A Pre-electoral Reflection from the Liberal Window and the Emancipator Window
How are the Somocista years seen from the
Liberal window and from the emancipator window?
What’s the vision of the revolutionary years from those windows?
And what of the years that followed 1990?
Such a reflection is valid as we approach Nicaragua’s new electoral process,
when upon opening the windows the panorama appears so uncertain.
The conclusion is that we’ll continue living in post-colonial societies
until we undertake a profound emancipation in Nicaragua
and the rest of Central America.
José Luis Rocha
Digging into all the political analyses of the Central American region, two paradigms can be identified that crystallize into two visions—the Liberal one and the emancipator one—about what has happened to us and is happening to us now. My construction of what I found is inspired by the “landscape” that sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos describes when he characterizes the tension between regulation and emancipation, two rationales of modernity.
Regulation follows a route from chaos to order while emancipation seeks a path from colonialism to solidarity. The Liberal vision would be a case of regulatory volition, as would an authoritarian dictatorship, although of a very different stripe from liberalism. The emancipator vision is a form of opposition to a modernity linked to capitalism.
But what are we emancipating ourselves from? From colonialism, on the assumption that post-colonial theoreticians postulate: “The end of colonialism as a political relationship did not bring with it the end of colonialism as a social relationship, a mentality or a form of arbitrary and discriminatory sociability.” Until we engage in a profound emancipation we’ll continue living in post-colonial societies. The emancipator vision seeks to identify the degree to which we’re in fact still living in post-colonial societies and what route will liberate us.
The Liberal vision has beenNone of these visions is found in a pure state. The majority of the political “narratives” move pendulously in the tight space between these two non-extreme visions. Nonetheless, there’s sufficient evidence to state that the Liberal vision is presented as hegemonic. It provides the pickaxe and defines the quarry. It has managed to establish the coordinates in which most analyses move today in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America. Even some theoreticians who proclaim themselves leftists interpret history and the current political moment in the terms provided by the Liberal vision due to a-critical inertia, to acquire better academic credentials or to speak a “universal” language and not bias their interlocutors. Just as knowledge as regulation has cannibalized knowledge understood as emancipation, the Liberal vision has gobbled up part of the explicative capacity and constrained the proposals for initiatives with an emancipating embryo.
turned into “common sense”
As Ileana Rodríguez, a specialist in Latin American culture, observes, this happens because, while liberalism proclaims itself an open system, it ensures that all proceedings busy themselves in firming up the social contract: its attractive matrix of central concepts—civil society, public sphere, States and markets—end up defining the conditions of possibility of the structure and thus defining the coordinates of what can be said.
That body of doctrine has been turned into a mental habit. As the distinguished British scholar Harold J. Laski said in 1936, it is as much a doctrine as a way of seeing. Rodríguez explains that, veiling its specific historical origins as an ideological basis of the bourgeoisie and emerging capitalism, liberalism’s horizon has come to be a practical way of thinking and an unquestioned discourse about daily affairs that models the masses’ practical awareness, thus moving from a philosophical ideology to being seen as common sense.
The emancipator visionIf it is conceptually possible and practically desirable to contrast the Liberal vision with the emancipator one, it is because, as Laski points out, liberalism “has always taken a negative attitude to social action… it has always preferred to bless individual innovation than to sanction the uniformities sought for by political power…. It has, accordingly, always tended to make an antithesis (as a rule an unconscious one) between liberty and equality. It has seen in the first that emphasis upon individual action for which it is always zealous; it has seen in the second the outcome of authoritarian intervention of which the result, in its view, is a cramping of individual personality. The outcome of this is important. For it has meant that liberalism, though it has expressed itself always as a universal, has, in its institutional result, inevitably been more narrow in its benefit than the society it sought to guide.”
contrasted with the Liberal one
Another reason to oppose the Liberal vision to the emancipator one is rooted in the verification of the colonial residue liberalism carries in its theoretical baggage and its practical trajectory: the persistent multiple segregations—from its origins right up to now—in what are called Liberal societies have generated tensions due to their indigestible coexistence with the offer of universal human rights. These tensions can be worked through on the move from colonialism to solidarity, which the emancipator vision translates into struggles against an enormous gamut of oppressions: patriarchal, ethnic, gender, class…
With distance from MarxismSome of the roots of the emancipator vision are sunk in Marxist tradition. It shares with it the desire that the future belong to the forgotten ones, the disinherited, the oppressed... But it keeps an arm’s length from a lot of details and also from one central aspect: there is no historic need, no socioeconomic laws that lead ineluctably toward that future: “Socialism is a basic democratic aspiration, as one among various possible futures, that is neither inevitable nor ever fully reached.”
and leftwing vanguardism
Like Hannah Arendt, the emancipator vision says that all human action has a defined beginning but an unpredictable end because it falls into a network of pre-existing relations and references, so it always reaches further and puts more into relation and motion than the agent could foresee: all action is unpredictable in its consequences and unlimited in its results because it activates a chain reaction.
