Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 56 | Febrero 1986


Central America

The Political Factor

Envío team

Central America today is characterized by the tension between the social forces that are willing to subordinate themselves to US policy, which defines the area as a field of East-West confrontation, and those that want self-determination and a depolarization of the area. The former give in to a project that is simply trying to maintain its spheres of influence, unconcerned that political power is organized only for the benefit of the minority. The latter are demanding power so as to reorganize society in the service of the majority, viewing that majority also as the protagonist of the political initiative. Such a project requires breaking out of the sphere of influence of one superpower, and diversifying the region’s structural dependency, both politically and economically.

Counterinsurgency—the “toll” of democratization

Aspirations for democracy are old in Central America. Forty years ago, Guatemala gave vent to them in a nationalist process that lasted a decade (1944-1954) before it was frustrated by CIA intervention. The United States, meanwhile, gave sustenance to a dynastic dictatorship (the Somozas) in Nicaragua for 45 years, and has tolerated authoritarian military regimes in El Salvador for 50 years and in Guatemala for 30.

Looking only at history since 1970, in El Salvador these regimes engaged in scandalous frauds in 1972 and 1977, disappointing expectations for a democratic-representative political solution among a large part of the population (more than 70% of the electorate participated in those elections). In Guatemala, where illusions have been fewer since the democratic rupture in 1954, the minority that participated in elections in 1974, 1978 and 1982 was treated to similar electoral frauds. In the face of all this, successive US governments barely blinked.

Only after the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua and the revolutionary advances in El Salvador and Guatemala did the United States and, begrudgingly, the Central American military, try to soften the more brutal features of the existing political-military order and concern themselves with opening up a “democratization” process. An effort was made to dismantle the old oligarch-military alliance, which had failed to contain the numerous struggles for popular participation. In place of this would come a new alliance—of which the military would continue to be part—that would govern without a loss of US domination over the region or any of the countries within it.

In El Salvador and Honduras, this agreement led to the exit of the military from government, or at least from its highest pinnacles. With greater autonomy, the Guatemalan military came to the same formula. The most lucid and modernizing representatives of the capitalist class agreed with this measure, realizing that management of the state offered the armed institutions too many opportunities to use it as a source of capital accumulation in competition with them as well as too many temptations for corruption.

The new effort—itself vulnerable to corruption through US economic-military assistance—is to limit the military role to giving professional leadership to the counterinsurgency war (or in the case of Honduras, to prepare it to be the spearhead of a regional armed conflict, should it come to that). The military should be no less effective, just more respectful of juridical forms in the tasks of security and selective repression, as well as more attentive to international public opinion.

In Guatemala, the military role goes further, extending to the management of “development” projects whose connection to security and emphasis on control of the highland indigenous populations are obvious. Although the Guatemalan scheme is more autonomous, it coincides fully with the overall interests promoted by the US regional project.

What is being debated today in Costa Rica is the possible “Central Americanization” of its atypical “civilista” model, which means traveling backward along the same road. The objective is to recreate an army, reinforce the current security apparatus and even allow a US military presence. Representatives of this tendency (both new and traditional Conservatives), operating within such traditional parties as the National Liberation Party (PLN) and Social Christian Unity (USC), propose it in opposition to other members of their parties who defend the old model.

To carry out this restructuring of power and thus slow down the erosion of legitimacy while respecting US hegemony, all the countries that not had them before have become immersed in elections, accompanied in some cases by the formulation of a new Constitution. From the various constituent or general elections, neo-Conservatives or centrist Christian Democrats have been emerging as important arms of an overall counter-insurgency project.

Among the protagonists of this new “recomposition of power,” the most lucid honestly recognize the limits of their own projects. As Guatemala’s President-elect, Vinicio Cerezo, said recently to a Dutch journalist, “On what will the real possibility to govern depend? On international pressure, on my own political ability, on the appeal that I can awaken among the organizable masses... and on the military. You can be sure I will not be a puppet President of the military. At worst, therefore, we’ll probably see each other in a few months in Miami.”

