?term characteristic of Central American social and political history during the republican period: the political and cultural continuity of the dominating classes. Saying this may not seem to make much sense given that the region entered an infinite spiral of civil wars and political perturbations after independence. But Central America's problem is precisely that, while there were many uprisings, there were never true revolutions, at least until the last decade. In this aspect, the greatest contrast is with Mexico, which has had at least two great revolutionary ruptures, in 1810 and 1910.

In the local disputes, intrigues and conspiracies that dominated the greater part of the 19th century, no group was defeated or eliminated definitively. The well?known disputes between Liberals and Conservatives present the typical aspects of fights between dominating classes seemingly divided by ideological motives but in reality divided by questions of locally segmented social loyalties and particular material interests. This continuity of interests and values is well summarized by Pérez Brignoli when he describes the states of the isthmus as "both children of the Liberal creed and inheritors of Conservative restoration."

Recent research on the 19th century has forced us to revise our ideas about the so?called Liberal Reforms at the turn of last century. It is now clear that some promotion of the agroexport model associated with these reforms was actually initiated by Conservative governments, which makes the Liberal Reform the culmination of an earlier process rather than a turning point. It is also clear that Conservatives were not excluded from the new project, but rather joined it without resistance and enjoyed the blessing of their Liberal ideological enemies. Thus, for Woodward, the Liberals and Conservatives fused in Guatemala after 1850 under the mantle of Liberal ideology??in its positive version??and the agroexport project. This fundamental continuity is also observable in the Costa Rican case, a phenomenon which also favored earlier movement into coffee production.

No Strength, Interest or Need To Change

Continuity was also unaltered by the industrialization and economic modernization that began in the region in 1950. The old social groups that had flowered with coffee production were not displaced. And although the rise of the middle classes into the business sectors and the phenomenon of Somoza's monopolistic tendencies within the Nicaraguan elite must be recognized, it is worth noting that those newcomers tended to join the dominating sector and respect the already?established norms and values in state relations and in relations with lower classes.

The new business groups that appeared after 1960 had an interest in the success of the agroexport model and felt at home with the kinds of relations the oligarchic groups had historically forged with state power and with the popular classes. The emerging groups had little capacity to change the style of development or the rules of the game previously imposed by the oligarchy. There are two golden rules in these elites' history: the rich neither pay taxes nor go out of their way in concessions to the poor.

The continuity of the Central American dominating classes since independence has allowed a political culture based on despotism, militarism, alienation and deference to persist. The ascending groups that have integrated in the dominating classes in the two last centuries have lacked the strength, interest and need to introduce new values, norms of conduct or principles in existing political culture. An example: many immigrants who have come to the isthmus to escape despotic regimes in their countries of origin have, as businessmen, accepted and taken advantage of the extra?economic forms of exchange that have prevailed in certain areas of Central America without remorse. Foreign investors have learned how to squeeze maximum profit from the local elites' archaic political culture, obtaining concessionary privileges in the regime and helping manipulate conflicts among rival political factions.

Costa Rica 1948, Nicaragua 1979

The uniqueness of Costa Rican development may possibly be based on the relative weakness of the dominating class formed in the 19th century, so that it had to accept new actors, values and the more modern political practices urged by the middle and popular classes of the rural and urban sectors. This process was accelerated by the 1948 civil war and its consequences, which led to a discontinuity within the dominating class: coffee producers lost power and new sectors emerged, bringing new values and political ideologies. After 1948 there was a "meso?cratization" of the dominating classes.

It is still not clear whether or not the Sandinista Revolution??the most radical experience in regional history??has implied a profound reconstruction of the Nicaraguan dominating class, apart from liquidating the Somocista clan. Nor was its support to Nicaragua's political modernization univocal, since it, like all revolutions of the 20th century, was authoritarian, and its end??through the 1990 electoral loss and the ironically termed piñata, the distribution among some revolutionary leaders of public goods gained through appropriations of Somocista holdings??smacks of the most archaic forms of state patrimonialism. It should be recalled that the political culture shared by the dominating groups has always underestimated politics as rule and practice, since the idea persists that there are meta?social principles to which any proclaimed constitutional or legal order should be subordinated. Over time, these meta?historical criteria have included progress, industrialization, development, revolution and, in more recent periods, national security and structural adjustment.

