Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 69 | Marzo 1987


Central America

Introductory Analysis: Central America's People Put to the Test

Nitlápan-Envío team

In our special January-February 1986 issue of envío we analyzed the 1979-1985 period in Central America. Four fundamental conclusions were drawn from that assessment:

1. The prolongation of the armed conflict constitutes a new defining variable, making it impossible to discern future trends in the Central American crisis without taking this prolongation into account.

2. This period in Central America exemplifies the blind alley of US policy in the third world.

3. A new Central American historical subject is emerging in the face of US efforts to defend its sphere of influence at all cost and give the old model of generals, ambassadors and landowning oligarchy a "democratic" facelift. It is more diffuse but in the long run less controllable subject than the revolutionary vanguards that have openly disputed the traditional model of domination.

4. Although the period is dominated by war, Central America’s growing militarization and the sharpening of the economic crisis, the decisive factors in resolving the current impasse between the US compulsion to dominate and the slow development of the new Central American historical subject are political and cultural-ideological.

A year after that analysis, the questions, critiques and debates it provoked among our readers warrant a response. We offer below a critical review of these four affirmations from the perspective of events in 1986. This evaluation will in turn serve as an introduction to the balance sheet for the four countries in the region most affected by the military conflict last year: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Costa Rica and Panama remain outside the analysis for a series of reasons.

Prolonged or stagnated?

Is the revolutionary process bogged down? How long can the conflict be drawn out?

To answer these questions, another must first be considered: when and how did the prolongation of the conflict appear as a new variable?

It was not always apparent that the conflict would be a lengthy one. In fact, between July 1979 and the beginning of 1982, all the parties in dispute were under the illusion that a rapid resolution of the conflict was possible. The Sandinista triumph was perceived as a variable that would accelerate the revolutionary processes in Guatemala and El Salvador. The ferment of the grassroots organizations and the seeming breakdown of the military institution in El Salvador gave rise to predictions of a triumphant insurrection in early 1981. Today we can clearly see that the enormous social force the grassroots organizations had become was not matched by the military strength of the guerrilla forces. Nor, however, were the strategies Secretary of State Alexander Haig designed to rapidly do in the Salvadoran guerrilla movement geared to its capacity for resistance or to the internal divisions in the Salvadoran dominant classes and military apparatus and their inability to carry out a coherent counterinsurgency program. The stated objective of Guatemala's political-military forces to constitute a popular, democratic and revolutionary government before the end of General Lucas' term as President in July 1982 was shown to be equally erroneous. Furthermore, it took four long years (1982-85) to bring about the strategic decline of the Nicaraguan counterrevolution, in the process sapping the living standard of the Nicaraguan people and shattering the illusions of those who saw revolutionary triumph as a quick fix for the problems of the Central American majorities.

We could say that the Central American revolutionary process has stagnated, if by that we make clear that we’re talking about the illusions of 1980. But if the real dynamic of the process is grasped, the revolution has actually been deepening, precisely due to the prolongation of the conflict. Our analysis last year did not intend to suggest, from the utopian vision that the Sandinista triumph triggered among so many people, that this prolongation favors the ending of the crisis. Rather we tried to suggest that the revolutionary process has taken a new, less idealistic form, and that its wellspring is to be found in the gradual, fitful emergence of a new historical subject.

When did the process take this new form? What both drew it out and made it more profound? Although it is hard to be exact about when the old pro-imperialist subject and the revolutionary political-military organizations reached the awareness that neither could be victorious in the medium run, somewhere around 1983-84 is the most probable time period.

On the one hand were the following elements: the intransigence of the Reagan administration from its very first days; its decided support to the counterrevolution in Nicaragua; its gigantic military base construction program in Honduras; its strengthening—directly or through Israel—of the armies and intelligence systems in Guatemala and El Salvador; the progressive replacement of de facto military governments with formally civilian democracies starting in 1982, thus providing a renovated ideological facade, less suffocating political space for the majorities and a decline in international solidarity for the progressive forces in El Salvador and Guatemala; and, finally, the US efforts to throw obstacles in the way of the Contadora negotiation process. By the end of 1983 all these events had done in expectations of rapid victories by the revolutionaries or of a rapid resolution by diplomatic means.