The rise and maturing of the new revolutionary grassroots subject and its entrance into the political scene as a military force, has obliged the military regimes and imperialism to design a “democratization” process, conceived of as a “toll” that must be paid to try to maintain the stability of their power in the isthmus. It is, as well, part of a more grandiose counterinsurgency strategy.

Christian Democracy—
Power Brokers in a Power Vacuum

“Democratization” is an effort to recompose power, to promote centist parties into government as an expression of bourgeois interests yet concede quotas of power to representatives of the rising middle classes and technocrats. This would leave the ideologically, if not economically, backward oligarchies to one side, branded, together with the military, as responsible for the erosion of legitimacy. It is in reality a modernizing, social-reformist capitalist model that has been tried, in its time, in Guatemala (1944—54), in El Salvador (in 1960 and again in the 70s), and once more in Guatemala (in the 70s). All those efforts were fought by the oligarchies, repressed and later replaced by the military institutions, and actively or passively opposed by the United States.

In those earlier periods Christian Democrats were capable of bringing out impressive contingents of peasants, state employees, some student organizations, small commercial and urban transport groups and the already mentioned middle classes, particularly professionals and technicians. They are trying to reconvene this hoped-for social base once again, particularly in the countries where the revolutionary movements have shown themselves strongest.

Christian Democracy’s access to government, however, is made possible only through a compromise with the military. The most likely result, as appears already demonstrated in the first year of the Duarte government in El Salvador, will be the permanence of repression-—that is, a “restricted democracy.” The first restriction of this democracy is that the military won’t be held accountable for its terrible excesses of repression. Furthermore, it will still have a wide margin for selective repression, through control of state security. Defense and security budgets will also remain under its control.

Given the probable inability of the new governments to ensure respect for human rights and attain peace under such conditions, the model will lose the attraction it now has for many people who are tired of the repression and haven’t taken the revolutionary decision to sustain the consequences of a prolonged war. In Central America Christian Democracy doesn’t seem to have the capacity to produce an Alfonsin, or even a civilian defense minister as in Spain’s post-Franco social democracy.

Social reforms could constitute a form of legitimacy for this reconstitution of power. The oligarchies, however, refuse to accept a greater tax burden and both they and the capitalists tenaciously resist bringing back any of their dollars for productive investments. This reduces the sources of financing for the kinds of social reforms that US aid and multilateral credit would be disposed to initiate. US aid, when given in notable amounts, such as in El Salvador, gets caught up in efforts to obtain a private investment counterpart, and alone can do no more than detain the shrinkage of the economy.

For Guatemala’s part, its new Constitution makes agrarian reform almost impossible and, in the constituent debates, explicitly excluded any social function for private property. In El Salvador, the strength of the oligarchy has paralyzed the not-yet applied phases of the agrarian reform aid has even reversed some of those already in place. Under such conditions it is hard for Christian Democracy to keep a social base among the popular majorities that support it for the possible reforms.

The final source for a social base left to Christian Democracy—the middle sectors and petty bourgeoisie—has been very limited in its development in Guatemala aid El Salvador due to the concentration of wealth and stagnation of industrial development. No space has existed to constitute an independent political alternative of any import. The tendency of Christian Democracy in those countries has always been to cede to the project of the traditional historic subject and join it, or else to enlist in the revolutionary ranks.

A future devoid of social reality is probably being created for Christian Democracy. It is attempting to function in this void, taking advantage of the fissure in the definition of power brought about by the unconcluded political confrontation between real forces. It can play a “power broker” role, however, because it can satisfy various needs in this period of indefinition. It offers the military a commitment of real power without the erosion suffered by being in the front lines of government; it presents a facade of respectability that can appease the scruples of US congress people when voting on aid for the Central American regimes’ struggles against the new historic subject—a similar role to that of Europe’s center-right governments and parties). It satisfies the demands of the new technocratic middle sectors tied to sources of investment from foreign aid; it offers the more advanced sectors of the old oligarchy and the more progressive bourgeoisie a platform to join the modernizing economic ideology. Among some grassroots sectors it raises expectations of peace, an end to repression, dialogue with the revolutionaries and social reforms. Furthermore, insofar as it remains credible in the short run, it can carry out a subtle but effective counterinsurgency role. Meanwhile, it can use the space to build a relatively strong party that offers political work and a way of life to its officials and technicians.

