Utopias in Central America (part 1): Dreams of war and postwar nightmares
Idealistic Central Americans in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua
engaged in indispensable struggles, but at the most impossible time.
Their revolutionary dreams were followed by the utopia of peace,
which also never materialized.
And today, when we most need unified, ethical leftist leadership,
we find it even more divided and corrupt.
The disarmed utopia has been neither more reasonable nor more realistic
than its armed version,
and in Nicaragua it has gone so far as tobecome a repressive nightmare.
José Luis Rocha
The Cntral America that rounded the corner of the 20th century entered the 21st on the boulevar of broken dreams. French sociologist Yvon Le Bot refers to it as “a world in which revolutionary utopias have vanished and real communism has collapsed.”
This fate has affected the liberal utopia as well, and even involves conservatives’ dreams. The crisis of utopia is all-encompassing.
Evidence of failed utopias
The utopias of both the Left and the Right that fueled the will—and willfulness—for change now appear lifeless; their vital signs are so low that resuscitation is unlikely any time soon. In Central America the evidence of their demise is staggering.
The military’s developmentalism sank in a sea of blood rife with bullet shells. And wherever you look in the panorama of the Left, encouraging signs are few and far between.
Honduras has been unable to escape what are known as its “historical parallels”—the National Party and the Liberal Party—even when the Liberals clumsily make a show of having a progressive wing. The Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) failed to become a driving political force following the peace accords that ended the armed conflict. Mauricio Funes, the first presidential candidate to win electoral victory for El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), in 2009, is today holed up in Nicaragua, a fugitive from justice for alleged embezzlement. He was even recently nationalized as a Nicaraguan by Daniel Ortega, who heads a regime in peak disrepute. The Sandinismo that returned to power with Ortega in 2007 has reconfirmed that historical acts and actors appear “first as tragedy and then as farce.” In this case, it also revealed that they appear first as a dream and then as a nightmare.
Times of monolithic thinking
Today, monolithic thinking haunts a graveyard of dreams, while liberal democracy is unable to take root and its neoliberal economic proposal has begun to sink of its own weight.
Nevertheless, developmentalist, socialist and liberal utopias haven’t completely disappeared from the world stage. Politicians use them to take cover as they install their own groups in power through alliances tha regardless of their ideological orientation—where one exists—include a politicking mob, a segment of big capital, drug traffickers and transnational corporations. Frequently these conglomerations flourish precisely thanks to the collapse or transformation of these utopias.
This aspect has received little attention in studies of post-war Central America, or even in general studies. It is noteworthy how little interest has been directed to utopian concepts, to hope, when according to German philosopher Ernst Bloch, “desiderium, the only honest attribute of all men, is unexplored.” And he adds: “Forward dreaming, as Lenin says, was not reflected on, was only touched on sporadically, did not attain the concept appropriate to it.”
Utopian projects: Vehicles for religious myths
The utopian impulse had already been declared moribund by German sociologist Karl Mannheim at the dawn of the 20th century, when Central America was still decades away from the utopias that would lead to an all-consuming frenzy and a dream that would be most perfectly materialized in the Sandinista revolution.
Mannheim published Ideology and Utopia in German in 1929, virtually on the eve of the Nazi regime’s rise to power. In 1936 an expanded version appeared in English, which is the one that has enjoyed the greatest dissemination. In his works utopia appears as a distortion of reality: “A state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs.”
Although Mannheim’s appreciation has been caustically criticized as opaque and inconsistent, it also had a collection of followers, including political philosophers Isaiah Berlin and John Gray. Berlin stood by the popular meaning that understands utopia as that which is impossible to execute and lacks a foothold in reality: “An ideal life in which nothing of value need ever be lost or sacrificed […] is not merely utopian, but incoherent.” Gray believes utopian projects are the rubble littering the new millennium. Although they may be conceived of in secular terms and even boast scientific grounding, he sees them as vehicles for the religious myths that have cost the lives of millions of human beings and poisoned the lives of many more.
