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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 69 | Marzo 1987


Central America

A Turn of the Kaleidoscope: Pieces in Motion

Nitlápan-Envío team

The Central American kaleidoscope was given a dizzying turn, particularly in the second half of the year, by a series of events that augured political shifts in the region and made it difficult to predict what new pattern will fall into place even in the immediate future.

- During the first half of the year, the Reagan administration gained bipartisan support for its military solution to the Central American crisis. Even though this support was weak and shaky, it contributed another $100 million to the Nicaraguan counterrevolution, legalized open interference in Central America by the CIA and allowed US maneuvers in Honduras to continue as a mechanism to support the contras and consolidate a platform for counterinsurgency equidistant from Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

- Mid-year, Nicaragua revitalized Contadora with a regional disarmament proposal and enhanced the possibilities for a negotiated Latin American solution in the region.

- The World Court decision in favor of Nicaragua was an historic landmark in the recognition of the self-determination of small peripheral countries.

- Throughout the year, US pressure on the other Central American countries increased opposition to the Contadora peace process.

- The Nicaraguan counterrevolution continued its strategic decline, with serious political implications for the governments of Europe and Latin America.

- Social movements in Honduras grew and political-military movements appeared that have not been destroyed.

- The military activity of the URNG declined, along with its influence on the current Guatemalan scene.

- In March, and again at the end of the year, border incidents between Nicaragua and Honduras intensified.

- Cerezo's political prestige in Guatemala did not decline as rapidly as predicted.

- Duarte's position in El Salvador declined in geometric proportion to the remobilization of the masses.

- There was a marked advance in spontaneous social movements in Guatemala.

- The mass movements in El Salvador have become larger and more organized and an embryonic third political force appeared, a movement of grassroots protest against the Duarte government not identified with the FMLN.

- Tensions between Nicaragua and the Vatican were relaxed.

- The flourishing of religious expression, especially the evangelical sects, continued among the masses.

- Pressure mounted in El Salvador for peace talks.

- In Honduras, the beginnings of nationalist sentiment emerged, based on opposition to the presence of the contra forces and US troops.

- In the United States the Democrats won a majority in both the House and Senate.

- The new Nicaraguan Constitution was approved by the National Assembly elected in 1984.

- The Iran/Contragate scandal erupted towards the end of the year, weakening the Reagan administration.

Interpreting this series of political events is a complex task. To avoid a frustration of expectations raised by the political shifts that have already taken place at the beginning of 1987, it is also important to get a fix on the underlying trends at work behind the contradictory events of 1986.

The trends behind the events

The seriousness of the situation in Central America is locked into the prolongation of a military conflict with no foreseeable end, and into the heightening of the economic crisis that is devastating the region. The two problems that most affect the impoverished masses—war and economic misery—are the pivot points of the Central American reality.

The first of these points is the struggle for national liberation, defined not only as the project of the revolutionary vanguards, but also as a broader and more diffuse attempt of the new Central American subject to recover national sovereignty and free itself from the US counterinsurgency project.

The other is the economic crisis and the struggle in the field of economic diplomacy to harvest the first fruits of a new international economic order between North and South that would permit the reconstruction of a Central America devastated by ten years of conflict.

National liberation struggle

All the trends we identified last year in the military arena have been reinforced. The strategic decline of the counterrevolution in Nicaragua and the military impasse in El Salvador are moving the national struggles for a more just redistribution of power and resources closer to a frontal confrontation between the new historic subject and US imperialism.

The militarization increased its dominant influence on Central American life in 1986. In Nicaragua, defense continued to be the predominant concern, and its weight in the national budget increased after the virtual declaration of war signified by the $100 million in contra aid. The Honduran and Salvadoran armies have been exercising increasing influence in the governments of those countries. They are the agents for the US counterinsurgency project, the central concern of which is not to address the economic crisis, but to destroy the FMLN and the FDR. In Guatemala, the army never gave up its control of the inter-institutional coordinating bodies (mechanisms for coordinating civilian government activities). It has also recovered its influence over various ministries and is preparing to again control the paralyzed development projects in the highlands.