It is attempting to achieve all this under the banner of a democratic opening. It can even do so with some conviction since it’s opening a temporary, albeit cosmetically presented, new space for political debate. What it hopes to keep under wraps, however, is that whatever real opening there is in the political scheme is a conquest of the revolutionary struggle.

At a moment in which the political project of the traditional historical subject is breaking up under the threat from the revolutionary projects of the new historical subject and is unable to legitimately reimpose itself in the medium run, Christian Democracy comes into the breach. Its character is that of a “power broker”—without a real social base but able to capitalize on aspirations for peace, a cessation of repression and social reforms with promises that are likely to fail for lack of real power.

The clash between grassroots
demands and restricted democracy

The fundamental flaw in the Central American “democratization” model can be found in Christian Democracy’s political style. The new historic subject in Central America has accumulated demands of both representative and participatory democracy. The latter aren’t satisfied by the political reformism of Christian Democracy, which fears the masses’ political action and doesn’t trust them. When Christian Democrats ran the government in Chile and Venezuela, they did so within the basic political style of representative democracy. Their “communitarianism” program never encouraged grassroots organizations that would lead the political scene as a complement to the institutions of representative democracy.

The first test of “democratization” began and has already almost ended in Honduras. Suazo Cordoba’s liberalism isn’t Christian Democracy (which is marginal and leftist in Honduras), but a Christian Democratic type of power-brokering that doesn’t even have the minimum conditions for growth, given the lack so far of revolutionary pressure or convincing grassroots organization. This also explains the miserliness of the US in the amounts of economic aid it has been willing to part with. All told, Honduran “democratization” isn’t even able to respond to the mildly articulated demands for participatory democracy.

Its most marked result has been the progressive denationalization of the Honduran state. It has complemented the most profound economic dependence on the United States in all of Central America with an almost unlimited willingness to convert the country into a military platform of US policy toward Nicaragua and El Salvador. A country that never emulated Guatemala, El Salvador or Nicaragua in their recourse to repression, it has, in this trial of democracy, entered on the road of torture, assassination and disappearances. All that occurred mainly during the grotesque command of General Alvarez over the armed forces, but the cover-up of those responsible continues. The only thing that remains of the agrarian reform initiated by some nationalist military leaders after the second coup of Oswaldo López Arellano, is its paralysis The indices of rural misery, unproductive urban overcrowding and education have shot up.

In El Salvador, the first year of a Christian Democratic government made no progress on the demands to humanize the conflict that’s ripping the country apart. Treatment of the civilian population as belligerents has increased, with indiscriminate bombings, destruction of living conditions and attacks on field hospitals. The country is still under a state of siege, and repression, while more selective, is aimed at the poor and still reaches barbarous figures (more than 1,000 murdered in one year). Only pressure resulting from the kidnapping of the President’s daughter allowed those maimed by the war to be allowed leave the country for medical attention. None of those responsible for the repression have been brought to justice. The negotiations have been interrupted and the government has failed to fulfill the accords already reached. The paralyzing and even rollback of the agrarian reform has already been mentioned. The demands of large capital have been tolerated and the growing mobilizations of salaried workers and state employees have been branded subversive. The prohibition of strikes and the armed occupation of the Social Security Hospital and ANTEL (telecommunications), both extreme cases, highlight Christian Democracy’ s inbility to fulfill its social-reformist promises, to say nothing of the limits of its commitment to participatory democracy.

At bottom, however, the issue is its lack of a social base to force—assuming it would like to force—a fundamental change in the strategic policy of liquidating the revolutionary movement by prolonging and intensifying the war. In these circumstances the repressive, warlike and anti-reformist character of Duarte’s real policy is unmasking Christian Democracy as a power broker lacking any quota of power and independent from the political interests of the United States, the military and the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, the splitting of its precarious working base—the UPD—indirectly reinforces the revolutionary grassroots subject. Finally, the degree of absenteeism in the 1985 municipal and legislative elections (57%) prevents the Christian Democratic Party from considering the results a reaffirmation of its popular mandate.

