One obstacle to peace in Central America is the difficulty of imagining how peace-sustaining change could ever occur. Yet peace negotiations are going on in Guatemala and El Salvador; the five major armed opposition groups in Honduras have laid down their arms; Sandinistas and ex-contras have banded together to prevent new rounds of violence.
In the face of promising trends, there are many who remain pessimistic. They simply cannot imagine how a bit of so-called democracy, fairer elections every few years, or even less fighting will address the root economic causes that have torn the isthmus for decades.
Small windows of opportunity have both closed and opened over the last year. Central America's revolutionary groups have all decided that the time is completely wrong for an armed revolution -that even if they were to win a military victory, they could look forward to no better fate than the one met by the Sandinistas: You could win the military battle but you would lose the socio-economic-political war. The window was closing on violence as a force of change.
Closely connected to the closing of that window was the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Though the importance of the Soviet bloc to the struggles in Central America has been grossly exaggerated, its disappearance as an alternative economic model has made radical economic agendas less attractive. That has been true despite the fact that, rhetoric aside, the revolutionary groups were mostly pursuing social democracy rather than communism.
But with the closing of that window, another window opened. With the end of the Cold War, the United States could no longer pretend that the wars in Central America were part of a worldwide communist conspiracy. The justification for propping up oppressive regimes disappeared.
Moreover, the United States was sensing a new threat: the emergence of trading blocs in Asia and Europe. The United States had seen Latin America as a source of cheap labor, cheap raw materials, and cheap food But now the U.S. needs markets. They can no longer afford to sponsor wars that have destroyed economies in the South. They need prosperity in the South- at least enough so that the Latin Americans can buy U.S. goods.
This is, of course, a small window, but it largely explains why the United States has suspended military aid to Guatemala, why it is pushing very hard for a negotiated settlement there. It also explains the contradictions of U.S. policy toward El Salvador: On the one hand, the U.S. is the strongest supporter of the ongoing peace negotiations. On the other hand, it continues to bankroll the war. Still, it is significant that the U.S. is backing both peace and war: in the past they only backed war.
This new economic emphasis also explains why the U.S. has forgiven the bilateral debts of Honduras and Nicaragua, and why they are promising to do the same for Costa Rica. The Enterprise for the Americas-President Bush's plan for hemispheric free trade-is the clearest sign that U.S. strategies and priorities have moved from security issues to economic concerns.
Closely connected to these economic considerations is an ideological window. Using the rhetoric of democracy, neo-liberals are seeking to exclude economic matters from democracy's reach, thus impoverishing the very concept of democracy. Nonetheless, their use of democratic rhetoric does at least create new possibilities. For the sake of legitimacy, Central American governments will have to pay more than lip-service to elections. Indeed, all the major revolutionary groups of Central America have quickly taken advantage of this opportunity by deciding to withdraw from (or not re-enter, in the case of the Sandinistas) armed struggle, and to focus on the political struggle. The FMLN, for instance, announced plans in early November to turn themselves into a political party after the peace agreement comes into effect.
But are these small windows of opportunity enough? The revolutionary groups have decided that they are Central America's best chance for peace. They know that elections are a panacea, especially when governments hold all the cards in terms of access to media and government spending. They know that the U.S. need for Latin American markets will hardly benefit the poorest of the poor:
the major change will be the re-emergence of a middle class with a bit more buying power. But they also know that poverty has become desperate, that jobs are needed, and that some stability is required if those jobs are to be created. They admit that there will be problems as long as the military exists.
But they also know that the key to any long-term change is the building of Central America's civil society, that fairer elections are crucial to that, that constitutional reforms will be beneficial in the long run, that reforms of the judiciary are significant, that a nod towards land-reform is at least a beginning.
Central America's revolutionary groups see a better chance now than in a long time to attack the structures of repression in their countries. They can do so by promoting liberal democratic reform, though admittedly this barely touches the basic economic structures of injustice.
This is not a capitulation, because the revolutionary groups are convinced that the neo-liberal agenda, implemented by structural adjustment, cannot possibly deliver on its promises. When that becomes apparent to everyone, when the people demand real economic changes, the former revolutionary groups, in their next incarnation as political parties, will be in position to push for economic alternatives.
This last point needs emphasis. At present, there are few feasible economic alternatives: alternative models for economic development have not been worked out enough to be implemented by governments. Even if they were, alternative schemes are unlikely to succeed quickly, given the present global economic structures. Either way, the proponents of change in Central America need time to develop practical economic alternatives.
Joe Cassidy is editor of the Latin America Update, and director of research at the Latin American Working Group..