Behind the constant instability in Central American politics lies the long?term continuity of family, business and cultural networks and mentalities, characterizing the evolution of its dominating classes with a permanence that became a key factor in authoritarianism and failed attempts at democratization.

Discontinuity of Political Institutions

According to Macpherson, "What people believe about a political system is not apart from the system, but forms a part of it. These beliefs, however they are formed, effectively determine the limits and possibilities of the system's evolution." The fact that beliefs constitute a conditioning factor of the political system is key to understanding Latin American history in general, and that of Central America in particular. Diverse authors have noted that Latin American political elites from last century??starting with its most notable ones, like Simón Bolívar??believed that Spanish colonialism had left a dual heritage of government absolutism and a lack of civic virtues in the general population which did not permit the formation of a democratic republican system and led inevitably to the authoritarian formula. It was considered that the real people, not the ideal people of constitutional texts, were not yet ready for freedom.

The idea of a democracy postponed because the people were not prepared to fully use their civic rights was appropriately complemented by the assumption of the existence of supreme goals to be reached, for which everything should be sacrificed. This was the case of the consensus reached between Central America's Liberals and Conservatives around the slogan "Order and Progress," so well symbolized by the train system. There is a significant anecdote from Costa Rican politics in this regard: at the beginning of General Tomás Guardia's dictatorial government, he went to visit a typographer?journalist whom he had sent to jail for printing a seditious pamphlet against him. Responding to the criticisms expressed in the pamphlet, he synthetically and brutally spit out that "the Constitution will be coming in the mouth of the locomotive."

(There is no doubt that Central America's Liberal dictators were swift to enunciate such razor?edged phrases. Estrada Cabrera said to Liberal Guatemalan politician and writer Francisco Lainfiesta, "My proposal is to govern by law, unless I judge it necessary to distance myself from that law.")

Based on these meta?social principles, the existence of "transitory dictatorships," of Constitutions that are "cages with silk bars" rather than "strait jackets," blessed with "wide doors" to suspend individual guarantees, as well as the practice that Costa Rican essayist Mario Sancho called "gently twisting the arm of the law," have all appeared normal and irremediable.

In conditions in which word and reality took separate roads, the theatrical and farcical dimensions of Central American political ideologies and institutions were natural. Tribute was paid to form and rhetoric, but the important aspects went elsewhere. Nothing was more representative of the ethereal characteristic of political institutions than the electoral processes, which were always fiction and representation.

The Theatrics of Politics

Before each election, Estrada Cabrera founded his famous Liberal clubs to beg him to do the nation the favor of being reelected. His support was so unanimous that he received more votes in 1898 than the total number of Guatemala's registered voters. The Somoza dynasty was meticulous about such scenes, in which the vote was won not with terror but with alcohol and other tempting sweets. The Somozas were able on various occasions to install puppet Presidents while preserving control of the National Guard.

Elections also had an important fictitious element in Costa Rica until 1948. Electoral fraud was not an anomaly or a violation of the rules of political competition; on the contrary, it was a legitimate, normal and accepted modus operandi for all competitors, notwithstanding their rhetoric to the contrary. Once again the assumption that the people are not mature enough to govern themselves made fraud legitimate and necessary. Republican institutionality should be protected from the electorate, an easy victim of ignorance and manipulation. Thus the Liberal Rafael Iglesias, who governed Costa Rica with an iron hand from 1894 to 1902, destroyed the Catholic Union Party. In his autobiography, Iglesias justified that despotic logic with an eloquent illustration: "When a people goes mad to the point of attacking the accumulated treasure of free institutions, anyone who has in his hands the means to save those institutions has the duty to impose his will."

This authoritarian logic gave force to what we could call a continuist party of purely reelectionist logic. Nicaraguan Conservative Pedro Joaquín Cuadra Chamorro expressed this perspective clearly and ingenuously in a prologue to the 1912 publication of a fragment of journalist, politician and writer Enrique Guzmán's intimate diary: "Nicaraguan conservatism has always shown itself to be the jealous guardian of its own liberty and that of others. Our own parents, in their love for these principles, preferred to reclaim their values through arms rather than, obliged by historic necessity, submit in apparent compliance to the violation of a secondary principle such as alternatives in power."