On the other hand, the institutionalization of the revolution and the consolidation of popular support in Nicaragua, the survival and expansion of the guerrilla zones of control in El Salvador, the ever more brutal levels of repression in Guatemala to prevent it from becoming another El Salvador and the development of Latin American solidarity within the Contadora process had made clear by the beginning of 1984 that all these US pressures had been unable to restore "normalcy" to the Central American "backyard."

What happened in 1986? Are there signs that the crisis will be drawn out even longer, or has one of the parties in conflict shown such notable advances that it may be resolved—one way or another—in the foreseeable future?

There are clear signals that the military conflict is being prolonged. The Reagan administration's victory in Congress at the end of June in winning approval of $100 million for the Nicaraguan counterrevolution was a green light to the CIA to again take up its official role in training the contra forces and managing their funds. While this will not reverse the contras' strategic decline, it does indicate that both US political parties—albeit with a fragile consensus—believe that the military policy in the region is still yielding benefits. This policy will prolong the capacity of the counterrevolution and neutralize to some degree Nicaragua's efforts to confront its economic crisis.

In El Salvador, the failure of the third round of talks—in that it never took place—reveals that the US military advisers and Salvadoran armed forces as well as the FMLN are convinced that the war is going their way and that they can resolve it by forming a more comprehensive and more political conception of their military activities.

Although the counterrevolution does not have the support of the civilian population in Honduras and has even been losing support among sectors of the Honduran army, there were a series of increasingly serious conflicts in 1986 between the Sandinista Army and the Honduran Army, which supports the counterrevolutionaries, thus increasing the possibility of a regionalization of the conflict.

Our prognosis of last year that the guerrilla forces in Guatemala would increase the number, quality, results and breadth of their activities, taking advantage of the space provided by the "democratic opening," was wrong. The Guatemalan guerrillas have not been determinant in defining the period in their country in 1986. The Cerezo government not only made advances against their movement, but also opposed US military policy in the region by its "neutrality."

Throughout 1986 Costa Rica hardened its positions against Nicaragua and increasingly blocked Contadora's negotiating possibilities, but it also differed with some US positions, thus indicating the risk that dominated neocolonial countries run in staking everything on the United States in a conflict that is not yet decided.

Although no medium-term solution to the Central American crisis could be seen in the events of 1986, there were repercussions against the US foreign policy that for the first time strongly affected Reagan's popularity. The eruption of the Iran/Contragate scandal offered a glimpse at the probability that the policy will be weakened, if not toward all of Central America, at least toward Nicaragua. Given the growing divisions in the United States regarding President Reagan's Central American policy, it is also within the realm of possibility that Congress could refuse to continue financing the counterrevolution and that Latin American solidarity could become more insistent. The Democrats' lack of alternative policies militates against excessive optimism, however. The Reagan administration's ability to undermine European and Latin American support for Nicaragua in the last Contadora meeting also suggests a certain level of skepticism with respect to real changes in US policy. The most that can be hoped for from the Democrats is a policy of "hostile peace" toward Nicaragua and an intensification of the effort to contain the revolution in El Salvador through military means. Finally, the virulence of the Reagan administration ideologues means that we cannot discard the probability of intensified diplomatic activity against Nicaragua or even the possibility of surgical bombings or other direct military operations that would not have the costs of a massive invasion.

In the course of 1986, the prolongation of the political-military conflict has resulted in a sharpening of the economic crisis. This crisis and the limited spaces permitted within the new "limited democracies" have allowed new forms of grassroots mobilization. Despite the state of siege in El Salvador and continued military repression by the Guatemalan and Honduran armies, especially in the countryside, the people stepped up their level of mobilization.

The expansion of the grassroots movement in El Salvador, its attempt to unite in the National Union of Salvadoran workers (UNTS) and indications of the creation of a "third force" all point toward a remobilization of the masses. This same tendency—with very different dynamics—is revealed in Nicaragua in the open discussion of the new Constitution, growing participation in defense and the sustained discussions about autonomy for the Atlantic Coast. In Guatemala, the spontaneous, confused but growing mass agitation around the land problem and the disappeared corroborates the trend. In Honduras, despite stiffened military repression of the rural cooperative movement, there has been some increase in mass organization and even of guerrilla actions, simultaneous with a growing opposition to the counterrevolutionary presence and the US occupation of the country.