The prolongation of the conflict and the burden of the US counterinsurgency project on the civilian population define the central axis of the situation in Honduras as much as they do in El Salvador, although in the case of Honduras this is due more to the region's geopolitical problematic than to its own problems. On the one hand, the Honduran military have used Reagan's war against Nicaragua and the contra presence to recover the power they lost after the fall of General Gustavo Álvarez in 1984 and to modernize their army. They fear the Salvadoran Army—strengthened as it has been by the US—more than they do the ideological threat from Nicaragua. Sectors of the Honduran army offer and withdraw their support to the Nicaraguan contras as a form of blackmail to get more military technology.

On the other hand, for the first time since the war with El Salvador 15 years ago, this denationalization of Honduras has provoked a surge of Honduran nationalism and a budding patriotic protest against the US and contra presence and the puppet government that allows it. This nationalism could detonate an explosion of social tensions latent in the minds of the poor majorities of Honduras. This political-ideological space in the heart of the masses is the stage on which Honduran history will be played out during 1987-88.

In El Salvador the military impasse—although both sides are confident of future military victory—has produced a situation in which the focal point is defined as the attempt, as much on the part of the FMLN as of the army, to approach the solution to the conflict more integrally. Both sides are proceeding with the war, but increasingly within a program to win people’s "hearts and minds.” The army's "United for Reconstruction" plan and the FMLN's attempts to recreate its links to the mass movements that are reawakening in the cities amid the fear and repression demonstrate how distant both are. The seriousness of the moment in El Salvador is defined increasingly on political-ideological grounds, not only by the tactical adjustments made by the two contending armies, but also by the crumbling of the Duarte government, which is challenged by the private sector, the military structure, the renascent mass movement and, of course, the FMLN. An impressive array of forces has been stacking up against Duarte's government. Pumping life into this government is crucial to US strategy, and serious efforts along these lines can be expected throughout 1987.

Nicaragua is, by definition, the benchmark against which all efforts and aspirations for national sovereignty and autonomy in response to the geopolitical power exercised by the US in the region are measured. Nevertheless, we must not underestimate the persistence of Guatemalan nationalism in resisting the US pressure to add its voice to the chorus of Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador in disputing the peaceful solutions offered by Contadora. Rather, Cerezo has tried repeatedly to use his opposition to US military policy to obtain support from Europe and Latin America and project an image of himself as the leader of a prudently reformist, autonomous Central America facing up to US pressure.

Throughout the region, the year’s most outstanding political trend is the growing vitality of the mass movements, which have been neither completely co-opted nor absorbed into the programs of the political subjects. Neither the bourgeoisie nor the governments nor the revolutionary movements have succeeded in channeling these movements to their own ends.

At bottom, the reason seems to us to be the increasing short-term influence of the economic factor on the situation as a whole, which gives rise to new spontaneous or organized forms of social resistance and economic survival as the living standards of the majority worsen. In the flood of repression, a new civil society and social subject are emerging out of the mute fear generated by long conflict, even though not necessarily integrated into political society. To the question "Who does the prolongation of the conflict benefit most?" our answer at the beginning of 1987 is the people as a social subject more than the vanguards or the Christian Democrat reformist governments of El Salvador and Guatemala.

These new forms of grassroots resistance are possible because the models of "limited democracy" and the Nicaraguan revolutionary model coincide at least in opening up—inevitably or intentionally, as an objective or as a concession—new political space in response to the growing demands of the Central American people. But their impact on the overall situation in the short term shouldn't be exaggerated, precisely because it isn't connected to the political forces.