In this way, representative political institutions have only partially served to channel conflicts and codify the rules of conduct among political actors. Guardia, Barrios and Zelaya fathered a Liberal Constitution in their respective countries??Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua??but none of them respected its rules while in government. A distinguished French historian, borrowing from Mexican Lucas Alemán, terms this phenomenon "regimes of democratic fiction" and notes that the concept of political representation in 19th century Hispanic America should also be understood in the theatrical sense of representation. The sovereign people can only exist as a symbol, not as an effective power.

Alliances Where Ideologies Count Little

Complementing this evanescent character of institutions that, like the Myth of Sisyphus, can never consolidate because they are forever starting over, is an interesting ideological phenomenon: the frequent shift by political leaders from one side or party to the other and the forming of alliances that in purely ideological terms appears contradictory. It is as if political ideas are only a weak reference point for the real behavior of actors in the political arena.

This cynicism or opportunism of the leading elites may result from the fact that family and personal ties and loyalties are more important to them than ideological affinities. Guatemalan Lorenzo Montúfar, the most noted Central American Liberal idealogue of the last century, tells a revealing anecdote: in 1848 the Conservative government ordered his imprisonment, but the officer in charge of the mission helped him escape, rather than jail him. A similar anecdote from 1903 is narrated by Nicaraguan Conservative Emiliano Chamorro: a generous and gentlemanly adversary who came to capture him allowed him to visit his step?father on his deathbed, and later let him escape.

We also have testimonies from two Costa Rican Presidents that are very representative of the relative significance of political ideologies. In 1921, Julio Acosta (1920?24) stated that bolshevism reigned in Costa Rica because small property owners dominated, while León Cortés (1936?1940) said totally naturally in a Presidential message at the end of the 1930s that Costa Ricans "are living a sane and comfortable socialism."

Golden Rule:
The Rich Don't Pay Taxes

The failure to consolidate political institutions has both ethical and material aspects. Ever since the Federal Republic (1824?1838), the central public powers of different Central American countries have been chronically indebted and lacking financial resources. Until the mid?20th century the primary incomes of Central American states were customs duties and earnings from monopolies like alcohol distillation. A Golden Rule that has not been challenged is that the rich do not pay taxes, which is aggravated by the generous concessionary policies of Central American states towards foreign investors in enclave economies and more recently in dependent industrialization.

The moral and material fragility of political institutions is linked to the fact that these institutions are barely separate from the interests of the dominating groups. The Somocista regime was an extreme case of this collusion but, even in Costa Rica, where public institutions appear to have been less indebted and more autonomous than in other countries in the region, José Figueres Ferrer, after winning the 1948 civil war, nationalized the banks partly because of the state's financial dependence on and subordination to private banking institutions.

The growth and multiplication of state institutions is a relatively recent phenomenon in Central American history, only about fifty years old. This development is relative and varies according to country. In this sense, the only state institution that can be considered old is the army. In the 19th century, the army was the most visible and permanent institution apart from customs, and its professionalization was one of the aspects of the Liberal reforms of the last third of the 19th century.

We should be clear, however, that modern Central American armies are a 20th century creation at the hand, either direct or indirect, of the United States. Before World War II, armies in the strict sense only existed in Guatemala and El Salvador, and in the opinion of US military experts, the Salvadoran army was the best. In Nicaragua, US occupation and the armed disputes between Conservatives and Liberals led to the creation of the National Guard at the end of the 1920s; and in Honduras, strong?man caudillo politics and the state's weaknesses delayed the formation of a modern army until the epoch of dictator Tiburcio Carías Andino (1933?1948).

