new internationalist
issue 263 - January 1995

Cool news
The absence of turmoil does not mean that Central America has
settled for conservatism, argues James Dunkerley.

Sandinistas celebrate election defeat in Managua.

Central America went out of the news some time ago. ‘Anglo-Saxons expect Latin politics to be hot,’ says one leading Central American politician of the centre-left, ‘to be vividly expressive of either high expectations – as in the Cuban and Nicaraguan Revolutions – or of heroic defeat, as in the Chilean tragedy. Now the fighting is over we have lost the interest and the audience.’

Nobody living between the jungles of the Petén in northern Guatemala and the Darien Gap in Panama could possibly regret the passing of the massacres that afflicted the region in the 1980s. But in the process Central America appears once again to have become an impoverished backwater under the uncontested dominion of powerful landlords and transnationals.

The Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the former guerrillas of the FMLN in El Salvador lost elections, while the rebels in Guatemala have been strategic-ally defeated. The 1989 US invasion of Panama proved uncontroversial at home, relatively easy to stage and provoked minimal diplomatic embarrassment for Washington. In Honduras and Costa Rica - where there was no military conflict in the 1980s – conservative forces have held their own without great difficulty despite introducing fierce neo-liberal policies.

Now all eyes are on Cuba, long depicted as the most dangerous sponsor of local insurgencies and now so wracked by economic failure that charges for basic medicines have been introduced for the first time since 1959 – a move seen by some as signalling the end of the Revolution.

North American comment-ators and officials have lost their nervousness of a few years back. Their style is now casually bullish. Few of their blandishments are neutralized by the solidarity movements in the US or Europe, which have lost popular support – although non-partisan campaigns over human rights have maintained their influence.

All this suggests that politics in Central America reflect the end of the Cold War and the general decline of the Left. Nonetheless, the retreat from armed conflict has proved rather more difficult to conduct than weary cold warriors anticipated. Progressive forces have proved more tenacious and influential in the post-war period than Washington and regional right-wingers would like to admit.

In Nicaragua the Sandinistas remain by far the largest and strongest single political party. The right-wing slate that won the 1990 poll has split, and the Chamorro Government, beset by strikes against its neo-liberal policies as well as conservative sectarianism, has become heavily reliant upon Sandinista co-operation. This presents the Sandinistas with unfamiliar challenges, but it also makes the launching of a full ‘counter-revolution’ reversing the changes introduced since 1979 much more unlikely.

In El Salvador the Left won more democratic concessions through the Chapultepec Accords of January 1992 than have ever prevailed in that country since independence in the early nineteenth century. The former guerrillas in the FMLN are starting to change political culture in a highly ideologized society. In Guatemala there is a popular movement that is cautious but also a threat to the oligarchy, which had to step back from supporting the ultra-right coup attempt of May 1993 when the popular movement came onto the streets. Washington also sided with the democratic camp for the first time in decades.

The Panamanian elections of May 1994 were won convincingly by the party – the PRD – most opposed to the 1989 invasion and most critical of Washington. The ‘new beginning’ promised after the removal of disgraced president Noriega has fallen far short of the easy claims made at the time.

Washington certainly stopped a regional revolution founded on the 1979 victory in Nicaragua, but the Left also disturbed generations of autocratic domination. This is evident too in Mexico with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas on the border with Guatemala; in Haiti, where the Clinton administration has opted for direct intervention against a gang of thugs; and in Colombia, where the issues of drug controls and national sovereignty are once again escalating into a serious diplomatic rift with Washington.

Meanwhile, Central Americans have emerged from the civil wars poorer than they were at the onset of conflict at the end of the 1970s. The evidence suggests that not enough of them have been terrorized, demoralized or convinced by free-market mantras to guarantee a prolonged era of conservatism. The politics are only occasionally hot but they are getting very interesting.

James Dunkerley’s latest book, The Pacification of Central America – Political Change in the Isthmus 1987-93, is published by Verso.

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New Internationalist issue 263 magazine cover This article is from the January 1995 issue of New Internationalist.
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