I want to talk to you today about what I’ve learned about Central American political instability of the last 30-40 years. The lessons of the conflicts break down into a few central points, and I think these are super-relevant to the political discourse today in the US (maybe also in the UK given what happened there recently too). If you’re politically sensitive, or only here for the pictures and stories about ice cream flavors and cars, that’s totally fine – you’re allowed to skip this article. But the value to me of experiencing these countries, learning about their pasts, and drawing these conclusions up close was absolutely enormous.
- Almost without fail, Central American civil conflicts of the 70s and 80s were about money and power. A group of people, usually poorer, more rural and more indigenous, grows to resent the wealthy’s monopoly on capital and its refusal to share power. They organize.
- An educated subset of these organized, usually acting as leaders, start talking with the countries and leaders with whom they share ideals – in most cases, those who were globally aligned against US interests (Cuba, Soviets, South American leftists, etc).
- They talked to American enemies not because the US was necessarily anti-egalitarianism at its core (in fact historically quite the opposite!), but because the US’s foreign policy since the end of WWII had been to prop up non-egalitarian dictators to keep country squares (especially those in the Americas) out of the Soviet sphere of influence. (Yes: if you see parallels between this situation and SE Asia in the 70s, or the Middle East today, you win a cookie.)
- The US mostly reacted by retrenching around their favorite local strongmen, particularly once Ronald Reagan came to office, with his and his advisors’ ratcheting up of cold war tensions and fairly black and white view of the spectrum of political thought.
- As the egalitarian movements gained power, the governmental repression increased. In every country we’ve visited in Central America, there was an indefensible government-sponsored massacre of civilians in the name of “public safety” – in El Salvador, for instance, the entire village of El Mozote was massacred. (Worse, in that case, the Salvadoran government as well as President Reagan denied it occurred, despite eyewitness testimony to the contrary.)
- As repression increased, so did the pushback from the egalitarians – in at least Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, a civil war broke out due to escalation of tensions and the refusal of the extant governments to consider political solutions (possibly due to their wealthy benefactors in the US enabling them, or possibly due to just being really shitty people).
- When the US occasionally had moments of conscience related to the seamy cheats it was supporting (Somoza of Nicaragua, for instance, stole international earthquake aid rather than distribute it to his achingly poor citizens), and tried to cut off funding, the US government was willing to break its own laws (e.g. Iran-Contra) to keep funneling dollars to its pet causes – having lost total sight of what the US stood for in the first place.
- Just as in Southeast Asia, when the US finally surrendered to humanity and the popular will in each country, a funny thing happened: peace, tranquility, and forms of economy that in most cases are closer to unfettered capitalism than the scary red menace. (Yes, Nicaragua has collective farms and ties to Venezuela. Did that mean the US needed to put them on economic embargo in the early 2000s, just as a plunge in coffee prices was rendering the populace unable to feed itself? I’d argue, uh, no, the 6 million people of Nicaragua weren’t exactly a threat to US hegemony.) No, there wasn’t a Soviet Union around by that point to fund an alternative to capitalism (though Venezuela tried and is currently paying a huge price for its failure). But doing nothing (or more accurately not facilitating conflicts that killed hundreds of thousands of people) might well have lead to the same Central American political environment we have today. The US’ involvement was total waste of power, prestige, and money.
- Inarguably, the people of Central America are better off now than they were in the 1980s and early 1990s (lack of war is a good thing!). Possibly excepting the formerly very rich, they are largely better off now than they were prior to that as well. However, that doesn’t mean they are well off in aggregate. Their economies are sputtering engines and, in most of the CA countries, are dominated almost totally by a few large, wealthy families. Most people in rural areas and villages are basically at subsistence level – but a surprising number of city folks fall into this category as well.
- A huge official unemployment rate (60+% in Guatemala!) is only partially offset (wage or hours worked) by the large number of informal work arrangements – you could call them day laborers, temps, part-timers, adjunct professors or contractors, if you wanted. Basically, a huge percentage of people are working under the table at less than full time wage. That’s bad for both workers and governments (deprived of tax revenue that could fill potholes or buy policemen gasoline – just two things that Guatemala, for instance, can’t afford).