It is also distanced from the Marxist-Leninist tradition by opposing the belief in a vanguard that must lead the processes. The emancipator vision struggles to open arenas in which all voices can be heard and can matter. It seeks a direct democracy that finds some concrete expressions—at times timid, at times more daring—in reality, but remains above all as a horizon that inspires possibilities.
Given the evidence of its roots, the emancipator vision appears archaic to some of its critics. It walks on the razor’s edge in precarious equilibrium to avoid falling toward a fecund but insufficient tradition or toward the hegemonic language that freezes initiatives that authentically emancipate. That’s why it makes an effort to work up its discourse and proposals with a new language.
The Liberal utopia is the rule of lawThese two visions are configured by sets of values that give us an idea of the reasons for their offspring and their phobias, the moral requirements they lay out for the processes and the actors who promote them. The liberal view takes in pluralism, dissent, the separation of Church and State, and individual freedom, understanding the latter as the independence of the private sphere. Political theorist Charles Taylor notes that Liberal democracy is characterized by a representative government, the rule of law, a regime of interlinked rights and the guarantee of certain liberties.
and its demon is authoritarianism
Cultural theorist Stuart Hall observes that liberalism opts for individualism in politics, civil rights and politics, parliamentary government, moderate reforms, limited state intervention and a private enterprise economy. Its objective is to construct an open society characterized by critical rationalism, individual liberty and tolerance. It believes in history as a teleological process—geared to a purpose—and for that reason weighs the cost by its results. The notions of victory and failure are vital to this vision. Expressions such as “the lost decade” are very much a part of its classifying nomenclature. Political parties have a preponderant role in its toolbox: representative democracy and the rule of law are the supreme realizations of its utopia, and the democracies of the industrialized countries are its living concretization.
Free competition among parties and political programs—similar to free competition among businesses—guarantees that democracy will function well: a balanced tweaking between the supply of the parties and the demands of the electors. The perverse conversion of parties into factions—i.e. the return to their primitive origin—is the nightmare they try to avoid. Authoritarianism—as the antithesis of liberty—is the demon they procure to conjure away.
The emancipator utopia is The emancipator vision aspires to an endless democracy that puts an end to capitalism. It is based on an emancipating epistemology that runs from colonialism to solidarity and undertakes actions that are rebellious, non-conformist, the turbulent actions of thinking in turbulence.
democratic participatory deliberation
These rebellious actions seek to produce changes, but cannot control all the consequences of those changes. Climbing an impressive genealogical tree, Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls them actions with clinamen (the Latin name Lucretius gave to the unpredictable Epicurean swerve of the atoms theorized by Democrito): an inexplicable quantum that perturbs cause and effect relations and thus confers creativity and spontaneous movement on the atoms.
I think that notion could find a consistent development—referring to human actions—in the political thinking of Hannah Arendt, for whom all human action is the start of a chain of events that their causal agents can’t control because the interactions themselves are what determine the course of the effects. The actions are midwives of the new and unexperienced, and thus are uncontrollable and precarious. There’s no room for the notion of necessity and determinism. Arendt held that Hitler wasn’t the extreme and “necessary” consequence of the Enlightenment. Human actions generate innovations with unpredictable effects. The private sphere is conditioned by interactions and disappears as such when it intervenes in politics.
The emancipator vision constructs arenas and processes for democratic deliberation, not for democratic representation. There’s no search for informed citizens with a capacity for debate in representative arenas, but rather masses with the capacity to choose informed politicians to whom they delegate the decisions.
In political scientist Giovanni Sartori’s view, the general public is never very informed; it doesn’t know a lot about politics and isn’t overly interested in it. But electoral democracy doesn’t decide the issues in any event; it decides who will decide them. The hot potato is thus passed from the electorate to the electors, from the demos to their representatives. The emancipator vision opposes this option and opts for the recovery of the public individual and a totally inclusive version of the Greek agoras.
The Church-State separation is a condition of an emancipated society, but it is due to the manipulation of the religious sphere rather than its rejection. The negative aspect isn’t in the religious elements, but in their instrumentalization (manipulative use), their obscurantism (superstitious version) and their oppressive purpose (when it reinforces or reactivates existing dominations). The criminalizing of therapeutic abortion in Nicaragua and El Salvador is an example of a religious instrumentalization with an obscurantist tenor to reaffirm women’s oppression by reestablishing legislation that was already a thing of the past. In the religious terrain, in a Latin America “that still prays to Jesus Christ and speaks in Spanish,” the emancipator position lives in the expression “Another God is Possible.”