Utopias for revolution
Mannheim does not haggle with utopias over their value: their incongruities transform existing orders. In Mann¬heim’s view, what characterizes a utopia is not just its distance from reality, but also its capacity to inspire a certain behavior and shred the order of things at a given time. All things considered, if utopia leads to praxis, it breaks with its condition as an ideology because it changes reality, bringing action closer to ideas. And if it succeeds in mobilizing, what began as an illusion passes from the world of ideas to the world of reality, although not always the reality that was initially conceived.
Representatives of a given order, according to Mannheim, do not assume a hostile attitude toward all utopian ideas. They prefer to control, and even promote utopias. This is especially true when the utopias are unreachable within the current framework and can be reduced to social impotence, confined away from history and politics, unable to affect the status quo. Thus, the medieval order, organized according to feudal and clerical norms, imagined its paradise beyond history, in an unreachable, otherworldly sphere.
Mannheim considered that the desired images became utopias only when they assumed a revolutionary role with actions that were able to bring them to life in time and space. Using this criterion, the developmentalist and socialist utopias of Central America from the 1940s (the October Revolution in Guatemala) to the 1980s (the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the guerrilla fighters in El Salvador and even Honduras) were full-fledged utopias.
Utopia is subversive
British historian Alan Knight, who has written extensively on Mexico, states that utopianism not only proposes a radically different society, in which both reformist and radical, conservative or reactionary projects find space, but also seeks full transformation of society resulting in a new social universe, one where the old ills have not only been eliminated, but also where those ills cannot reappear, at least while the utopian system lasts.
Knight distinguished between a minimalist utopian¬ism—limited to one territory and organized in small coun¬tercultural communities, such as the Amish, isolated from society at large—and a maximalist utopianism like Marxism, which seeks to restructure society as a whole.
Based on Mannheim’s proposals, the Spanish philosopher Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez formulated an unsurpassed synthesis: “Utopia is valuable and desirable precisely because it contrasts with reality, whose value it rejects and therefore considers loathsome. Any utopia thus carries within it a critique of what exists. Utopia defines, with its rejection and criticism, not only a distancing from what exists, but also an imaginary alternative to its ills and deficiencies. Utopia not only foresees this alternative in the imagination, it also expresses the desire, aspiration and will to make it reality. This means in turn that this utopian society for which one longs or aspires to bring to life is held to be possible.”
By questioning what exists (society, power, its values and institutions) and opening up an ideal space, whether unreal or future, utopia is definitely subversive. It subverts reality and opens a window to the possible. As Sánchez Vázguez wrote: “Only those who adapt to what exists as an impassable limit, and feel satisfied within those limits, can forego dreams, aspirations or projects for subverting and transforming reality—i.e. utopia—even if just in the imagination.” It’s all about that expansion of the horizon of possibilities so key to Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s system of thought.
The principle of hope
With these formulations, Sánchez Vázquez takes on the thesis of Ernst Bloch’s monumental work, The Principle of Hope. With the exception of Bloch, Marxism reduced utopias to a subclass of ideologies, denying them their specificity and ascribing to them all a character of distorting reality and adopting means that correspond to the social stratus from which they arise.
Bloch, on the other hand, didn’t toss all utopian thought into the graveyard of inconsistencies. He rather chose to distinguish between two types of hope: “Fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope its most dedicated benefactor.” He developed the idea of a utopian function so that forward dreaming could be adequately conceptualized and thus expand the idea of utopia that has been limited to political fantasies. “To limit the utopian to the Thomas More variety, or simply to orientate it in that direction,” he argues, “would be like trying to reduce electricity to the amber from which it gets its Greek name.”
Bloch posits that the utopian function is pre-appearance—similar to that of art and the laboratory, which drive processes that can lead either to the abyss or to bliss—and always “presupposes possibility beyond already existing reality.” This function, or “principle of hope,” isn’t incongruent; it served to open us up to other possibilities for reality: “Significant daydream imaginative creations do not blow soap-bubbles, they open windows, and outside them is the daydream world of a possibility which can at any rate be given form.” Nighttime dreams live on regression; daydreams on progression.