The peculiar situation of Costa Rica's military institution has varied historically. In the period before the Liberal reforms, caudillo?led military institutions or armed bands did not have a significant presence, which is an important difference from other Central American countries and Latin American norms. Later, the army became the main institution of the Liberal state, but it is worth noting that, compared to other Central American countries in that period, Costa Rica demonstrated greater balance in military, education and development spending. Due to domestic and geopolitical political evolution, the army entered a decline at the end of World War I. In 1922, the State Department recognized that Costa Rica had voluntarily abandoned its army, and was replacing it with a civil guard. the US military attaché in San José reported in 1931 that the army had been virtually abolished some years earlier. It is with this view that we should consider the formal abolition of the army, declared by Figueres some months after the end of the 1948 civil war.

Coercive functions have predominated over legitimizing ones throughout the countries of the isthmus. The Liberal maxim to "educate the sovereign" has been practiced little, except in Costa Rica, where almost 70% of the population was literate by 1930. If we accept that the caudillo era has left indelible marks on Latin American political culture, we have to say that the absence of this tendency is one of the keys to Costa Rica's unique political development.

Segmented Political Integration Of the Subordinate Classes

One of the keys to understanding the nature of Central American political systems is the political and social situation of the subordinate rural classes. Perhaps the fundamental difference between Costa Rica and other Central American countries lies not in small coffee producers, but in the fact that Costa Rican peasants have been free since the end of the 18th century, in the sense that they have not been subjected to forms of extra?economic coercion. Their links with society's dominant sectors have been primarily mercantile and their relations with the state have included only low levels of repression and plundering.

In other Central American countries the last two centuries have seen a culture of violence based on various forms of extra?economic coercion in production relations. The dominating classes have considered it normal and legitimate to mistreat indigenous peoples, peasants and workers. One way to evaluate this phenomenon would be to try to measure the level of repression that rural social movements normally experience. There is an old constant, present in recent genocides and in the 1932 El Salvador massacre: massacres always take place in rural areas and they express the terror of the elite, middle class and ladinos faced with the waves of "oceans of Indians."

Curiously, the arrogance of the dominating classes towards indigenous peoples, ladinos and middle sectors has had as its counterpart a great obsequiousness to things foreign among all of these social groups, who live alienated from their own natural, historic, social and cultural experience. This "homeless mind" syndrome appears to have been characteristic of these sectors for at least half a century and its origin possibly lies in the codes of ethnic discrimination evolved in the colonial period.

A sharp foreign observer compared El Salvador to Costa Rica at the beginning of the 20th century and noted that both countries experienced order, with the difference that order was based on violence in El Salvador, while in Costa Rica it was based on peace, or consent. "It cannot be said that El Salvador is a peaceful country in the same sense as Costa Rica. The government is not in power because of popular respect for authority or because of the peoples' will, but because of force," commented Munro in 1918.

Even so, it would be totally inaccurate to think that the only link between the subordinate rural population and the dominating sectors and the state was repression. Relations of deference and paternalism have also existed between the oligarchies and the rural popular classes. In this sense, it may be correct to present the problem not in terms of "exclusion" in the sense that these groups are outside of the political system, but in terms of vertical integration under traditional forms of political domination: clientelism, cooptation and paternalism.

Indigenous and Peasants:
Not Just Cannon Fodder

The state and the elites must have a conscious segregationist posture according to which the modern forms of integrating the subordinate classes into the political system are used for the popular classes and urban middle groups, while the traditional political loyalties woven into relations with rural community associations, local governments and indigenous councils are applied in the rural world. We term this the segmented integration of the subordinate classes into the political system.

The proofs are multiple. Indigenous leaders who participated in the 1932 Salvadoran rebellion historically had very close links with the Meléndez Quiñónez dynasties (1913?27). For the greater part of his rule (1931?1944), Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico enjoyed indigenous support; the close link between Estrada Cabrera and the Momostec Indians is also known. Rafael Carrera invented this cooptation and clientelist policy towards Guatemalan indigenous and other rural populations at the end of 1830 and all Liberal dictators later continued it. In synthesis, one must abandon the idea that dictators and authoritarian regimes lacked forms of legitimation and that their only political recourse was a simple exercise of violence and terror.