The second round of presidential elections has given victory to Guatemalan Christian Democracy. In January, then, the third trial of democratization initiated in the isthmus by the collective power broker will begin. Its candidate, Vinicio Cerezo, has various advantages over Duarte. He will not arrive to government stained with the blood spilled by repression, and his margin of victory (over the center, not the militant ultra-Right, which didn’t even get to the second round!) is greater than Duarte’s (68% to 32%).

He might try to alleviate the burden that the self-financing of the war has placed on the Guatemalan economy. An injection of US aid, however, will go no further in Guatemala than it has in El Salvador in channeling funds to social reforms. Furthermore, the iron chains of yet another oligarchic Constitution could effectively hobble Christian Democracy’ s reformist tendencies, unless the constitutional block against agrarian reform is avoided through the sneaky method of imposing harsh taxes on idle lands.

If the military stalemate in El Salvador means that neither of the rivals sees the need to negotiate peace in order to survive, a balance sheet of the war in Guatemala reinforces the tendency of the military and the bourgeoisie to emphasize repressive control over developmentalist reforms as a way to reinforce the system’ s security. Given the clear and intransigent determination of the Guatemalan military and bourgeoisie, a third of the registered voters abstained from the first round of elections. Fewer than 25% of those registered voted for Christian Democracy, which can be interpreted as largely comprising an active repudiation of the traditionally violent Right. In the second round, abstentions, together with the annulled and blank votes, reached 40%, about equal to those who voted for Christian Democracy.

In Guatemala the democratic opening seems, even more than elsewhere, to be preferentially oriented toward its international policy and an effort to salvage the economic system. The confrontation between the two historic subjects is less mediated by external factors than in any other country, and the democratization model will thus probably encounter the greatest difficulties. The sudden brutality of the economic crisis and the cruel marks left by repression generate a potential for rebellion that would be hard to counteract by such a corralled model.

The grassroots eruptions of August-September 1985 didn’t result in greater organizational unity, which indicates that the probable failures of the future Christian Democratic regime won’t be assimilated as political advantages by the revolutionary subject as quickly as in El Salvador. At the same time, however, they demonstrate that not even the most horrendous repression has managed to totally intimidate the current of rebellion that runs through the population.

The accumulated demands for participatory democracy clash relatively soon with the project of restricted democracy. Each act of repression and each mobilization in favor of social demands labeled subversive undermines the project’s credibility, unmasking the true nature of Christian Democracy or similar solutions. To the degree that the new historical subject maintains the revolutionary pressure, these demands are transformed into political-military advantages for the revolutionary movement.

Contradictions of Democratization

1. Promises to oppose repression/Military says no An end to repression and terror is one of the most profound aspirations of the Central American peoples, having been bent by the weight of both for fifty years. Any democratization project has no recourse but to include this among its promises. Despite all that, repression has been the increasingly massive, brutal yet sophisticated response of the security and military forces to any grassroots mobilization that threatens to seriously modify the traditional power scheme.

It must not be forgotten that in Central America, where revolutionary violence has been made use of by the new historic subject, this strategy has been the final link in a chain of very serious and peaceful efforts to dislodge the system’s institutional violence. The growth of revolutionary violence is a consequence of the fact that the old historic subject accepted and even sought the militarization of its policy. It thus declined any responsibility for constructing consensual hegemony and handed over to the military a despotic or dictatorial from of government that has evolved to the point of subverting the function of the armed forces from defense of sovereignty into the almost exclusive one of controlling the majorities and protecting the oligarchy.

The most revolutionary thing the Sandinista model has achieved in Nicaragua is precisely a true grassroots politicization of the armed forces, their real submission to a political power and the decision that they respect popular protagonism. In the last six and a half years neither the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) nor the police have clashed with the people, with the exception of the Atlantic Coast where incomprehension of the ethnic factors led to conflicts that are today being corrected.