What Liberals, Marxists The notion of failure has no place in the emancipator vision because that vision doesn’t aspire to a future predetermined by laws. The Liberal vision and the revolutionary one of Marxist inspiration have a point in common: their teleology, their Aristotelian faith in final causes, their vision of history as a process that obeys an objective or a finality of an intelligent being, their opposition to randomness in any of its meanings. History—conceived as a script written by divine will—establishes necessity. It evades the violent lurches of politics to take refuge in a stratospheric version of reality, where more scholastic speculations cannot be refuted by political events.
and Churches have in common
This thesis is a legacy of the Hegelians of the Right and the Left: the absolute spirit is incarnated in history. Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre warned us of the danger, so visible in philosophic historians such as Aristotle and Hegel, of believing that all sense of the past consists of the idea that it must culminate with us. History isn’t a prison or a museum, he reminds us, nor is it a set of materials for self-congratulation.
This ideology translated into holocausts, into the immolation of concrete men and women, as Franz Hinkelammert explains: Church, liberalism and socialism are delivered over to utopianized structures in the name of a respective societas perfecta. And the societas perfecta devours the human subject, whether in the name of salvation by the Church, in the name of market structures or in the name of planning structures. Structures smash the subject because they require that it seek its realization in the blind internalizing of the structure, be it in the name of salvation, liberty or justice.
Western society disparages the simple elements of human life—food, housing, health, etc.—because it aspires to more important goals: it always talks about a man so infinitely dignified, that concrete man must be destroyed in pursuit of him and his freedom. Let man know Christ, save his soul, have freedom or democracy, or build communism; these are the ends in the name of which the simplest rights of concrete man have been erased. From the perspective of these assumed values, these rights seem simply mediocre ends, materialist goals in conflict with the high ideas of society. Evidently it’s not about renouncing any of these ends, Hinkelammert explains. It’s about rooting them in the simple and the immediate, which is the right of all men to be able to live.
What does it mean to be emancipated?In today’s context of the veneration of the market, entrepreneurism and foreign investment, the emancipator vision translates its option for concrete human beings as prioritizing people over capital. The emancipator vision breaks with the essentialisms and historical necessities to situate itself on the side of concrete men and women and the unpredictable processes they unleash with their actions.
Emancipating oneself is saying no to determinism and voluntarism: human beings are molded by the actions of others, and can’t control all the consequences of their actions. The emancipator vision opposes the Hegel of the absolute spirit, the divine plan and the ultimate purpose for him, and is thus in tune with Arendt when she speaks of the continuous process, the incessant evolution and the perfectibility impulse, arguing that perfectibility is really almost as indeterminate as variability in general. It lacks purpose and an end. The best, the most perfect to which one should head is something entirely indeterminate.
The categories of victory and failure belong to a Liberal vision, closer to instrumental reason. The emancipator vision speaks of innovations that have unpredictable consequences. The set of standards for this vision is whether it’s an action that contains liberating innovations. Its visible concretions are participatory presuppositions, community deliberations, successful decentralization projects. Its analytical basis is critical thinking, i.e. the exploration of other possibili¬ties beyond the positive ones. Its horror is the dissolution of the public man, root of an enormous gamut of evils.
The ancient reform-revolution dichotomy is a good antecedent to illuminate the opposition between these visions. But it’s nothing more than an instrument. It’s not a mirror on the past. The emancipator vision doesn’t opt for abrupt changes such as those that encouraged the guerrilla movements and enthused their social bases. It’s even possible that had an emancipator vision such as we conceive it today existed a few decades ago, it would have been viewed with suspicion by the revolutionaries of that time: they might have called it a diversionist tactic to slow down the insurrectional processes; perhaps veiled reformism. But that dichotomy is useful because it reveals the opposition—which applies to the visions in question—between those willing to admit some changes in the system and those who struggle intrepidly for a change of system.
Three political projects:Each from its own angle, the Liberal and emancipator visions have something to say about political parties and their contribution to democracy and development. To put a finer point on the analysis, some distinctions need to be made regarding each of these three themes: political parties, democracy and development.
Authoritarian, neoliberal and participatory
The differences between these two visions are particularly marked with respect to political parties. In the Liberal vision they are the main transmission belt from below upward and from the top downward; in other words between the elite representatives and those they represent. Freedom of expression, the availability of alternative information and free, equitable and frequent elections are indispensable institutions of a democratic poligarchy.
In the emancipator vision, political parties have a very modest role: they are one of a number of transmission belts—tending toward horizontality—to get a democracy of content via participatory democracy. The emancipators seem to be saying: let’s not waste our energies waiting for the political parties to provide what we can obtain through other democratic mechanisms; let’s not ask for pears from an elm tree.
This democracy can be mediated—or tripped up and mutilated—by programs that aren’t always made explicit. The Brazilian political scientist Evelina Dagnino proposes distinguishing among three political projects, adopted indistinctly both by public sector institutions and by civil society: the authoritarian project (inheritor of the style of the military regimes and caudillo culture), the neoliberal project and the participatory project. These projects don’t only aim to be routes to development, but to sustain values in and of themselves.