The peasant and indigenous participants in the recurring civil wars of last century were more than cannon fodder. This was true in Nicaragua with the Matagalpas, who were fearless combatants, and in El Salvador from 1860 to 1890 with the Cojutepeques, headed by strong?man José María Rivas. The subordinate classes in general and rural population in particular played a fundamental role in the formative phase of national states; it is impossible to understand the existence of local caudillos without recognizing the presence of armed indigenous and peasant mobilizations.

The Liberals' Old Politics and Modern Reforms

Contrary to what is often thought, participation by these social subjects cannot be seen merely as the manipulation of those below by those on top. It would be more useful to propose that subordinate groups participated in these conflicts with their own agenda. Perhaps the central element of that agenda was resistance to the meddling of the emerging state in rural community life, especially by imposing taxes. This turbulent aspect of the rural masses, stimulated by disputes between elites, was relevant in Nicaragua in the first half of the 19th century.

An obvious change began in 1870 with the initiation of the Liberal reforms, when caudillo politics began to decline and central power consolidated, but the Liberal dictators did not lack their own paternalistic policies toward indigenous peoples and peasants. It was not for nothing that critics of authoritarianism thought that dictators had their social base in the rural sectors. In any of these stages, we cannot understand and interpret Central American political history without studying social and political relations between the subordinate rural population and the political class, military and state.

The contrast between traditional rural and modern urban politics is clearly expressed in Liberal conduct towards workers and artisan manufacturers. The Liberals brought together these social groups to participate, under well?defined parameters, in their "democratic fictions" of apparent electoral competition. They were also the first popular interlocutors in the project to create a national identity. This strategy of seducing the "working class" to achieve a segmented integration into the political system was typical of the Liberal period and only changed with worker radicalization in the 1920s. In the opinion of one close collaborator, it was carefully considered in the case of Guatemalan dictator Justo Rufino Barrios (1873?1885): "Mrs. Barrios had given birth for the first time on June 23, 1875. The daughter was baptized Helena, and Barrios wanted her godfather to be the honored artisan and tailor Francisco Quezada and his wife, Ambrosia Q. de Quezada, both humble workers. By choosing the Quezadas to be godparents, Don Rufino tried to show his democratic tendencies...."

The plebian nature of modern politics and its articulation into a national identity discourse penetrated the subordinate classes through the urban labor world. In some cases this dissemination appears to have encountered difficulties extending to the rural world. One way to measure the openness and modernity of political systems in the isthmus is thus the level of success in forging a national identity. In this sense, it is no coincidence that Costa Rica has a strong national identity.

The concept of citizen differed between rural and urban popular sectors. This is where Costa Rica is unique, since coffee farmers in that country acquired high social and political visibility starting in the last century and were key in the development of political participation by subordinate classes, in democratization and reforms and in the construction of a nation as an imagined community.

Until 1979, the inadequacy of conceptualizing Central American politics in terms of exclusion as a synonym for the marginalization of subordinated classes is shown by looking at the complex and contradictory relations that "old" Somoza maintained with the worker?artisan movement. In the 1940s the dictator had a typically populist project of subordinated integration for these social sectors, in order to convert them into his regime's social base, a project that these sectors were obviously prepared to embrace.

Middle Classes: A New Key

The political participation of subordinate classes, whether by modern or traditional means, had precise limits. At the end of the 1920s, Central American urban workers adopted radical ideologies and tried to get closer to rural popular sectors to organize and mobilize them. They were repressed in that intent and their groups were liquidated by the authoritarian regimes that emerged at the beginning of the 1930s. Not even the rebirth of the urban worker movement through reformist experiments in the 1940s managed to develop given the counterrevolutionary offensive of the first years of the Cold War.

One constant in Central American political development was that the states and oligarchies never consented to the autonomous organization of subordinate classes into social movements or parties. The difference between urban and rural has been that controlled union organization was tolerated in the urban world, while no form of secular or modern organization was considered legitimate in the rural one.

It must be recognized that when rural social organization emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, the state and dominating sectors tried to modernize their mechanisms to socially control the rural population by supporting controlled grassroots organizations from cooperativism to the more clearly counterinsurgent groups promoted and controlled by the army. The latter include the Civil Self?Defense Patrols among Guatemala's indigenous and ORDEN in El Salvador. In the 1950s banana workers also consolidated their unions in Honduras and Costa Rica.