It is precisely this popular politicization of the military and security forces that the Central American military cannot accept in the Nicaraguan model. To protect itself from the shadow cast on its survival by the armed revolutionary organizations, the Central American military is developing exaggerated mechanisms of preventive control which read any form of “return to the barracks” as unconditional surrender. Vinicio Cerezo, while still the presidential candidate, expressed this with realism and resignation: “The past must be forgotten. Any other way the entire army would have to be arrested. Guatemala isn’t Argentina.”

Duarte, despite his impotent experience as member and later President of the Second Government Junta in El Salvador (1980-82), made bolder promises to do away with repression. We’ve already seen his inability to control the military. The judicial responsibility that he has been unable to exact from the military has been exacted of the Sandinista Popular Army through its own military code against any of its members who commit crimes against the population. Various military members (and some FSLN militants as well) have been sentenced to 30 years in prison and stripped of their rank. The inability to convince the other militaries to try out a less controlling and more consensual exercise of power is a contradiction, perhaps an insuperable one, which the governments of democratization will have to face.

2. Promises of social reforms/ Oligarchies and bourgeoisie say noSocial reforms, which reform the sharing of the social product and access to the means to produce it, have become questions of life or death for the Central American peoples, whose vital needs are not being met. Any democratization project must seriously modify the logic of an economy that means a life of growing security and luxury for the minorities and of growing insecurity and misery for the majorities.

Defense of the minorities’ economic logic has always been a non-negotiable objective of the old oligarchies and even of many technologically advanced capitalist sectors. The atavistic reappearance of the Spanish colonial viewpoint considers the worker, peasant or indigenous person much more inferior than would capitalists from the northern countries. This gravely reinforces the weight of the relation of superior to inferior with which the dominant classes of all systems of exploitation interpret and justify inequality in the sharing of the social product.

To this atavism must be added the structure of the economy in the peripheral countries of world capitalism. This structure, which permanently and increasingly subordinates the peripheral economy to that of the central ones, impedes the former from obtaining the fruits owed its productive capacities in world exchange. (This point has been developed in the analysis of the economic factor). The oligarchies and bourgeoisies understand that this peripheral capitalism doesn’t have the luxury of serious reforms without undermining the society’s entire class structure. They have defended themselves from this perspective and will continue to do so. Maintaining their cultural superiority and continuing their material lifestyles at all costs has required repression and they have thus accepted ceding government to the force of arms.

The new “center” is giving an oft-used and always bankrupt idea another spin—“novel” formulas to increase private capital, by making more cooperatives and more petty entrepreneurs. It is, in more familiar words, the modernization’s “trickle-down” recipe uselessly recommended by so many North American academics of the developmentalist school of the 1960s. On this point as well, the greatest lucidity comes from Guatemala. The Christian Democrats’ program abstains from the reformist language that would be characteristic in another time and pins all its hopes on recovering foreign aid and investment for its project. The problem is that foreign aid and investment have been used already. Lacking the political will to change the logic of the economy, the first has been revealed as a source of corruption and an easy substitute for domestic productive investment, and the second as a pump that carries the autochthonous social product outside the country and subsidizes salaries for foreign capital. In Guatemala, more than any other country, it is clear that “democratization” won’t even touch social reforms, but will try to prolong the life of a political system that precisely guarantees the exclusion of reforms.

The promises of the Christian Democratic Party in El Salvador point to consolidation of new owners in the agrarian sector that came out of the agrarian reform. Incentive funds, on the other hand, have been assigned to the large producers of traditional export products. The justification has been the creation of 300,000 jobs. The government now speaks of agrarian reform as “already done,” thus evidently accepting the regressions and dead stops that the Constituent Assembly dominated by the Right (1982-84) imprinted on it. Meanwhile the latest figures show an open unemployment of 36% and a hidden figure of 60%. At the same time private investment continues dropping (-2.6% in 1984, and an accumulated drop of -87% between 1979 and 1983).

The domestic economy of the majorities is still deteriorating due to the combined effect of overall zero growth, an inflation rate that is higher for the most necessary consumer goods than for other goods, insufficient salary increases, and the continued drop in purchasing power of income. The lack of promotion of popular participation and attacks on the growing mobilizations complete the picture offered by the contradiction between promises and realizations. The shadows of the oligarchy and the bourgeoisie seem to fall like lead on the democratization project.