The neoliberal and authoritarianThe neoliberal project involves a minimalist vision of politics, the state’s role and the exercise of human rights, because it reduces citizens to the condition of “users” of state services and reduces the State itself to the condition of facilitator of the market’s functioning. Everything is reduced to technical problems—papering over political conflicts—because the aim is to reproduce the current social order.
projects in Central America
Although Dagnino’s focus tends to associate the neoliberal project with all market-based practice, running the risk of demonizing those who seek to develop the market in a way that will be more socially inclusive and participatory (promoting access to the market and a certain quality to its growth), it helps mark some coordinates that emphasize the development proposal.
This three-projects model offers the advantage of distinguishing among those who opt for market automatism (the neoliberal project), those who tend to impose a single-party system that doesn’t tolerate dissent (authoritarian project) and those who seek a leadership role for citizens in public administration and the market to domesticate it and to make both the State and the market more inclusive, all the while knowing that the market is neither a panacea nor the only battlefield (participatory project).
It must be added, along with Torres-Rivas, that “in Central America, authoritarianism is also defined by the prominent concurrence of two perverse features: extreme violence as a primary resource and the criminalization of any expression of political opposition: a culture that prizes arbitrariness and intolerance.” For the Liberal vision, the greatest danger is authoritarianism. For the emancipator vision, it is the blocks to participation, which could be annulled by both neoliberalism and authoritarianism, and by both the authoritarianism of the market and the authoritarianism of the State.
The “perverse confluences”And what about the parties? Do they put their money on a change of system, changes in the system or only light reforms, and what project to they promote? That brings us to the importance of the concept of “perverse confluence” with which Dagnino characterizes the agreement at the discourse level of antagonistic projects, hidden beneath common references. Going back to Freire, Dagnino speaks of the internalizing of neoliberal elements in the political projects of bodies presented as alternatives. That process occurs through dislocations of the sense of presumed common references when the individual and organizational political projects aren’t made explicit.
The most frequent perverse confluence is the promotion of a citizenry and democratization reduced to the market. This is the confluence toward the right. But in recent years a perverse confluence has also been disseminated in the shoring up of despotic leaders and parties, whether to flee from neoliberalism (Nicaragua) or from the super-demonized ALBA coalition (Honduras).
The struggle against authoritarianism can itself degenerate into a perverse confluence, such as is happening in Nicaragua with the conversion of leaders who used to encourage participatory-emancipator programs yet now, marching to the drumbeat of “all against Ortega,” are willing to insert themselves into coalitions whose leaders are encouraging neoliberal programs and low-intensity participation, clearly reduced to representative democracy. To be able to proclaim itself alternative and the generator of new models of more inclusive development, the emancipator vision attempts to be on guard against the danger of perverse confluences.
Development with a big “D” and a little “d”The third concept about which it’s useful to make distinctions is that of development. Diana Mitlin, Sam Hickey and Anthony Bebbington, from the University of Manchester’s School of Environment and Development, distinguish two meanings for the term development: one with a lower-case “d,” which alludes to the geographically unequal and profoundly contradictory processes that underlie the dynamics of capitalism, and one with an upper case “D,” which refers to the projects of intervention in the Third World that emerged in a decolonization and Cold War context. The idea is to distinguish between political economy and intervention and to think about structural changes, knowing that a clear relationship exists between the two faces of development.
The political parties promote Development interventions, but are also part of the societies and political economies in which they operate. They are part of development, while trying, through Development, to intervene and modify the nature and effects of broad development. A Liberal conception of the alternative is constrained to the terrain of Development, often simply and flatly understood as economic growth, although at times it is nuanced by an interest in institutional strengthening and certain human development indicators.
But the ways of conceiving the alternative approach refer to alternative forms of organizing the economy, politics and social relations. If a party includes transformations in its programs, does the production of development alternatives matter or only Development alternatives? The Liberal vision is content with Development alternatives, while the emancipator vision actively tries to have an impact on development. From the emancipator perspective, to be an alternative in the broad sense of the term, it’s necessary not to repeat hegemonic concepts or reinforce dominant models. Mitlin and her colleagues hold that pushing reforms in the Development interventions of other actors is a path to alternatives, but a more emancipating one is to produce strategies that transform the founding ideas and social relations of the contemporary social order.
The Somoza years underWhat does Nicaragua’s history of the past three quarters of a century look like from the Liberal window? The Liberal vision recognizes the first Somoza as an extraordinarily flexible political corset who permitted a pact to be hammered out with the traditional elites—the famous pact of the generals—at the same time that he presented himself as the father of the laborers, granting his favor to union and guild leaders. Although all elections he called were fraudulent, he never wanted to govern without grassroots backing. For that reason, he made important concessions to the laboring sectors and middle strata before each election. The promulgation of the Labor Code and the creation of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute obeyed that desire to increase his following.
the Liberal magnifying glass
But the Liberal vision finds unforgivable the fact that a dynasty was installed in that period that distorted—or cancelled out, according to the more demanding versions—free competition among political parties by de facto dissolving the eternal play-off between Conservatives and Liberals (also known historically as serviles and fiebres, timbucos and calandracas, legitimists and democrats in Nicaragua and as moderates and anarchists or aristocrats and shirtless ones in other countries of the isthmus).