Since the 1920s, when the worker?artisan sectors became less reliable because of anarchism and communism, authoritarianism began to see a potential substitute in the middle classes. The Civic Guards created in El Salvador in 1932 to finish the task of cleaning out communism that had begun with "the massacre" recruited many of their most fervent members from the middle sectors. Nonetheless, these sectors also served as liberators from the Central American dictatorships in the 1940s. A key aspect of Central America's recent history is that the middle sectors are now recruited for both the revolutionary banner and state terrorism.

With the exception of Costa Rica, the middle classes have never expressed clear and definitive support for a democratic project and modernization of the political system. As Latin American historical experience demonstrates, middle class adhesion to and participation in reform and democratization processes is a key factor if these processes are to be successful and lasting.

Another key of Central American political evolution is the permanent gap and mutual distrust between the middle and popular classes. The reformist middle class sectors frequently view the rural sector and urban workers as too docile and complacent toward the oligarchy. This gap appears to be one cause of the failure of Guatemala's 1954 reformist project. As former Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas said, Guatemala carried out an urban revolution in a rural country.

"Indianized:" Servile or Unredeemed

The middle classes and their spokespeople end up behaving towards the popular classes in a manner similar to the dominating sectors. An extreme belief is seeing the "Indian" as the natural servant of the dictatorship. Its counterpart is the idea that people from below only understand anything is literally by beating it into them. Such prejudices legitimize the different dimensions of authoritarianism and political elitism.

The problem of political development in the region is that traditional forms of collecting political loyalty have predominated in the framework of a violent culture. A democratic political system cannot be established when the majority of the population is expected behave deferentially toward superiors and is seen as an obstacle rather than a principal subject of the functioning of political institutions.

A prejudice has always existed both on the left and on the right that common people are never sufficiently prepared to think and decide for themselves. To this should be added that all political elites??Conservative, Liberal, reformist, neoliberal or revolutionary??have always considered certain social goals are more important than any other consideration, such finding out what common people really think, want or need.


1940-1970:
Worn Out and Breaking Apart

In 1921, Diario del Salvador published an editorial titled "The Central American Agitators," dividing the isthmus' political history into periods. It indicated that in former times, which fortunately will not return, military caudillos produced constant instability and unrest in the countries. Fortunately, these caudillos lost credibility because Central Americans chose the road of order and progress. Even so, according to this respected Salvadoran newspaper, a new plague of "agitators" appeared in recent times; the editorial describes them as "a few people who have swallowed bolshevik readings from books translated from the Russian devil."

The editorialist was not wrong in his perception that the 1920s had ushered in regional social agitation. He was also right in recalling that, after Independence, Central America's political history was dominated by disputes between Liberal and Conservative caudillos, quarrels that were just being extinguished at the end of the 19th century. But he was incorrect to say that caudillismo had disappeared, since at that very moment it still existed in Nicaragua and Honduras.

If we decide to travel back in time we should recognize that in 1978?79, with the beginning of full?fledged wars and revolutions, the region entered a new stage of its history. The model of social and political relations inherited from the turn?of?the?century Liberal reforms seemed to have finally worn out after attempts??unsuccessful except in Costa Rica ??to change it in the 1940s. The caudillo era existed before that one, inaugurated in the years of Independence and the Federation and now forever buried, according to the Salvadoran journalist.

In each one of these stages the subordinate rural and urban sectors have exercised pressure and processed the resulting resolutions, not only as armed men at the side of their caudillos, as loyal friends of dictators ready to serve in their electoral farces or their repressive and police forces, but also resisting the demands of ladinos, bureaucrats or landlords, and, as the 20th century has advanced, as flagwavers for social reform and democratic rights. Throughout these stages the majority of the dominating classes remained loyal to their despotic and deferential culture and "democratic fictions." Between 1940 and 1970 signs were clear that this structure, as well as attempts at democratization and reform, was wearing out. But adhesion to the past persisted and was even strengthened by US strategic interests in the region.