On this point, as on that of militarization itself, the Costa Rican democratic model is in a dangerous slide into “democratization.” The new and traditional conservatives—both more prevalent among the Social Christians—and to some degree the Liberationists are in favor of a “liberal equilibrium” that promotes more or less drastic submission to IMF programs and a turning over of the dynamic areas of capital accumulation to foreign investors. Some proposals even include the extreme of outlawing labor organizations. The growing economic inequality that has corroded the structural base of small rural property threatens now to try to liquidate the social security and services system that Costa Rican democracy raised. In Costa Rica the bourgeoisie is traveling the road in the opposite direction from the other countries, but towards the same objective: the restriction of democracy.

3. Promises of negotiations/Imperialism says no The shadow that looms longest over the Central American democratization projects, however, is cast by the contradiction between the promises of negotiated peace and the interests of imperialist domination. The price in blood that the majority of the population is paying in its emergence as a new historic subject gives rise to another of people’s most deeply felt aspirations: the cry for peace.

This aspiration is denied to Nicaragua under circumstances in which the new conditions of popular power could direct the collective energies toward reconstruction and development. The denial extends to Honduras, putting it right on the edge of being implicated in a regional conflict, and to Costa Rica, poisoned with an injection of ideological propaganda that feeds on fear and hatred toward the new Nicaraguan society. Both countries are being denationalized, made intransigent bearers of the imperialist voice in Contadora.

In El Salvador, the internal negotiations have been stalemated because the United States sees them primarily as a publicity springboard to discredit the Sandinistas for not accepting the logic of symmetry, and secondarily as another form of winning the war. On the other hand, the Christian Democratic government has been increasingly forced into the role of team leader in defending the US obstructionist thesis regarding peace in Contadora.

The problem of domestic peace is not even proposed in the Guatemalan democratization project; it is laid out as a problem of “pacification,” a euphemism for destruction of the adversary. In recent years US inspiration hasn’t been needed for this; Israel and the convictions of the military and oligarchy themselves have been enough. The Christian Democratic democratization project is threatened by Guatemala’s position favoring peaceful coexistence with Sandinista Nicaragua. That coexistence may be the price exacted by the US for much-needed multilateral economic aid. Peace in Central America is contradicted by the gravedigger who announces Pax Americana in the democratization projects.

“Democratization” faces three major contradictions. The promises of a cessation of repression clash with the interests of the military in their conduct of the war. The promises of social reforms clash with the interests of the old historic subject. Finally, the promises of dialogue and negotiation, to the extent that they arise, clash with the interests of imperialism, which is trying to mediate their result—peace—with the unvarying maintenance of its domination.

Prolongation of the conflict
and popular participation

The political fact of the conquest and the consequences it brought by suppressing the conquered as protagonists of history have been a continuing source of rebellion in Central America. Historical chronicles record over 300 uprisings among the Guatemalan indigenous peoples between the conquest and today. In the last 50 years, semi-spontaneous insurrections, strikes with more political and less simply economic content, marches for profound reforms, fraudulently modified electoral results, and particularly the growth of grassroots organizations, have all given proof of the enormous demand for political participation on which the new historic subject insists. From a people dominated and humiliated for centuries is coming the demand to participate in the organization of society, production, policy and culture, and for a strong reduction of the state’s coercive character.

The coming to power of the new historic subject in Nicaragua offers the confirmation of this aspiration as clearly as possible. Not a few observers and analysts of Central America have expressed the view that the Sandinistas are repeating the game of the old historic subject, trying to grab power as an end in itself, becoming authoritarian dominators of the grassroots organizations and ending by becoming corrupted. Facts refute the view that this is a major trend in the Sandinistas’ real political practice.

The low organizational level of the grassroots movements in Nicaragua, if compared, for example, with what has taken place in El Salvador and Guatemala, led the FSLN and the Nicaraguan state to confide in more than just its links with the expressly organized sectors of society. It has had to feel the pulse of the people in various creative ways, among which can be highlighted the open discussion in the “De Cara al Pueblo” meetings, steadfastly held week after week due to the political will on the part both of those in the earlier Government Junta and the current President of the Republic to listen, consult and respond. Government structures, laws, initiatives and policies have often had their moment of inspiration in these dialogues—later maturing, although not always yet fully so—through expert technical and political discussion. This hasn’t been an exercise in demagogic populism, but an effort to go beyond doctrines or specialized experts, directly to the logic of popular needs.