- If you are a policeman in Guatemala, not only do you ask for your constituents to directly buy you gas if they want you to investigate something, but if you stop showing up to work, there is an 80% chance it’s because you’re trying to make the journey to the US, where what you’ll be paid under the table is 10x or more what you’d make at home.
- I could go on and on about this, broadening and deepening, but I want to resume focus on what this means for you, the American or European reader. Firstly, unilateral American military intervention anywhere usually just gives local people bigger guns and budgets to shoot each other with. If there are two factions in a single country that disagree with each other, the US should keep the military out and, if anything, the diplomats and foreign aid in. Most other wealthy countries consider that successful international development should benefit ordinary people directly, and build roads, water treatment facilities, or medical aid. (Basically, governments doing abroad as a gift what they do at home in return for tax dollars.)
- A democratic, responsive political establishment bounding, maintaining and enhancing a properly functioning, egalitarian economy, and promoting/ensuring equal opportunity and living wages for all is crucial to the stability of a country. That kind of government prevents the rise of extremists and the outbreak of civil wars like those that consumed Central America (and are currently consuming the Middle East). Getting to a good economy from nothing is really hard, though, and while there are plenty of people with a vision of end state, most leaders don’t seem to know how to get there without disappearing the “democratic” part. And then you’re back at square one of the dictator/rebel cycle.
- Ironically the US’ greatest success in promoting other countries’ stability has come by turning countries with lower wages than its own into export-(to-US-)oriented dynamos. This has unfortunately come at the expense of the US’ own ordinary people, who have reacted with anger and mistrust. Many have spent the last 20-odd years in an ever-increasing froth of extreme political viewpoints. Recently, this has been culminating in large numbers of Americans lusting after an ambulatory drain hairball like Donald Trump, because his undisguised disgust for e.g. immigrants fits his supporters’ need to feel that someone is lower on the totem pole than they are. (A normal politician, who is presumed to be a disguised sociopath, but could never do more than hint at biases shared by his/her voters, is no longer messianic enough.)
- As a result of political gridlock exacerbated by that extremism, the US has lost the “responsive” part of democracy (more than “checks and balances” intended), and in some cases seems to be unable to tie its shoes without inertia from a major political protest. With Trump at the helm, it would at least temporarily lose the “egalitarian” ideals on which it was founded, because certainly he is not a man who believes all men are created equal (born on third base, says he hit 75 home runs, to paraphrase). From a Trump administration’s likely decision-making and priorities, it’s a gentle roll down the hill to a Central American civil war of the US’ own.
- If you’re a well off person, and/or if you’re a person who doesn’t want to pay tax dollars that don’t benefit you personally, shouldn’t this concern you? Wouldn’t you say it’s beneficial to you, a major financial stakeholder in society, to have a contented population rather than one whose anxiety about paying the rent/medical bills drives extreme behavior? You control, through your capital, the levers of power, and you have not often or willingly pushed them towards egalitarian ideals in many, many years. You already have everything, compared to the average amongst your countrymen (to say nothing of our friends in Central America) and yet you don’t appear to think that’s enough.
- What would you do if you were pushed to the brink of losing everything? What do you think your poorer countrymen, with a lot less room for error, will do? Are you ready for North America to resemble Central America?
One thought on “Political lessons of Central America”
I enjoyed your commentary. Broad, global views. The trade deals like NAFTA have been broadly good for the US. Many disagree but they assume that if you don’t sign the treaty, nothing changes. False assumptions. Things change. Better to work on good things proactively rather than play defense. Now we have The UK – they have retrenched with Brexit. They likely lost the EU financial capitol of London to either Frankfurt or Paris as a result of their own form of Trumpism. Isn’t Brexit about immigration policy? Build a wall you say? We have the Channel. I predict a big U-turn on Brexit. After all, the electorate is just learning what the EU was after voting to leave it. A preview of the Nov election in the US? Perhaps, but maybe the U- turn will happen at the convention and the GOP will put forward a credible nominee ( put out an APB for one). The world is a big place. We all have to learn to work together not isolate ourselves. Our leaders need to have this world view or go away. How do we lead the public to see this? That is the leadership challenge for our new president (the current one being marginal at it),the new British PM and all the others.