Central America

September 25, 2007

Events in Guatemala and El Salvador in the months since the Sandinista victory have provided a gold mine for "domino theorists". In an upsurge of militant actions in August, members of the Popular Revolutionary Bloc in El Salvador took over six factories in the capital city, while another group of workers staged a hunger strike in the main cathedral. The latter were joined by 150 supporters in other churches demanding re- spect for workers' rights and pro- testing the cold-blooded murder of an activist priest by right-wing forces. Then in early September, the Popular Liberation Forces (or FPL, the country's largest guerrilla organization) assassinated the brother of Salvadorean president Carlos Romero. The following week thousands of Bloc members defied a government ban on all demonstrations. They marched through the streets of the capital in a funeral procession for as- sassinated members of their organization, even though several people had been killed the previous day when troops fired in- to a crowd of demonstrators. In Guatemala, the government broke up a large demonstration celebrating the FSLN victory, but was unable to stop smaller rallies throughout the country. The July kidnapping of the vice-minister of foreign affairs by the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) was followed in early August by a militant strike by over 2000 banana workers protesting the kidnapping of their union leaders. After a support strike by 7000 workers on a neighboring plantation the unionists were released and won indemnity pay- ments for themselves and striking workers. Meanwhile students stag- ed a nine day nationwide strike against the repressive policies of the Ministry of Education, and the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) stepped up their armed propagan- da actions throughout the country. Even normally peaceful Costa Rica experienced a general strike by workers at the country's main port of Limon and the threat of a strike by public sector unions. NEW BALANCE OF FORCES While the recent upsurge in popular militancy hardly confirms the falling domino theory, the San- dinista victory in Nicaragua has in- troduced an important new ele- ment to the political balance of forces in the region, It has given a powerful impulse to popular move- ments in the rest of Central America. At the same time, it has touched off fears in both local and U.S. ruling circles that revolution might come to other countries in the region. These fears have a basis in reality. The military regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador are in- capable of dealing with mounting popular rebellion except by es- calating their repression. And Somoza's downfall also leaves the remaining dictatorships weakened and internationally isolated. Somoza was known as the Central American "godfather". His business empire extended throughout the region as did his SeptlOct 1979 political strongarm. He helped stage electoral frauds in Guatemala -and sent his air force to put down rebellions in El Salvador. During the recent war in Nicaragua, both countries reciprocated by sending arms and soldiers to defend Somoza, a move that did not help their popularity in Latin America. In re- cent months, Venezuelan social democratic leader Carlos Andres Perez has called the Guatemalan and Salvadorean dictatorships "autocracies as abominable as Somoza's, dressed up in electoral clothes." And even the Honduran military Junta has pleaded "not to be measured with the same yard- stick as the other two military governments." The destabilizing impact of the victory on the popular political consciousness in Central America has been considerable. Radio San- dino is easily heard throughout Central America, and the course of the popular war against Somoza was followed closely. Both the left and the popular masses have un- doubtedly drawn lessons from the successes in Nicaragua. Besides a step up in activity by revolutionary groups, there are also signs of growing coordination among different organizations in Guatemala and El Salvador. Ac- cording to the Mexican daily Ex- celsior, the FPL has started talks with the country's other major armed revolutionary organizations, the Armed Forces of National Resistance (FARN) and the small- er People's Revolutionary Army. The FPL spokesperson is quoted as saying, "Until now, our movements have been isolated from each other, and due to an ab- surd ideological competition, there were divisions and even mutual at- tacks, although we all have Marx- ist orientation. But, since Nicaragua this has begun to change... Communications have also stepped up among the revolu- tionary organizations of Gua- temala. The New York Times recently quoted "high Guatemalan sources" in reporting talks among the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) and a wing of the Com- munist Party that is open to armed struggle. CONTAINING THE REVOLUTION The destablilizing impact of the Sandinista victory has touched off a major debate within the Carter Administration over how to deal with the situation in Central Ameri- ca. Hard-liners in the intelligence community are arguing for renew- ed military aid and unqualified sup- port for the two dictatorships. State Department officials, on the other hand, have opted for a dif- ferent strategy to stem the revolu- tionary tide, more in line with the one they are pursuing