At the same time the people’s organizational growth has continued to be promoted. “Leaderism” has at times supplanted authentic leadership, but this participatory consultation process has catalyzed a constant corrective self-criticism. To give but one example: the change within the design of the agrarian reform from statism to cooperativism and later the inclusion of personal and family ownership had their motor force in listening, sometimes slowly, to people’s reactions. The reform of the neighborhood CDS and the decision to permit the relocated Miskitus return to their Rio Coco offer other examples.

This process, which began with the training for political participation that underlay the spirit of the National Literacy Crusade, predominated during the first two and a half years of the triumphant revolution. When the war started to be induced from outside through the organization and financing of the counterrevolution, the process, which hadn’t yet had its ramifications in all the regions of a country with bad communications, began to be paralyzed. Its greatest crisis was suffered in the Atlantic Coast, the multiethnic complexity and historic isolation of which could not be overcome in the short run. The crisis was also felt in the agricultural frontier, where a dispersed peasantry, labeled backward by many urban sectors, remained organizationally uncared for, progressively disconnected by the war and at the mercy of the counterrevolutionary alternative.

The prolongation of the conflict, requiring a priority on defense, has as one of its main objectives the triumph of the unilateral logic of war over the complex logic of authentic popular defense, which can’t function without participation. The US political objective is that the logic of war take the revolution toward a predominately technical conception of defense, and toward authoritarian forms that border on totalitarianism. This would force the new historic subject to deligitimize its own aspirations.

The political responses that maintain the emphasis on participation have included a) the electoral process, b) the institutionalization of the revolution in a constitutional process that mobilizes the symbolic potential of law in a revolutionary way, c) the determination to keep the denunciation of US violation of law alive before international forums of debate and political conciliation, d) the territorial regionalization of the self-defense militias, e) the stimulus of local initiative and cooperation with it to re-link the networks of peasant commerce distorted by the war, f) the consultation process regarding autonomy in the Atlantic Coast and g) the untiring negotiation with local armed Miskitu leaders who genuinely want a just solution.

Even the states of emergency have been designed mainly to offer extraordinary measures to the state to prevent sabotage and conspiracy without these being converted into “states of siege,” “curfews” or “martial law” so typically directed against the population in Latin America. Daily life hasn’t been altered under the state of emergency. Nicaragua continues to be watched by human rights institutions and to be given relatively high marks in the United Nations, the Organization of American States, Amnesty International and Americas Watch.

The other revolutionary movements of the area—states in germination, organizers of miniature models of a new society—confront the same challenge, although on a different scale. The formulas of quasi-institutionalized popular power in revolutionary zones of control in El Salvador and the perceptible “populations in resistance” of the guerrilla strongholds in Guatemala should be apprenticeships of popular participation, despite the brutal pursuit of the war. In El Salvador, furthermore, the revolution’s capacity to impose its nascent power in extensive zones of the country shouldn’t prevent it from taking into account not only popular reaction but also, insofar as possible, people’s most deeply felt survival needs.

The historic record of these revolutionary movements is that, apart from the tactic of kidnappings, which takes its toll of anxiety and uncertainty, they haven’t adopted a policy of torture aid disappearances. They are thus in a position to be politically imaginative at the moment of constructing a new hegemony out of participatory practices. This level of humaneness has the potential to predominate over party inflexibilities and dogmatic schemes as the conflict is prolonged. The enormous cost of directing political energies toward military necessities due to the prolongation of the conflict can’t be underestimated.