Feeling “in love with
success rather than failure”
Bloch affirms the revolutionary nature of the utopian function when he maintains that those whom hope leads to dream while awake “seek to change the situation which has caused [their] empty stomach, [their] hanging head. The No to the bad situation which exists, the Yes to the better life that hovers ahead, is incorporated by the deprived into revolutionary interest. This interest always begins with hunger, hunger transforms itself, having been taught, into an explosive force against the prison of deprivation.” We can infer from this that the utopian function is the linchpin joining objective and subjective conditions for revolutionary change: oppression and the hope of overcoming it, which becomes a rebellious explosion.
But Bloch goes even further. When he maintains that the anticipatory generates hope and knowledge, and in this sense opposes fear and memory, he is revealing that the utopian function is a knowledge generator: He says that utopian consciousness wants to look far into the distance, but ultimately only in order to penetrate the darkness so near it of the just lived moment, in which everything that is both drives and is hidden from itself. In other words: we need the most powerful telescope, that of polished utopian consciousness, in order to penetrate precisely the nearest nearness.” And the utopian function is also feeling, “in love with success rather than failure.”
The root of utopia is dissatisfaction
Bloch’s ideas have recently been challenged by British literary theorist Terry Eagleton, who in addition to excoriating Bloch’s conceptual poverty and “incredibly repetitive writing,” notes that revolutionary utopianism was Stalinist and coincided not with Marx’s vision of history, but with Bloch’s.
In Eagleton’s sea of criticism, the most substantive aims to demolish the system as a whole and paint utopia as a form of idealism. He disagrees with Bloch writing as if hope were built into the very structure of the world, as if hope doesn’t only emanate from having material reasons for it, but that in a sense hope is an objective dynamic not just in human history, but in the very cosmos.
Eagleton’s critique seems to have been aimed at what one assumes Bloch upheld in his encyclopedic homage to hope. A more careful reading would have shown Eagleton hat his own theses are not so different from Bloch’s. For example, he defines desolation as a “radical posture” and argues that only if we perceive our situation to be dire do we see the need to transform it, thus recognizing that dissatisfaction can be an incentive for reform.
Rather than the irrepressible optimism Eagleton attributes to him, Bloch subscribed to the theory of a hope that sinks its roots deep in dissatisfaction, as can be seen in his thesis of NO in the face of existing evil, the empty stomach and the hanging head.
Central American utopias:
Social, political and religious
There is no doubt that utopia is interwoven into the structure of the social world. The utopias that fanned the 20th-century revolutionary struggles in Central America can and must be the object of sociological analysis precisely because they were a social objective interwoven into the structure of our region’s world.
Habermas holds that the concept of utopia cannot be reduced to the sum of a series of ideas, but is also a kind of mentality, a Geist, a configuration of factors that permeates the whole range of ideas and feelings, an element instilled in all sectors of life. That was certainly true in Central America. It was also, and above all, an expansion of the expectations and possibilities of reality.
Utopia is a whole symbolic system. Thus the principal utopias of 20th-century Central America were simultaneously social, political and religious, regardless of their ideological stripe. Guatemalan theologian and anthropologist Ricardo Falla, SJ, shows how the cooperativist movement was bolstered in Ixcán with the adoption of chemical fertilizers, the backing of some political groups that provided support from the government, the bureaucrats and technicians from the National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA), army logistics and religious organization born of anti-communist forces.
In a particularly insistent way, these utopias were always visualized in the countryside, where some managed to be materialized to an extent. Revolutionary utopia was an agrarian utopia, just like developmentalist utopia.
Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owens are classical exponents of social and socialist utopianism that were not agrarian. Utopia only became emphatically—though not exclusively—agrarian with Kropotkin, for whom land reform was at the heart of the essential conditions that would allow industrial changes to succeed: “Abolish the master-manufacturers, but leave the landlord his land, the banker his money, the merchant his Exchange, maintain the swarm of idlers who live on the toil of the workmen, the thousand and one middlemen, the State with its numberless officials, and industry would come to a standstill.” He added that the persistence of a poor peasant class would keep industry from taking off.
Later, the zeal for overcoming feudalism to take the scientific fast track to communism had its effect on the proposal for change, and Leninism launched the slogan that progress consisted of “Soviets plus electricity.”