The main reproach to Somoza’s takeover of the Liberal vision was his authoritarianism, which ended party competition and by the time of the third Somoza even ended freedom of expression, conceived above all as freedom of press and political demonstrations. The worst of all evils was that the last Somoza became a drain on Development: he wasn’t satisfied just to monopolize the most profitable businesses. He didn’t permit the free play of the market and development, grabbed up all the foreign aid granted after the 1972 earthquake and figured out how to channel to his family treasure chests the Development projects that came to the country in the Alliance for Progress briefcases to serve as a brake on the insurrectional movements. The collapse was inevitable given the rupture of even minimum consensus and the subsequent confrontation of an authoritarian project with a democratic one.
The Sandinista revolutionThe Liberal vision has virtually no kudos for the 1980s. For Liberals, what happened in Nicaragua forms part of the “lost decade” that affected all of Latin America in varying degrees and forms. The most severe ones resurrected the metaphor of San Juan de la Cruz and spoke of “the dark night.” The reiterated reproach that the Liberal vision launched on the revolutionary process was its political and economic totalitarianism. In the political arena it believes that there was only a pretense of democracy, giving the appearance of a political opening that in fact closed ranks against dissent and proscribed public opposition demonstrations, stamping them with the omnipresent seal as “counterrevolutionary.” In the economic terrain, it believes that the confiscations and expropriations amounted to assignations that were perverse for development: land was given to individuals and entities that weren’t very good at making it produce.
under the Liberal magnifying glass
The centralization of commerce in the state enterprise MICOIN/ENABAS (Ministry of Domestic Commerce/Nicaragua Basic Foods Enterprise) impeded the free play of supply and demand and, in practice, turned out to be impossible to implement given the emergence of a vigorous parallel market. Credits as a clientelist instrument created a caricature of a financial system. And the Development projects financed by the socialist countries proved to be white elephants, particularly decadent due to their terrible administration. The collapse was inevitable: the Development projects were poorly designed and even more poorly implemented; the international pressure pushed the FSLN to move up the elections and the totalitarian State underestimated the weight of the opposition political parties, which, against almost all expectations, were able to defeat the FSLN once the rules of free party competition were restored. It was impossible to escape the laws of development, especially in a unipolar world where the imperative of the market was imposed.
The “transition” under the Liberal lensOn the other side of the watershed of the 1990 elections, the Liberal vision found a transition, a rebirth. Democracy was presented as an indispensable and hopeful factor of economic growth. Faced with the evidence of growth with mounting inequality, the Liberal vision found a scapegoat: not enough Development. Those were the years of Development projects: managerial skills were highly valued together with the capacity to negotiate funds for Development projects that came from two sources: international cooperation and foreign investment. The task of politicians and technocrats, united into one happy chorus, was Nicaragua’s insertion into the world markets: we’ll submerge ourselves in reinvigorated development.
The electoral ballot saturated with parties and candidates (23 in 1996!) was the maximum expression of political pluralism. Demilitarization appeared as an imperative and an indispensable condition for yanking one of the main bastions of authoritarianism out at its roots. Soon a demon never sufficiently conjured away appeared in full force: corruption. Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua were especially flogged by this scourge.
How does the Liberal vision explain its assaults in this new democratic era? With the old distinction between factions and parties. The parties had stopped responding to the demands of the masses and being transmission belts of their rank and file’s needs. They had turned into factions: cliques of pals and relatives, gangs and “cosas nostras,” seeking to plug into power to better milk the state treasury, especially in Guatemala and Honduras, which were linked to drug trafficking capital, money laundering and other manifestations of organized crime.
The Liberal vision proposed two remedies. On the one side, institutional evolution toward molding ourselves in the image and semblance of the democracies of the North, presented as rational, plural, tolerant and in dialogue with dissent. In other words, going back to being parties that respond. On the other were technical therapies: accountability, improved control over public finances and transparency. And most of all: inequality would be resolved with greater economic growth; poverty would be sugarcoated with entrepreneurial social responsibility and the malaise would be stamped out with institutional retooling
2006: The return of the FSLNNone of that happened and the FSLN won the 2006 elections. Its victory is seen from the Liberal angle as yet another symptom of the corruption of the party system and the chain of pacts cooked up between factions. One more symptom of the crisis of democracy and of the newly interrupted process of free electoral competition. The bottom line: crisis of the rule of law and delegitimizing of the system due to the work of the Deus ex machina of Nicaraguan democracy: the Supreme Electoral Council. Authoritarianism settled in and could be seen in the streets in the form of beatings of opponents who demonstrated publicly against all the fraud, institutional manipulation and the chicanery of shyster lawyers and Supreme Court justices to lay the groundwork for reelection. Development projects were endangered, with the US Millennium Challenge Account and the European Union funds even being frozen.