The population aspires to be respected as a historic subject. The inabilities of the entrepreneurs of democratization to be able to respond to this clamor for grassroots participation is found in their scorched earth policies; indiscriminate massacres; forced organization into patrols—not of self-defense but in defense of minority interests; policies of “development poles”—actually inverted kibbutzim and thus real foci of passive resistance; maintenance of people inevitably displaced by the war in conditions of pursuit and suspicion; indiscriminate bombing of civilians and aggressive delegitimization of organization. The failure to respect the Geneva Conventions applicable to a national conflict, the persistent violation of human rights in El Salvador and at an extreme level in Guatemala, as well as the prolongation of the conflict itself, suggest that the initiators of the democratization project will not be likely to emphasize political factors, much less a participatory policy.

The new historic subject, after long experiencing the thwarting of its character, is now demanding a drastic decrease of coercion in the use of political power in Central America. The prolongation of the conflict makes the process toward popular participation hard to sustain coherently. This is a challenge that the new revolutionary subject itself can confront with more success than can the power brokers of democratization.

Probable disqualification of the
power brokers of democracy

The democratization project in the Central American isthmus is a political formula invented several decades ago, the application of which was blocked completely until it could be of use to the old historic subject. The political forces that could have put it into practice have been superseded by history or have been rounded up and thrown into exile or prison or were murdered. Entire generations of democratic trade unionists, whole university classes, innumerable grassroots organizers, valiant figures committed to and even prophets of the Church and, particularly, imaginative politicians with deep roots in the population have been buried in this current of irrational destruction. Guatemala stands at the head of the slaughter: leaders of the Communist Party, traditionally distrustful of the strategy of armed revolution, as well as great social democratic leaders were murdered. The political vacuum they left has been filled with mediocrity and compromise.

With the assassination of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador died a rare man in the history of the search for solutions for that country so beyond solutions, a “saint” capable of analysis, pragmatism, leadership and massive influence. His Christian imagination and courage were swept from the national scene with no compassion. The failure of the first Government Junta in El Salvador, which resulted in the exile of an important group of honest politicians and intellectuals and the assassination almost a year later of the FDR leadership certainly didn’t enhance the possibilities of winning those honest politicians and intellectuals back for the country.

In such conditions, democratization is a delayed project, tragically deprived of leaders who would perhaps have made it come alive again. The initiatives of Rios Montt in Guatemala and of Duarte in El Salvador, the two united by a messianic voluntarism despite gaping differences, also demonstrated serious doubts about the objective possibility of such revitalization. Democratization reveals its own nature in the hands of the current political power brokers, with their limited and terribly battered social bases: it is a change of image desperately lacking in power to change reality.

Under this democratization, oscillations could occur in the direction and force of the repression. The image can’t be changed without venturing some kind of variation in this scenario. Perhaps disappearances or assassinations of outstanding or internationally well-know personalities will be taboo. But as long as there’s no acceptance of the new subject as a genuine political actor, the need to eliminate it from the worker and peasant unions will persist. The death squads may be defused, but in exchange for how many deaths caused by bombings of the civilian population? The images evaporate with the impact of reality.

The consequence of an enormous and inexhaustible flow of dollars to make the war more “rational” and “professional” in El Salvador has meant the proliferation of military corruption, as it did in Vietnam. If Guatemala manages to get an equivalent flow of dollars for the war, the consequence threatens to be the same. Corruption works against the rationalizing and profesionalizing of the war, and raises the cost of aid to unsuspected limits. What it does do is create new interests that move the humanization of the conflict to the second plane.

By prolonging the conflict, the US government runs the risk of demonstrating that the democratization project is utterly inadequate to make efficient and respectable use of US economic and military aid. As in Vietnam it is possible that the entrepreneurs of democratization will show themselves to be without real roots of power and managers of a project with no national base. It is probable that these two factors will undermine the political will of the US Congress to support the continual flow of funds required by the administration for its policy. Congressional disenchantment and disinterest will pick up as it becomes politically sensitive to the resistance of broad sectors of the US population to such a policy.

The brokers of democratization try to mediate the crisis and the conflict. But their vicissitudes in the human rights balance sheet, their inability to humanize and rationalize the war, and the inefficiency and inconsistency of their economic initiatives and timid social reforms strip them of any potential to undermine imperialism’s political will to prolong the conflict. They could end by disqualifying themselves to some sectors of imperialism as interlocutors with any real national power.

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