Another utopia is that of Alexandr Chayanov, who in 1920, with his Journey of my Brother Alexis to the Land of Peasant Utopia, swam upstream against the options and orders of the Soviet regime, notwithstanding the praise for the new revolutionary State that litters his text: “In this fourth year of the revolution, socialism may consider itself undivided ruler of the globe.”
Chayanov’s socialism advocated a ruralized future, writing that in a radius of one hundred vets, the whole area around Moscow now forms one single rural cluster, interrupted only by the blocks of public forest, swathes of cooperative grazing land and immense climatic parks. His is an archaic utopia, which seeks to recover and extend the principles of peasantry to society as a whole. What was needed, he argued, were not new principles, but confirmation of the old, secular principles that had been the foundation of the peasant economy.
While the Bolsheviks saw owners of small land holdings as a counterrevolutionary capitalist force, Chayanov’s utopians proclaimed that the individual peasant farm was the most perfect type of economic activity. On it, man isn’t opposed to nature, work is done in creative contact with all the forces of the cosmos and creates new ways of being. Each worker is a creator, each manifestation of his individuality is the art of work. Chayanov set the socialist peasant economy up against the capitalist factory regime, where a few enjoy the right to create and the rest are mere executors. The driving force of this agrarian utopia had to be the Peasant Workers’ Party, a work of utopian fiction for which Chayanov was condemned in 1932 to five years of hard labor in Kazakhstan then executed by a firing squad. His peasant-focused dreams are part of a tendency that also fed Latin American agrarian utopianism.
Though only distantly inspired by Kropotkin’s ideas, perhaps more so by those of the Mexican revolution, Latin American leftist movements launched revolutionary proposals that orbited the rural axis.
José Carlos Mariátegui’s analysis and proposal hinged on the agrarian: “We are not satisfied to assert the Indian’s right to education, culture, progress, love and heaven. We begin by categorically asserting his right to land. […] The agrarian problem is first and foremost the problem of eliminating feudalism in Peru. […] There are two expressions of feudalism that survive: the latifundium and servitude.”
An agrarian utopia was the seed for
the Salvadoran guerrilla movement
One can trace a genealogical lineage from Kropotkin’s proposals as found in The Conquest of Bread leading directly to the proposals that inspired the Central American guerillas. All included land redistribution, reviewing the terms of exchange for peasant goods, state banking and government restructuring, all of which were also proposed by the anarchist prince.
These proposals broadened the horizon of possibilities in a Central America where the elite armed themselves and even ceded significant measures of power to the military to keep the socioeconomic status quo unaltered.
When these utopias arose in the region, analyses targeted the primacy of the agrarian question, axis of the class struggle. The concentration of land in the hands of the few—who exported coffee, bananas, cotton, sugar and others—was identified as a causal factor for hunger and scarcity, in contrast to the Malthusian opinions that attributed these evils to population growth.
The correlation between large estates and poverty was particularly clear in El Salvador, where hunger and sugar exports grew in tandem during the 1960s. During that period the foundations for discontent in the agricultural sector were laid with the expulsion of peasant farmers and leaseholders to expand large agro-exporting landholdings.
In 1969, according to Walter LaFeber, 300,000 Salvadorans—one in eight citizens—had fled the country. Guerrilla activities began in that period, and although dismissed by the CIA, they strengthened the alliance between the military and the oligarchy. It was in this context that the Farm Workers Union (UTC) and the Christian Federation of Salvadoran Peasants (FECCAS) emerged, aligning themselves in the People’s Revolutionary Bloc and becoming the breeding ground for innumerable insurgents.
Their conflicts, like those of the later guerrilla movement, were directed against the landowners: the Orellanas, the Pomas, the Dueñas... Their utopia was agrarian, with demands similar to Kropotkin’s, although somewhat more moderate: lower interest on loans, lower prices on fertilizers and insecticides, and lower rents on the land. Anti-communist propaganda was also agrarian, appealing to small landowners by announcing that “socialism will take away your cows.”
In Guatemala, too
In Guatemala, the 1944 revolution set the standard with a blow that gave agrarian utopianism its shape: United Fruit Company land holdings were expropriated for their return to the indigenous populations. Following the 1954 counterrevolutionary coup, the forced labor system was reestablished in many rural areas, but the dream was kept alive to be taken up by the revolutionary movements.