The analysis of the Liberal vision is gloomy: the eighties were a lost decade (a failed experiment, a “dark night”), the nineties were the decade of corruption and the first decade of the 21st century is the point at which the crisis of democracy blew up, throwing out menacing shrapnel and a sediment of multiple nightmares.
The Somoza era from Let’s take a quick look at the same history from the emancipator window. One of the greatest dangers of the Somozas—especially the first and second one of that family dynasty—for this perspective was their capacity to present themselves as respectable figures, their skill at subordinating the traditional elites and at fostering the servility of some prominent figures of the educated middle strata. The emancipator vision insists that the bipartite system that the Somoza reign put an end to was an expression of disputes between factions of elites, two faces of the same coin that filled the expanded scope of colonialism’s discriminating social and mental relations.
the emancipator window
The Somoza takeover was one more chip of the development of an exclusionary world project, of the US “backyard” and Cold War policy, and of the regional military authoritarianism that, with brief interruptions, was installed in the parenthesis that ran from Maximiliano Hernández Martínez to Carlos Humberto Romero in El Salvador, from Jorge Ubico to Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores in Guatemala and from Tiburcio Carías to Policarpo Paz García in Honduras.
The fact that the last two dictators—Mejía Víctores and Paz García—were benign compared to their predeces¬ssors—Efraín Ríos Montt and Gustavo Álvarez Martínez—and encouraged democratic elections says less about their personal goodness than about the opportunities and restrictions of the context: shrinking US military support and pressures—par excellence—from the Embassy to achieve an agreement among the elites. Torres-Rivas points out that “democratization wasn’t a transition, but the result of pacts agreed to between fractions of the military, business and political elite guided by the initiatives of ‘the Embassy.’”
There was a vigorous civil The emancipator vision stresses that the strong State Somoza tried to build—with a progressive Labor Code and Social Security, glimpses of a welfare State inspired by the works of his mentor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his New Deal policies—coexisted with a no less vigorous civil society wealthy in stratagems.
society during the Somozas
Samples of its dynamism were the Institute of Human Promotion (INPRHU) with its impacting book of denunciation El infierno de los pobres, the unbribable daily newspaper La Prensa and its director Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, which fought the regime right up to the final consequences (the burning of the newspaper offices and Chamorro’s assassination), the alliances between artists and other intellectuals and their benefactors in private enterprise (that between Carlos Mejía Godoy and Carlos Mántica is the most conspicuous), the entrepreneurial sponsorship of high quality uncompromising magazines and texts (Ventana, Testimonio, Encuentro, El pez y la serpiente), the revolts in the National Autonomous University and the Central American University and the dissenting activity of the Association of Farm Workers and the National Association of Educators of Nicaragua, among other organizations. This array of buzzing initiatives and forces showed that the solution would not come—as in effect it did not—by way of the political parties.
The emancipator vision understood that the Somocistas—the group with the loaded dice—were just one more of the groups of financial, commercial and productive power that were prospering in the shadow of inequity. From the emancipator perspective, the collapse was inevitable due to the confrontation between an authoritarian and exclusionary project and a democratic-participatory one.
The revolutionary years: In the emancipator vision, the eighties were the decade of gold of thinking and social action. The Council of State, which in the first years of the eighties filled the role of legislative power, although it didn’t entirely cushion the impact of the rampant presidentialism, was an agora in which the members of the top political echelons had a voice an vote, but so did the members of grassroots organizations of all stripes and definitions, among many others labor and peasant unions, and ethnic, religious, cultural and women’s organizations.
A golden decade to refound the nation
The televised weekly program “De cara al pueblo” (Facing the people) functioned as thematic town hall forums and their shifting sites gave the government Cabinet members a chance to hear the daily problems of concrete people, and even on occasion to resolve them expeditiously. In other words: there were interesting snatches of direct democracy.
The National Literacy Crusade allowed the State, via young volunteers, to go out into the most remote corners of the country and have an impact on national identity. Knowing how to read allowed people access to newspapers and thus to experience a unique real-time-and-space possibility of national communication.
The revolution also gave development a shaking up. The agrarian reform was one of those actions of unpredictable consequences Hannah Arendt speaks of. It inherited an agrarian structure that has made it possible for Nicaragua to be one of the Latin American countries with the greatest relative volume of production placed in the fair trade circuits. The cooperatives and smallholdings recognized or created by the agrarian reform are the target group this type of trade seeks to benefit. Another action of unpredictable consequences and benefits was the creation of police and military apparatuses with a non-repressive vocation, which have established a less tense relationship between society and coercive state power than exists in most other Central American countries.
The emancipator vision recognizes that it was extremely complicated to escape development having inherited an economic structure highly dependent on the US markets—hence the impact of that country’s blockade—and very risky to replace that dependence with another—that of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) in trade, donations, health assistance and military technology. The extreme fragility of such a substitute was revealed by the fall of the socialist bloc. The fact that the Labor Code inherited from the first Somoza was left unscathed is seen as symptomatic of a weak volition to undertake structural modifications.