The prolongation of the conflict has deeply affected Central American identity and that identity is the driving force behind the struggle for national liberation. Even though that is the defining factor of the current situation, it has escaped the perception of Washington politicians. Central American identity is undergoing a profound transformation due to the turmoil in the day-to-day lives of the majority of the people caused by the repression, economic crisis and incessant waves of change that have taken place over the last 10 years. The complexity of the new situation has led Washington to overlook the importance of Central American identity at the same time that Central Americans themselves have been unable to name the new culture being born amidst fear and hope.

What is really new in this cultural-ideological factor can be found in the culture of the masses. The spontaneity of the social movements has its correlate in the spontaneity of religious expression, which spills out beyond the formal boundaries of the Catholic Church towards the evangelical sects that present themselves as a haven of peace in the midst of the enormous tensions of daily life in the war and of hunger, uprootedness and the exodus of families to other countries. This haven could be seen as an attempt to escape, but it could also be a source of moral support that transcends and gives strength to people facing the insecurities and uncertainties produced by profound social change.

Understanding this inward culture, and looking at the daily lives of the poor and all the unheroic moments of life is key to defining what Central America will be in 2000. This issue requires careful study by any political force that intends to win public support. The culture of the North, which is still so dominant and penetrates in increasingly subtle ways, can increasingly be seen in people’s daily lives, especially because of the massive migration of nearly 1.5 million Central Americans to the United States in the last decade.

The international factor is playing a role that conditions the Central American process ever more strongly. Last year we predicted that international solidarity wouldn’t be strong enough to impede the US military escalation. The first nine months proved our hypothesis, but international solidarity has revived with the failures of the Reagan administration in Rejkiavik and in the Iran/Contragate scandal, and with the Democratic victories in the November elections. The danger for Nicaragua and for the vanguards of Guatemala and El Salvador is the very centrist nature that characterizes this recent resurrection.

The economic crisis and the real cost of peace

The new space in which the European governments, the Latin American countries of Contadora and the Support Group, the Vatican and, in particular, the Democratic Party in the United States can begin to take the offensive against the Reagan administration's military policy is sustained by the military standoff in the region. It is also upheld by the need of the Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran governments to distance themselves somewhat from their US ally if they want to successfully confront their own people’s economic protests and political pressures. The populations of these countries are expressing their impatience with the costs of the US counterinsurgency military plan with growing clarity. In this context, the loss of international solidarity toward the FMLN and the URNG throughout 1986 acquires new importance. The interests of these movements will surely not be included in the Democrats' "peace package," which will in all probability be tailored to a "hostile peace" with Nicaragua and an "intensified pacification" in El Salvador and Guatemala. Despite the international offensive that Nicaragua can take by being the seat of the meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union at the end of April 1987, and even more if it is chosen to preside over the Non-Aligned Movement, this could be neutralized if a slow re-accommodation process begins to occur within the Republican "roll-back" plan in favor of a more traditional "containment" in Nicaragua and "heavy-handedness" in El Salvador and Guatemala.

All the peace initiatives started in 1987 are still very provisional given the difficult balance that the Central American countries—with the exception of Nicaragua—are trying to maintain on the tightrope that runs between the objectives of the Reagan administration and those of the Democrats. Furthermore, any peace advance during 1987-1989 could be undermined by the lack of internal economic reforms and the inability of Europe and the United States to bear the cost of consolidating their new centrist scheme with increased aid. The lack of any significant movement toward a New International Economic Order counsels us to bet on the prolongation of the conflict and an aborted program of peace and reformism, although this would have to leave a gap in the center of the Central American agenda in these years of recovering from so many years of inhuman repression. The future of peace in Central America is tightly linked to the economic fate of the third world. Without the advance of a new economic order there will be no stable peace.

The events of 1986 prove the depth of the tendencies noted in last year’s analysis. What has happened has obliged us to reevaluate the importance of the economic factor in the coming period.

The subsidizing and recolonizing of the Central American economies and the growing economic problems of refinancing the neocolonies in El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica have been made patent as the underlying factors of the political tensions in these countries. Despite the efforts of USAID to involve the Salvadoran bourgeoisie in carrying the costs of the war and of Victor Cerezo to enthuse the private sector via an arrangement that guarantees their privileges, the rates of private investment in the two countries are still ridiculously low. Furthermore, the flow of AID dollars continues to create more corruption than discipline and initiative in the business sector.