This expansion of grassroots mobilization in Central America is something new that has not been impeded by the prolongation of the war. One might even risk the hypothesis that this mobilization has been sparked by it.

US-third world policy: A blind alley?

Is US foreign policy toward the third world really going down a blind alley? This perception is perhaps somewhat out of focus by virtue of coming from Central America, where we risk having a distorted global view and magnifying the value for the United States of its geo-political game in our region. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the current US policy toward Central America is but part of a strategic decision to confront the crisis of US hegemony in the capitalist camp and, in competition with the Soviet Union, in all the third world. A failure in Central America in no way signifies a failure of US foreign policy in the rest of the third world. Nonetheless, we also mustn’t underestimate the importance of Central America within the US policy toward the third world, since we are talking about a conflict within its own sphere of influence, as is the case of Afghanistan for the USSR.

With respect to Central America, events of 1986 indicate that it still seems reasonable to sustain our "blind alley" hypothesis. The continued deterioration of the counterrevolution in Nicaragua; the increasing problems within the Duarte government in El Salvador, besieged simultaneously by private initiative, the FMLN and the "third force"; the resistance brewing within the Honduran Army against continuing to allow contra camps in its territory; and the inability of the Reagan administration to involve the Guatemalan government in its diplomatic isolation of Nicaragua are very clear signs of this "blind alley."

Nor can it be said that Central America's progressive forces made clear advances during 1986. It is worth recalling, however, that a superpower cannot allow its policy in a regional conflict to stagnate for long without being obliged to readjust it.

To the hypothesis of a blind alley in Central America we could add a second hypothesis regarding a future shift of US policy toward the region. This predicted readjustment will not appear in the short run, nor will it be due to the Iran/Contragate scandal, whose limited perspectives for change have already been analyzed. By focusing on the Central America question as the only cause of the growing tensions between the US and the bloc of Latin American countries—Contadora and the Support Group—that are facing up to it, the US will also fail to effectively address more global problems, such as the inequalities in North-South trade and the foreign debt.

The pressures for a re-accommodation in Central America will come, according to our hypothesis, from the overall logic of US interests and from events in the region themselves.

The lessons learned from its experience in Central America and Iran under the deposed Shah can be seen in US foreign policy in the Philippine and Haitian cases, where with differing results it got ahead of the revolutionary forces by favoring the reformists. In the Philippines, however, there is still tremendous instability. US policy also faces growing problems in Pakistan, South Africa and above all the Middle East. All these areas are crucial for US domination in the third world, more crucial perhaps than Central America. The worsening problems in these countries put a lot of pressure on the United States. They could induce a Democratic administration in the 1990s to take a broader and more flexible view of what best suits US global interests and thus reshape its policy toward Central America, or at least toward Nicaragua.

Another and perhaps stronger pressure to readjust US foreign policy so as to prevent irreversible crises in spots critical for its domination of the third world comes from the changes in Soviet foreign policy. We should not forget that the Reagan administration's aggressive policy was designed in the years of the Politburo that governed with Brezhnev. But Gorbachev’s USSR does not fit Reagan's image of a petrified "evil empire." The new Soviet leader has launched peace initiatives supported by programs to revitalize the domestic situation. The reach of these programs in terms of human rights, political participation, social mobilization, administrative agility, productivity, reappraisal of regional conflicts and self-criticism represents important pressure on US foreign policy.

This Soviet "opening" has put even more pressure on the United States in the sensitive field of nuclear arms negotiations. Much more important than the Iran/Contragate scandal for its implications for US policy was the US failure in the Reagan-Gorbachev talks in Rejkiavik, Iceland. It may well be that the broad group of leaders concerned with US foreign interests will no longer tolerate the Reagan administration ideologues who aborted a possible disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union. After Rejkiavik, public opinion polls throughout Western Europe showed new majorities opposed to participating in NATO with the United States.