Emancipation’s greatest The emancipator vision’s greatest reproach regarding the revolutionary decade is that although it presented itself as forward thinking in the activities of the grassroots organizations, they renounced their non-establishment role to subordinate themselves to the dictates of the party-State, which was accustomed to “sending down the lines” and having them obeyed without so much as a grumble.
reproach to the revolution
This subaltern role meant renouncing the traditional demands of labor unions: improvements in working conditions and salaries. As this subjection also extended to other entities, such as the “Luisa Amanda Espinosa” Nicaraguan Women’s Association, the nontraditional demands presented by the feminists were also postponed or labeled diversionist. Defense of the revolution demanded everything of everybody. Without fail. What Hinkelammert denounced thus happened: concrete men and women were immolated on the altar of great ideals: in this case the revolutionary project. The project’s target groups became its fuel.
Other struggles were also disdained, such as those of indigenous peoples, which at first were not considered worthy of credit and dialogue. Their communal land ownership schemes were ignored and their demands for autonomy not listened to for several years; and even then the legislative recognition left many gaps.
Even one of the greatest achievements of the revolutionary project had many flat notes: the agrarian reform hit like a storm but only responded to its beneficiaries’ expectations late, in an instrumentalizing manner and with such a precarious legal base that it was later rolled back without much effort.
The reproaches of the emancipator analysis of the revolution are obviously of a very different tenor and based on different events than the Liberal scrutiny.
1990: The neoliberal years The emancipator vision sees the decline of the revolutionary project as a consequence of having forgotten about concrete people and of the savage charge by big capital and its Liberal hegemony, which in other Central American countries had its road paved by a pact among the political, military and business elites. Thanks to the handiwork of this shift, called a “democratic transition” in the northern Central American countries, Nicaragua made the leap from a relatively planned economy to an economy dictated by the market.
from the emancipator vision
The Central American region again became fertile terrain for the Development projects that sought to prop up development. Boaventura de Sousa Santos notes that “given the absence of a democratic political action that simultaneously influences the State and the third sector (private nonprofit organizations), it can easily be confused with democratic transition, which would be nothing more than a transition from centralized to decentralized authoritarianism.” This was just what happened in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The privatizations morphed us from protected citizens into citizen-customers, which produced the illusion of liberty with demobilizing effects. Santos warns us against the duality of conformist action and rebellious action: “The relative replacement of the provision of goods and services by a market for goods and services has created spheres of choice that could easily be confused with an exercise of autonomy or a liberation of desires. All this occurs within the narrow limits of selective choices and the obtaining of the means to make them effective. Even so, these limits are easily constructed in symbolic terms as real opportunities, whether as opportunities for choice or as consumption on credit. Under these conditions conformist action is easily assumed as rebellious action.” There is no greater rebellion than that of the consumer, who punishes with his billfold and opts for the new Guelphs or Gibellines: there’s no other choice than to belong to the Claro mobile phone clan or the Movistar mobile phone gang.
What are the roots of corruption?The emancipator vision shares the Liberal vision’s alarm about state corruption, but finds the roots of that corruption in the correlation between weak and corrupt States and low-intensity exercise by the citizenry. The privatization of the state monopolies, the imperialism of the international financing institutions that impose their macroeconomic policies and the shrinking of the welfare State produce discouragement and the sensation that state policies and politics as a whole are something removed, dirty and in any event inaccessible to the average citizen.
This demobilizing sensation has a devastating effect on the meaning of public service. The decline of unionism and the NGO-izing of the grassroots movements form part of the auto-immune deficiency syndrome of public figures to the neoliberal project’s offensives. Migration and its remittances—phenomena with many facets and virtues—become an “every man for himself” and the citizen-customer option toward which development, its iconic market and neoliberal hegemony are pushing. The solution, therefore, isn’t technical, but eminently political: the public arenas need to be recovered and an organized citizenship needs to be exercised.
Central America and its six social fascismsFearful shadows are perceived from the emancipator window. They aren’t so much electoral absenteeism or politicians’ corruption, which it interprets as a not necessarily regrettable and at times even plausible decadence of representative democracies. These shadows are in what Santos defines as the social fascisms that run through all of Central America.
The first is the fascism of social apartheid: the segmentation of cities into barbaric zones and civilized zones, marginal neighborhoods and condominiums for the elite, poles of a dual urban landscape complemented by new avenues, malls and office buildings that allow the elites to get from their residences to their centers of work and leisure without coming into contact with the irredeemable fragments of the city. This dynamic of dual architecture is what anthropologist Dennis Rodgers calls “de-imbrication of the city” and “rebellion of the elites.”
The second fascism is that of the dual State. It refers to a State that has two sets of standards and applies them according to who’s looking: a regime of exception for the elites and a tough law and arbitrariness for the dominated.