in Nicaragua (see article in this Up- date). They are desperately trying to get the Salvadorean and Gua- temalan governments to take some steps towards political liberalization before it is "too late". As one State Department official told the Senate recently, "The central issue is not whether change is to occur, but whether that change is to be violent and radical or peaceful and evolu- tionary." During recent visits to El Salvador, Under Secretary of State Viron Vaky and former U.S. special negotiator in Nicaragua William Bowdler put heavy pres- sure on President Romero to make at least some minimal democratic reforms. In response, Romero has 45update . update update. update promised municipal and congres- sional elections for 1980 (to be supervised by the OAS), and has allowed moderate opposition figures to return from exile abroad. Both of these actions were warmly praised by the Carter Administra- tion. Similarly, the Lucas govern- ment in Guatemala has announc- ed that civilians will probably run for president in 1982. While trying to make political capital of these window-dressing reforms, the dictatorships have not lessened their fierce repres- sion of the popular movements. Guatemala's death squads con- tinue to claim seven to eight vic- tims daily. And in El Salvador, where government controlled death squads murdered 280 peo- ple during May and June, the kill- ing of activists continues unabated. As outspoken govern- ment critic Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador summed up Romero's response, "The government reacts to pressure from the U.S., but it doesn't believe its own statements. The continuing repression indicates there is little interest in a democratic opening. Free elec- tions are a promise that no one believes in." U.S. policy makers are in a Catch-22 bind in Central America. Without democratic reforms there are sure to be revolutionary explo- sions in both El Salvador and Guatemala. On the other hand, "moderate" solutions are next to impossible. As the military regimes realize, any let-up in repression would be quickly taken advantage of by the popular movement. In- deed, right-wing critics of Romero (some of them within the armed forces itself) are accusing him of being too lenient with the left, and rumors of a possible coup are cir- 46 culating in the country. Moreover, the moderate opposi- tion in both Guatemala and El Salvador is almost totally discredited, as are electoral strategies for change. With almost no mass base, groups like the Christian Democrats in Guatemala are seen as ineffectual at best and government stooges at worst. In addition, the leading "moderate" parties there, the Social Demo- crats and the United Front of the Revolution, have been pushed fur- ther left recently by the murder or exile of several of their prominent leaders. Both of these groups now belong to the Democratic Front Against Repression, a coalition led by militant unions and peasant organizations. ECONOMIC AND MILITARY DESTABILIZATION The new balance of forces in Central America in the wake of the Sandinista victory has also sent a tremor of anxiety through business circles, leading to a sizeable flight of capital. During July around $200 million was transferred from El Salvador to banks in Miami. In Guatemala, an estimated $40 mil- lion left the country and new in- vestment has slowed to a virtual standstill. Many transnationals have been closing up shop recent- ly, partly because of uncertain economic conditions. A major concern of local and foreign capitalists is the shaky future of the Central American Common Market (CACM). If the new Nicaraguan government with- draws from the regional trade grouping as rumored, the already weakened CACM could very well collapse. Those who stand to lose the most would be U.S. based trans- nationals with operations in the region, as well as industrialists from Guatemala and El Salvador (which together account for about 60% of exports within the region ). Costa Rica and Hon- duras, whose trade balance with other CACM members has been consistently negative, are already chafing at the bit. Honduras, only a partial participant since the 1969 war with El Salvador, is demanding special treatment as a condition for renewed participation. Costa Rica, almost totally isolated economically from its northern neighbors during the war in Nicaragua, is already calling for expanded trade with other Latin American countries to offset the possible loss of the region-wide market. Militarily as well, events in Nicaragua have upset regional coordination among Central America's ruling circles. The new Nicaraguan government has with- drawn from CONDECA (Consejo de Defensa Centro Americano), a regional military grouping set up with U.S. backing in 1964 to coor- dinate Central American armies, particularly their counter- revolutionary activities. Nicaragua's withdrawal may have dealt a fatal blow to the grouping, whose remaining members are Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The presidents of these three countries, who met several times recently to discuss the situa- tion in Central America in the wake of Somoza's fall, have already pro- posed forming a new military alliance. Their aim is clearly to join forces in preventing "another Nicaragua" in Central America.

Tags: Guatemala, El Salvador, domino theory, Revolution, repression

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