In an interview with anthropologist Roddy Brett, a peasant woman from Santa María Tzejá told how the guerrillas’ proposition fostered this aspiration even among those who weren’t as dissatisfied: “We had land, we had products and life wasn’t as hard as it had been before. The truth is that we were better off than many other people in other parts of the country, including our own families. But the guerrillas told us our family members still didn’t have land. They said to me, ‘Your lands were going to be taken by the government, so you’ll lose everything you’ve worked for’... The guerilla fighters told us that if we joined together, everything would even out and all the peasant farmers in other places would also be at peace.”
...And also in Nicaragua
In Nicaragua, too, utopia had a heavy agrarian component. In a document from 1978, the three commanders of the FSLN’s insurrectionist tendency—Daniel Ortega, Hum¬berto Ortega and Victor Tirado—pitched the following offer after announcing that all land held by Somoza and his associates would be confiscated: “And there will be no more enormous concentrations of land in Nicaragua, nor land fenced off that no one farms, because all land will be put to productive use... The Sandinista Front will put an end to rural land lying fallow because we will make sure it is worked all year round. And those who harvest the coffee, sugar cane, tobacco and cotton, those who wield the machetes and those who work in farming will have good, fair wages; no one will be cheated with weights and measures; and harvesters will no longer die of pesticide poisoning.”
In this case, the utopia announced not land redistribution but improvement in the farmworkers’ labor conditions. Nevertheless, in the end, it was an agrarian utopia.
The “lethal example”
of the Cuban revolution
These utopias, sought at gunpoint, rest in the 20th-century pantheon of dreams, observed with an unforgiving eye by a diverse array of actors, especially the very people who pushed for them as members of guerrilla movements and grassroots organizations.
What do social scientists say about this utopian urge? Sociologist Edelberto Torres-Rivas, who in his youth was a militant with the Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT), stands out among them. His last book, eloquently titled Revoluciones sin cambios revolucionarios (Revolutions without Revolutionary Changes), is in itself an assessment.
Torres-Rivas recalls the pretensions of Central American revolutionaries: “The movement arose with the explicit purpose of changing society, including first and foremost political power, the State, without whose collapse nothing else could be changed, much less lead to a more just society.” Torres-Rivas thus assumes a clearly Leninist stance and distances himself from the social democratic vision, which Lenin labeled opportunistic and Philistine. He later lands sharply critical blows. Regarding El Salvador, he concludes that the civil war came to an end when the Chapultepec accords were signed in 1992, but, he says searingly, “the revolutionary project much earlier.” Why? Because, according to him, “the application of the Cuban model of revolution, constantly invoked, proved to be unrepeatable in Central America. In no country did the guerrilla foco [cadres creating a focal point of organizing and engagement] become transformed into the people’s war; on the contrary, it led to counterrevolution, which hastened the people’s repression. In fact, it wasn’t successful anywhere in the world, and, truth be told, the failures it produced filled both the mountains and the streets with thousands of victims, where many believed that victory was within reach. They lived under the conviction that dying for the revolution was living the example. It was a deadly example.”
The utopia of the Nicaraguan revolution
The insurrection’s success in Nicaragua fueled the expectation that “If Nicaragua has triumphed, then El Salvador will triumph, and Guatemala will follow.”
Ricardo Falla recalls that “in preparing for regular jungle combat, we were constantly reminded of the Sandinista triumph, which was the precursor to victory of the Guatemalan revolution.... The partial insurrections in Nicaragua, like that of September 1978, and those struggles leading to the triumph of July 1979, were closely followed over radio with the hope that in Ixcán and in Guatemala as a whole the same victory would be repeated.”
The Sandinista victory served to fuel a “permanent offensive spirit,” which led to even bloodier repression. The guerilla leaders didn’t grasp that the Sandinistas’ triumph in Nicaragua had sealed the fate of other revolutionary movements on the isthmus. The United States redoubled its support for El Salvador, and the Guatemalan military applied its strategy of “draining the tank to catch the fish.” Nevertheless, the leaders continued preaching the Stalinist faith that imposes present sacrifices to achieve the promised future. For this reason, German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin contended in an essay on surrealism that it is necessary to “organize” pessimism for political purposes in order to put a check on the facile optimism of some leftists.