The Role of the United States

We have deliberately omitted external factors in our analysis because we believe that the isthmus' authoritarianism?democracy dialectic has primarily resulted from domestic factors. When the United States established its hegemony over the region at the end of the last century, the region was already well on its way to perfecting its despotic forms of government. It is worth noting, by way of example, that State Department officials, worried about Panama Canal security during the 1920s, designed various strategies to establish demilitarized protectorates in the region based on financially healthy states with governments that would be chosen in truly competitive electoral processes. The imperial power was convinced that it could lead our countries to democratic regimes under its tutelage.

The plan failed not only because of US conflicts and contradictions. To play the devil's advocate: maybe if Sandino, Moncada, Chamorro and Somoza had not existed, Nicaragua could have become a protectorate with a competitive and trustworthy electoral system. In other words, external factors are not demiurges that, at their whim, can move domestic structures built up over the long term. This has been true up to the present, although we cannot say, given the characteristics of today's world, if it will continue to be so in the future.

Despotism and Democracy

Central American despotism has gone through three stages: the caudillos and their supporters against an almost nonexistent state; the liberalism of dictators guided by the slogan "Order and Progress"; and, after a reformist interlude following World War II, the developmentalist military dictators.

It is also possible to discern the main threads of democratization in Central American history. There were already ephemeral attempts in the last century: for example, in El Salvador in 1885, with the "populist" revolution of Liberal Francisco Menéndez, and in Costa Rica with the November 7, 1889 campaign, when a popular uprising forced the government to respect an opposition electoral victory. Estrada Cabrera's fall in 1920 and the Unionist Party, which lasted until December 1921, were other similar moments in the Guatemalan case.

The broader democratizing tendencies are found well into the 20th century. The first important wave of openings, which affected almost the entire isthmus, took place from 1925 to 1930 and closed with the rise of dictators during the 1930s depression. Its greatest expression was the Pío Romero Bosque government in El Salvador (1927?1931), which genuinely tried to open up that country's political system and make it more competitive. The second wave came at the end of World War II and its greatest proponent was the Guatemalan revolutionary decade, aborted by the US intervention in 1954. The last stage was begun in 1979 in a context of revolution, war and counterinsurgency. From a long?term perspective, the logic of Central American democratization and reform processes can be summarized by saying that, while the efforts have had a cumulative affect in Costa Rica, they were always spasmodic and abortive in other Central American countries until the last decade.

The 1980s and 1990s represent a stage of discontinuity in Central America's history over the last two centuries. Revolution and war can be considered an expression of the fatigue of some structures that have persisted secularly.

Some of these ruptures can be noted. In the first place, there appears to be a phenomenon of change within the dominating class because the military has become a powerful sector of it, with autonomous interests and its own economic base. This appears to be the case in Guatemala and Honduras. In Nicaragua, the traditional union of dominating classes seems to have been fractured by the end of the Sandinista revolution. Some recent analysts do not admit this discontinuity and insist on the perennial nature of the isthmus' dominating classes in family and genealogical terms, although they recognize that dominating groups currently manifest some tendencies to modernize in the political field.

What's New?

Among the subordinate classes, the most significant change, before and during the revolution and war years, has been the independence of the rural popular classes from traditional networks of civic segregation, violence and paternalism. If something is new in Central America's recent history, it is the entrance of peasants and indigenous into modern politics, from the most institutionalized to the most radical??like armed struggle. Without a doubt, the 1980s revolutions were first and foremost peasant and indigenous rebellions. And this also applies to the Nicaraguan contras.

Finally, the traditional theatricality of the institutional framework also eroded in the years preceding the revolutionary chain of events. One cause of the Salvadoran insurgence was successive electoral fraud in the 1970s. Perhaps the new meaning that different social groups are giving to democratic institutions and norms is best represented by the surprising results of the 1990 Nicaraguan elections.

In sum, an exploration of the last two centuries of Central American history shows that the region's essential program has been to oppose and postpone key ruptures when possible, or make only partial and incomplete changes. A century after the rise of liberalism in the region, we are just beginning to discover the virtues of democratic political competition and it is still to early to state that this discovery will translate into durable institutions.

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