The powerful US capitalists known as the "eastern establishment" read all these facts and the "threat" of the Soviet opening very differently than heads of the arms industry and the "sun belt" capitalist groups that benefit from Reagan's "star wars" program, his military confrontation with the USSR in third world countries and his backing of governments that keep wages and union activities to a minimum in countries where they have labor-intensive assembly plants. The possibility of easing the Central American situation in the medium and long range are thus wrapped up with the fate of Soviet foreign policy, the development of other third world conflicts and these tensions within the dominant class in the United States.

New historical subject: Contradictory or illusory?

One of the more debated points of our analysis last year was the conceptualization of the Central American process from the prism of the emergence of a new historical subject. For some the focus on revolutionary subjectivity was the best part of the analysis and the only way of approaching the question of revolution in the last two decades of the 20th century. Others saw the concept "new historical subject" as an unnecessarily abstract synonym for "pueblo," or people, that only got in the way of reading the document. We believe that the focus is still justifiable, but it is important to be more precise about the concept.

Where the people go, so goes Central America. But one of the most difficult questions to answer today is "Where are the Central American people going?" The leaders of the parties in contention all identify the people with their parties and programs. Common sense, however, shows that parties and programs are not the same thing as the people. There are differences between people organized in political parties or revolutionary organizations, those organized in labor unions, cooperatives, neighborhood associations and other such groups, and those of the unorganized masses.

The rhetoric of political and organizational leaders, in any event, has an element of truth. In some sense they do represent the people within their organizations and outside of them. The definitive thing about this period in Central America is the capacity of the organizations to gain ever greater grassroots support for their programs. Our concept of the new historical subject is also a tool to analyze the comings and goings of this complex process.

We believe that to better understand the relations between the organizations and the immense majority of unorganized people, it is both possible and useful to analyze the unequal and asynchronic development between a new political subject (the revolutionary vanguards), a new social subject (trade unions, cooperatives, guilds and other grassroots organizations) and a new cultural subject.

In Nicaragua the synchronized development of the FSLN's political-military capacity and the grassroots organizations' effervescence between 1978 and 1979 in large measure explains the Sandinista triumph. In El Salvador, the prolongation of the conflict is similarly explained by the lack of coincidence between the development of the grassroots movement—strong in 1980-81 and weak in 1982-83—and the development of the political-military capacity of the vanguards, weak in 1980-81 and strong from 1982 onward.

Our hypothesis is that the unequal and asynchronic development of the three distinct components of the new historic subject is one of the keys to understanding the prolongation of the conflict and its evolution in the future.

The mobilization of the unorganized masses, according to our hypothesis, depends above all on the development of the new cultural subject, and the organizations of the revolutionary fronts that provide the ideological and ethical sustenance for the political propositions are certainly a part of this. But there are many other entities, such as those of a university, artistic or religious character, that have functioned as autonomous sources of ideologies and ethics that incorporate people’s cultural traditions in either a direct or reinterpreted form.

In this situation, the proletarian culture of the vanguards has to "ally" itself with other grassroots cultural expressions, aware that cultural pluralism is also a characteristic of the hegemony of the new historical subject. The emergence of the new cultural subject thus depends on a strategic collaboration among the multiple sources of ideological-cultural creation and cannot be reduced to a vision of the leadership of the process as a "dictatorship of the proletariat." For the same reason, our concept of the new historical subject in Central America on the eve of the year 2000 differs from the concept of the "historic bloc" in European societies.

The level of consolidation of the alliances between the revolutionary political fronts, the social movements and the new cultural currents varies strongly in the region, being obviously greater in Nicaragua, weaker in El Salvador and Guatemala, only incipient in Honduras and as yet invisible in Costa Rica. It is also important not to project the Nicaraguan post-triumph experience on the rest of the region. The new Central American historical subject emerges from diverse cultural outlooks: from the consciousness of triumph and from the struggle for survival in Nicaragua; from the uncertainty about the results of a long struggle and the hard experience of repression in El Salvador; from the profound wound of the annihilation of an important part of its forces and the fear that conditions the persistent resistance and faith in the future of Guatemala; or from the incipient process in Honduras.