The “enemy” was within
In the heat of battle many principles were left behind. Even when major defeat came later—when the FMLN won its elections then failed to keep its promises, and when the URNG was unable to become a significant political force—the symptoms of decline were present much earlier and affected the utopian proposal.
As Torres-Rivas indicated regarding Guatemala, “Many Armed Rebel Forces (FAR) cadres died not in the mountains, but were murdered in the city. Internal personal strife was a serious problem, based not on ideology but on ‘armed egos.’ There were both heroic acts and betrayals that could not be forgotten.”
This internal animosity was also detected in El Salvador by analyst Mario Lungo. In his opinion, it was based on personal differences that took on the appearance of political divergences and contradictions but had terrible consequences, such as occurred with the Farabundo Martí People’s Liberation Forces (FPL) guerrilla fighter presented by historian Jorge Juárez as “Alejandro”: three of his children were executed by FPL members, accused of being infiltrators, during the dark days of the “enemy networks.”
Roque Dalton is only the most conspicuous figure on a huge list that rotted the guerrilla movements from the inside when they adopted their adversaries’ methods and values.
Several decades later, the FSLN in its second stage of power is following these same steps in combating, and even eliminating, many of its former activists, accusing them of being agents of US imperialism.
The “Red Terror” and the
strategy of state terrorism
Further developing this adoption, the Guatemalan FAR—like the Salvadoran FMLN—committed a series of executions of businessmen, journalists, politicians, members of the diplomatic corps and other civilians, occasionally killing hostages for whose liberation the required conditions had already been met, or seeking ransom even for kidnapped people who had died during their capture or captivity.
This “red terror” wore down the revolutionary forces and ruined an indispensable policy of multiple alliances and humanitarianism, which was supposed to be a quality of the “new” men and women. The consequences were immediate: “The red terror not only failed to increase insurrectionary fervor, it fueled the terrorist strategy of the United States and the national State,” wrote Torres-Rivas. This terror held the seed of failure because “it spread throughout the country and a state of emergency was declared. The cycle of protest/repression seemed to be ending; the revolutionary actor’s energy was already spent. This accumulation of bloody defeats could not generate a proto-insurrectionary tem¬perature.”
Torres-Rivas contended that by the 1980s revolutionary conditions no longer existed. What did exist was a grassroots movement that lacked ties to a revolutionary leadership, and was therefore quickly neutralized by bloodshed. The Christian inspiration for the struggle led to “a trail of pain that seemed to be self-fulfilling”: lives that were sacrificed because in losing oneself, one is saved, forgetting the earthly nature of revolutionary utopia, “since it is in this world where injustice is fought and happiness is experienced.”
Revolutionary leadership, he states, had its responsi¬bility: “The killing was unforeseen and then unavoidable. Responsibility was in the hands of the commanders, since they were already engaged in a process of armed violence and they thus should have been prepared for it.” The commanders lived out the triumphalism inspired by the Sandinista revolution, but failed to see that this triumph intensified counter-insurgent operations.
On the other hand, those involved, such as many guerrilla fighters in El Salvador, didn’t know what they were getting into: “Many people recall feelings of justice and equality that drew them into militancy with the leftists. Despite this, the idea of or enlisting in a bloody civil war couldn’t have been farther from their expectations.” Yvon Le Bot echoes the criticism of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and the Organization of People in Arms (ORPA) for having dragged them into “a war that was not theirs” while boasting of “having mobilized the Indian population.”
“We were untimely revolutionaries”
The final toll of these tensions, repressions, strategic mistakes, blindness to the signs of the times, breakdowns, imitations and instrumentalizations has not been good to utopian dreams. According to Torres-Rivas, “in the three countries where both war and peace accords occurred—El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua—socialist dreams met their demise, ending up on the negotiating table with the enemy, in conditions that were in and of themselves a denial of the principles that gave rise to that violent and revolutionary impulse.”