In fact, the AID dollars wouldn’t have saved the economic neocolonies from an economic catastrophe and greater political instability had there not at the same time been the family remittances and the activity of the informal urban sector. In last year’s analysis, we mentioned the importance of the tendency toward more migration to the United States and the remittances sent from there to families still living in Central America. We also noted the importance of the development of micro-scale commerce and manufacturing in the region’s large cities. After the recent research in the Central American University in San Salvador, we see that we undervalued the tremendous importance of these phenomena. Last year we estimated that family remittances in El Salvador would reach US$300 million, which is equal to 40% of the country's exports. UCA research indicated that these remittances could be on the order of $1 billion—an amount much higher than total Salvadoran exports and three times greater than AID's economic assistance. These remittances are thus the largest subsidy of the neocolonial economy.

All this calls into question the FMLN's strategy of eroding the economy and sheds light on the discussion about how the political-military stalemate in El Salvador has been produced. With such an avalanche of dollars, economic normalcy in the cities can be maintained even if the FMLN achieves absolute control over two-thirds of the rural area. Nothing indicates more eloquently than this the injustice of the international economic system. The 800,000 to 1,000,000 Salvadorans who work for wages under the legal minimum in the United States end up generating more foreign exchange through the remittances they scrimp to send their families than the entire economically active Salvadoran population working in their own country. The total wages earned in one year by these 800,000 underpaid Salvadorans in the United States represent some $7 billion, roughly double El Salvador’s total gross domestic product. Despite the US government effort to deport the Salvadoran workers who arrived after 1982, which is the majority of them, this tendency will grow in the future. This new "human canal" that connects El Salvador to the United States by a constant flow of dollars is "Panamizing" the Salvadoran economy more rapidly than the canal and banks did in Panama.

The phenomenon of family remittances is, on the other hand, a grassroots response to the injustice of the international market that underlies the whole Central American crisis. As we mentioned in the introduction, the economic crisis is the center of gravity for this period in Guatemala and Nicaragua, the two countries that demonstrate a good degree of political sovereignty (Guatemala toward the United States and Nicaragua toward the Soviet Union). These two countries, both of which most support Contadora's peaceful solution, will face a tough year in their search for international financial support to help solve their problems of survival. While Nicaragua will look for funds to sustain its agrarian reform and growing participation by the majorities in the national destiny, Guatemala will seek them to consolidate a centrist containment solution to the Central American revolution that excludes the possibility of economic reforms and participation by the new historic subject in the structures of economic and political power.

From the viewpoint of a poor peasant, no two things could be more different than the "Guatemalan road" and the "Nicaraguan road." The perspective of the poor peasantry is the crucial test of the meaning of the words "democracy" and "development" in a region where this social class has always paid the highest costs of each economic crisis and has suffered more than anyone else from the military whip and the lack of democratic participation.

The struggle for national liberation is pushing all the Central American countries to seek the sovereignty demanded by the new historic subject. The economic crisis is pushing them to take part in the creation of a New International Economic Order. Self-determination, the fate of the poor and the debate about the "two roads" will continue to underlie political and diplomatic discussions throughout 1987.

The outlook from which the new historical subject is emerging is one of fear and of patience, but it is also one of vitality and courage. The people have suffered greatly and many are no longer willing to politically retreat into the situation that existed before the revolutionary upheavals. The prolongation of the conflict has favored the emerging new historical subject, not necessarily because the vanguards are advancing in every country, but because the Central American society of today is very different than it was ten years ago. No one can any longer fail to allow for the development of new social forces and new forms of struggle among the people, even though their rhythm of linking up to the political and cultural subjects may be very unequal. For all these reasons, even in the midst of the conflict, the process of reconstructing Central American has already begun.

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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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