The desire last year to analyze what was common to all Central America obscured these great differences. The affirmation that a new Central American social subject is emerging should not be taken as a prediction that the other countries will follow the same path as Nicaragua. It is rather a prediction that a new constellation of social aspirations is emerging among the Central American majorities: for dignity, well-being and freedom from the oppression and repression of the past. For the rest of this century these aspirations will challenge the existing structures and reformist programs that are so obviously incapable of satisfying them.

The decisive factors

Are the political and ideological factors decisive? This affirmation might seem idealistic in a region so crucified by prolonged military conflict and the sharpening of the economic crisis.

We believe the military factor to be the one that dominates all of Central American life and the economic factor the one that, in the final analysis, will determine the road the region takes. Nonetheless, we judge the totality of cultural, political and ideological factors as decisive, however, in the sense that they influence the variables that could break the impasse.

They are decisive in that there is room within them for new situations. This statement is coherent with what was said about the prolongation of the military conflict, the artificial and external subsidizing of the Central American economies, the blind alley of US policy in the region, the asynchronic development of the three components of the new historical subject and the instability of the Christian Democratic parties’ reformist proposals in El Salvador and Guatemala.

Given the events of 1986 and the results of recent research, however, it seems important to nuance our affirmation of last year. It appears that while the political-ideological factor is still decisive in El Salvador and Honduras, the economic factor acquires ever more decisive influence in Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Our analysis did not sufficiently consider the marks left by the repression in Guatemala. It is probable that the horrendous massacres, the massive exodus of the population, the hunger, nakedness and indefensibility of thousands have much of the population that put its hopes in the revolutionary process and committed itself to it in 1978-82 temporarily incapable of participating in the struggle in an organized way. Given this, we should not see the political factor as decisive in the resolution of this period in Guatemala. Rather, the Cerezo government’s inability to solve the root economic problems with structural reforms owing to its arrangement with the bourgeoisie—both civilian and military—indicates to us that the economic factor is beginning to play a more determinant role.

In Nicaragua, the political-ideological factor has been decisive for almost a decade. Its role has been so strong that recent research (see envío, December 1986) has shown that the economic erosion resulting from the US strategy has not undermined political support for the FSLN or gotten in the way of people's understanding of the Sandinistas' economic message. This message ties the economic suffering of the majorities to the war imposed by the Reagan administration, and only secondarily to government officials who do not follow the Sandinista leaders’ orientations. Together with the interpretation of the war and the successes of the government's international policy, national projects such as the Constitution and autonomy for the Atlantic Coast ideologically reinforced the Nicaraguan people during 1986.

All these positive signs, however, could turn bittersweet if the Sandinista government doesn’t deal successfully with the economic crisis. With the announcement of the final defeat of the counterrevolution and the mid-range possibility of a re-accommodation of US policy in the form of a hostile peace with Nicaragua, the economy will in all probability become the decisive factor for this country in the coming period. People will not accept the burden of the economic crisis as stoically once the war is over. In preparation for the possible shift of US policy toward a more subtle but no less vehement project to destabilize the Sandinista government, the priority tasks for 1987 are the economic discipline of the state and the conversion of defense capability into economic capability without demobilizing the troops or demobilizing the people regarding their economic survival.

If the economic factor could figure as the Achilles Heel in Nicaragua and Guatemala, there are clear signs that in El Salvador and Honduras the political and ideological factors, far from diminishing, have increased in significance. The Salvadoran people want peace above all and Hondurans are beginning to drink from the well of their own national dignity. These two aspirations find their main contradiction in the US counterinsurgency program for the region. The challenging of the "limited democracies" headed up by Duarte and Azcona and the expansion of grassroots mobilization in confrontation with the "AID economies" creates conditions in which the political and ideological struggle to link the grassroots movements to a political proposal for national liberation will play a decisive role, although with diverse social consequences in the two countries.

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Nicaragua at a Glance

El Salvador
Shifting Weight at the Two Poles

Economic Crisis: A Ticking Time Bomb

Chinks in the US Plan

Introductory Analysis: Central America's People Put to the Test

A Turn of the Kaleidoscope: Pieces in Motion

In Pursuit of Peace: New Victories, New Challenges
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