Utopia was conceived and sought at a bad time: the dreams were not just utopian, they lacked the chronotope: “Our will in response to the facts placed us, without realizing it, against history. We were untimely revolutionaries... Reformist objectives with armed actors and a radical spirit, swimming against the current’s predictable flow, against the direction in which the universal flow of history moves,” concludes Torres-Rivas.
in the time of impossibility
According to Torres-Rivas, the Cuban revolution marked the end of the revolutionary era, given that the Sandinista revolution was only able to survive for a decade.
The triumph of the Cuban revolution robbed the international context of the conditions for possible future revolutions, but the conditions that fueled the flames of struggle persisted: oligarchies more or less transformed into an industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, sheltered behind semi-feudal systems that could only be maintained by an anti-democratic, racist political game increasingly propped up by militarism.
Central America’s utopian insurgents faced a terrible paradox: they were fighting an indispensable fight, but in a time of impossibilities. Revolution was most needed when it was least possible. And although reformist objectives might eventually have been reached through democratic revolution, armed methods and incendiary rhetoric dragged them toward a then-impossible pretension: changing the system.
History brought the check, because the system remained unchanged and the demo-bourgeois objectives of liberty, institutional democratization, modernization and attempts at other development models weren’t attained either. The guerrilla fighters ended up at the negotiating table sidelining their ambitious initial goals and accepting the bourgeois order: “Central American leftists ‘waged their revolution’ with the Che popularized by Harnecker on their mind, without achieving revolutionary changes. Not even liberal, political democracy came out of there,” judges Torres-Rivas.
The utopia of peace
didn’t come either
Six years after the peace accords were signed, Guatemalan sociologist and theologian Juan Hernández Pico catalogued in a fairly exhaustive way the flaws displayed by the Guatemalan Left in the postwar period: personalization of leadership, internecine attacks, splits, desertion by important cadres, disconnection from the people, inability to renew leadership, leaders accused of sexual abuse, lack of legitimacy and resistance to democratic processes due to “Leninist atavism” that led to problems of internal democracy. These were only some among many other fallacies from those who argued for utopia and in the postwar period foundered when seeking to play a role in electoral democracy.
Journalist Héctor Silva Ávalos showed in a well-documented investigation how the first FMLN government gave General Munguía Payés the role of awarding posts with strategic impact on citizen security to officials who had been removed from their duties due to links to organized crime. Later, President Funes was charged with five crimes, including illicit enrichment and misappropriation of public funds. History fatally repeats itself: when we most need unified, ethical leftist leadership, it turns out to be even more divided and corrupt.
The disarmed utopia has been neither more decent nor more realistic than the armed version. In Nicaragua during Daniel Ortega’s second round in the presidency, it has gone so far as to become an armed nightmare, with more than 325 murders perpetrated by his police and paramilitary forces in 2018.
Central America’s utopias were collectives not because they were the product of collective thought—or unconscious—but because they offered a vision of the future for a collective, not just for the individuals who dreamed it. That is why they were social utopias. There were revolutionary, reformist, developmentalist, assimilationist and liberal utopias, plus mixes of two or more of these. The revolutionary utopias inspired the insurgent movements that led the wars of the 1970s and 1980s.
They were utopias that wanted to change the system and which, repeating Torres-Rivas’ critical judgment, failed to bring forth even a social democracy. They were succeeded by the utopia of peace, which never arrived either.
The utopian decline got
stuck in Central America
Thanks to this accumulation of disappointments we can say that the utopian decline that Mannheim believed he saw at the beginning of the 20th century took place in Central America much later on and due to the reconfiguration of world reality: the collapse of the Eastern European socialist bloc and the transformation of the isthmus’ agrarian society into another kind of socio-economic structure, with attendant cultural changes. Result: goodbye to the old dreams.
It remains for the next installment to look at how these utopias were assessed noy by social analysis, but by writers and in literature. And also how they were experienced or suffered by women and men on the street...
To be continued...
José Luis Rocha is a researcher affiliated with the Institute for Research and Projection on Global and Local Dynamics of the Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala and with the “José Simeón Cañas” Central American University in El Salvador.