Para-state fascism is the third and consists of the appearance of paramilitary groups that, usurping the State’s coercive role, apply “social cleansing” operations or repression of dissent. This fascism has been practiced in a hair-raising manner in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, but in its second version has also been an FSLN recourse to stifle opposition through the contracting of youth gangs.
Populist fascism, the fourth and most dangerous, is being put into practice by the FSLN with overwhelming success: grassroots identification with their leaders’ success, even when that success doesn’t trickle more than microscopic crumbs down to them.
The fifth is the fascism of insecurity: manipulation—at times based on religious symbols, dogmas and initiatives—of the anxiety and uncertainty produced by the first four fascisms. And the sixth is financial fascism, better known as the global casino: the volatility of speculative capital that leads to the bankruptcy of those who didn’t gamble at their roulette wheels.
Moments and symptoms of emancipationAre liberating paths visualized from the emancipator window? There are hopeful fissures from the political parties and the public sector incarnated in the State’s heterogeneity.
We’ve seen it in Nicaragua with officials of exceptional tenor in their moment, such as Gertrudis Arias, the alternate judge who sent Arnoldo Alemán, Nicaragua’s corrupt former President and Constitutionalist Liberal Party leader, off to the courts, supposedly to face a fair trial. We saw it in a particularly heroic expression in the case of the hunger strike by district attorneys in Honduras protesting various cases against eminent figures that were intentionally shelved. And we felt it in the courage of the state officials who handled the case of the assassination of Bishop Gerardi in Guatemala. We feel it as well in El Salvador, where despite terrible outbursts of autocracy, it is evident that it isn’t a party that’s governing but a coalition of professionals and grassroots organizations that found a political platform in the FMLN.
The emancipator vision is wagering not so much on political parties as on the direct democracy, autonomy and opposition initiatives being generated in the arenas of authentic open assemblies, indigenous struggles, feminist demands, participatory budgets, etc. The problems are multiple and the struggles are plural.
There is no single axis of struggles because the discrimination is polymorphous. The rights of indigenous communities to self-determination must be defended, but that doesn’t mean that those communities and that self-determination must be idealized. Multiple inequalities—of gender, lineage, linguistic groups and generations—persist within those communities that must be worked on in a more profound democratizing process. Marxist abstraction had created a humanoid configured by class determinants, a pure class. Liberal abstraction created a nationalist humanoid sick with possessive individualism. Concrete men and women are weighed down by many more conditions and impelled by more struggles.
The struggle against In today’s Nicaragua, based on agreement in classifying the FSLN government as authoritarian, it would seem that Liberals and emancipators have the same ambition. But there’s no reason to go down these slippery slopes. The aspirations of each are very different. At the risk of caricaturing, it could be said that the defeat of authoritarianism is an arrival point for the Liberal vision and only one of the flanks of struggle for the emancipator vision, since authoritarianism is polymorphous: colonialisms are multiple. In that regard, the struggle against Ortega’s authoritarianism is waged amidst an expanding dissent that springs from the desire for emancipation.
The emancipator vision also dissents from the patriotic chorus that aims, to the tune of possessive individualism with collective projection, to defend the sovereignty of an abstraction called “nation” over the Río San Juan. The Liberal vision suffers nationalist fever because its origins are linked to the emergence of nation-States as we now know them. The emancipator vision has its periscope focused on the concrete men and women who live along the banks of the river and have daily aspirations in which ownership of the river isn’t a problem because that ownership—shared—isn’t in question and doesn’t produce harsh exchanges.
She’ll be there foreverAll these distinctions are an analytical instrument that serves to put us on guard against visions that don’t make their proposals and perspectives explicit. The distinction between these two visions is no excuse for dogmatism, but is an instrument for analysis, even though it is obviously based on a preference.
The preferences and options aren’t neutral from the viewpoint of social mobilization and the winning of public spaces. While Liberal thinking can confine us to the weariness of politicking and palace intrigues led by ridiculous little men made up to look like great figures, ecclesiasts blackmailed by their ill-gotten fortunes and servile business owners who cave in to the slightest sign that taxes will be applied to them with all the rigor of the law, the emancipator vision concentrates it attention on actions that fall outside the field of vision and short-term memory of Liberal thinking.
From its perspective, Arnoldo Alemán’s Nemesis isn’t Daniel Ortega, Eduardo Montealegre or even Fabio “Pancho Madrigal” Gadea, but rather Gertrudis Arias, although her action was later manipulated by Enrique Bolaños and the US Embassy and even later profited from by Ortega and his cronies.
Although she’s no longer that same person, Gertrudis Arias is a benchmark in Nicaraguan judicial history. We don’t know what future consequences her action will have. What we do know is that she’ll be standing there forever, before the hermetic doors of Alemán’s mansion, under the driving sun and the mocking looks of his bodyguards, day after day, with her judicial order in her hand and an undeclinable decision to approximate real justice to the horizon of its best possibilities.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council.