Pres. Clinton's Visit to Central America
President Bill Clinton just completed a four day visit to Central America. In Nicaragua and Honduras, he briefly visited areas most devastated by Hurricane Mitch in late October, 1998. In Posoltega, Nicaragua on March 8, near two villages that were buried by mud, killing 2000 people, he promised small amounts of aid, and announced the suspension for two years of any debt payments Nicaragua owed the United States. The next day, Clinton praised the 500 U.S. troops in Honduras calling them "social workers in fatigues" "who are building bridges, physical and metaphorical between the people of the United States and Central America." In Guatemala he promised support for reconciliation, and made a mild apology for past U.S. support for violence and repression by the Guatemalan military, and said "the United States must not repeat that mistake." (New York Times, March 11, 1999)
Are the people of Central America entering a new era of peace,
democracy and the possibility of growing prosperity? Has U.S. policy gone through a
fundamental change with regards to Central America? Unlike 10 or 20 years ago, there is no
war going on in Central America today. The murderous repression by the governments of
Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala against their populations, with the direct
involvement of the United States, which marked the 1980's is not a part of the current
reality. Nicaragua is at peace.
Peace But No Justice
There is peace in these countries but there is no justice. An
economic war continues against the majority of the people of Central America, a war whose
victims are neither tortured nor murdered directly by the military -- rather this economic
war causes massive and growing poverty and economic inequality, disease and lack of health
care for the majority. The winners are the large landowners, the managers and owners of
the factories and the banks, the financiers, the large importers and exporters. Rather
than CIA organized death squads, the people face structural adjustment and neoliberalism;
where government spending on social services, public transportation and education are cut
drastically, where 1/3 or more of exports go to pay the foreign debt, where most of the
new jobs are in the informal sector and pay even less than the low paying exploitative
jobs in the other growing sector, the export processing zones.
President Clinton, CNN and The New York Times lament the destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch, 10,000 dead and many more homeless, and hundreds of thousands of people sick or vulnerable to disease because of the lack of water, food and medicine. What they do not say is that Hurricane Mitch's impact was made far more deadly because of the economic policies followed by Central American governments, and pressured by the United States government and international agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The degradation of the land caused by the agro-export sector, the decline of public spending for infrastructure -- roads, water -- and for healthcare, all made a natural calamity worse.
Moreover, the nearly $1 billion of aid that Clinton has proposed, which is being held up by the U.S. Congress, would force these countries to open up their economies even more to U.S. foreign investment and U.S. exports, with no regulations whatsoever. We should support economic and humanitarian aid and forgiveness of all of the debt owed by Central American countries to international agencies, to Western governments and private foreign banks and it should be unconditional. Given the rightwing nature of the governments in all four of these nations, the ending of debt payments, which in the case of Honduras and Nicaragua are about 50% of their national budgets, would not directly lead to more social spending to benefit the poor, who are the majority of the population. It would, however, make it easier for progressive social movements to win demands for better education, for public health and for meeting the immense emergency needs caused by Hurricane Mitch, and to develop alternative economic and social programs. It would also make it possible for future governments with a different agenda to address the many causes of poverty and inequality by having more resources at their command.
Nicaragua and El Salvador
In Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, the left has had a difficult time in developing an alternative vision and program in this period of global capitalism. In the 1996 elections in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas (FSLN), while strongly attacking the right-wing neoliberal economic policies of the opposition, also claimed that they would welcome foreign investment with few restrictions. Their vote, while substantial, fell below 40% of those who voted, although poverty, unemployment and social deterioration had grown in the period when they were out of power from 1990 to 1996. Male domination and top down leadership continue in the FSLN. Arnoldo Aleman, mayor of Managua until 1996, and closely allied with former Somocistas and the fascist, Cuban-American National Foundation, won the 1996 elections easily. President Aleman's corrupt government has been praised by President Clinton, even as it uses the humanitarian aid sent from around the world to consolidate its power and advance its anti-poor people and pro business agenda.
El Salvador just had elections, on Sunday, March 7th. The newly elected President of Salvador, like the previous one, is from the ARENA party. Its former head, Roberto D'Arbuisson, praised by newly elected President Francisco Flores, was called a pathological killer by a former U.S. ambassador, and murdered Bishop Romero, as well as organizing the murders of thousands of others. President-elect Flores is being called a moderate by the New York Times (Tuesday, March 9, 1999) because he studied at Amherst College and is into yoga but his economic policies are ARENA's, and exactly what Clinton and the U.S. Treasury department favor-- privatization, and production for export based on a few agricultural products and on low wage labor. The FMLN, which waged a brave and inspiring revolutionary war, has had some difficulty defining itself and its strategy and organization since the peace treaty was signed in 1992. The FMLN then became a legal party. It came in second in the election last week, although a distant second, with about 30% of the vote. However, voter turnout was even lower than in the recent elections in the United States, which suggests that most people do not see the FMLN as providing many solutions at this time. The New York Times, March 11, 1999, claimed the leaders of the FMLN, many of whom are ex-guerilla leaders who now sit in the National Assembly of El Salvador, gave Clinton a standing ovation when he addressed the assembly, and asked for more investment by U.S. corporations there. The elections and the FMLN stance point out their lack of a socialist or non-capitalist alternative or a program that can substantially reduce the poverty of the majority.
In Guatemala, Clinton arrived two weeks after a UN commission, the Historical Clarification Commission, issued a report on February 25th, 1999 that 200,000 Guatemalans, mainly Mayan Indians, had been killed since 1960. They said over 90% of the murders were done by the Guatemalan government and military, and that the United States had provided support and training for what it called genocide against the Indian population. This remarkable report puts into writing what is already known in many parts of Guatemala. It should, but won't lead, to war crimes trials for those responsible in the United States and Guatemala. Like past U.S. presidents, e.g., Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, Clinton mildly criticized past U.S. policy in the Americas and promised a gentler and kinder policy in the future.
I visited Guatemala in the summer of 1998, and spoke to many families who had members kidnapped, disappear and killed by the military and groups linked to them between the late 1970's and the early 1990's. This is no longer the reality, the fear of being tortured and killed by the military, death squads and police has greatly diminished. This is a very important gain that should not be trivialized. Today, it is possible, at least in the towns and cities, to organize around human rights, indigenous rights, women's rights, unions, etc. The URNG, which led the armed struggle against the Guatemalan military, is in the process of becoming a legal political party. Nevertheless, the organized resistance to the economic onslaught of neoliberalism--lower wages, fewer jobs, deteriorating health programs and more crowded schools, seemed limited. In the short run, people seemed primarily concerned about individual survival and their family life, not collective resistance, although they have not forgotten what has happened. Street crime was a big popular concern. Rioss Montt, one of the two most murderous of the Guatemalan leaders of the 1970's and 1980's is the head of a political party that came close to winning in the last elections, running on a campaign of law and order, and his party has a chance to win in the next election..
Also, although repression currently is limited, the military is still intact and has not been purged of its mass murderers. They are the likely murderers of Bishop Gerardi of Guatemala City, who was murdered April 26, 1998, two days after releasing another report based on three years of study, that documented and named the worst murderers within the Guatemalan military. Integral to neoliberalism is repression. Neoliberalism causes huge inequality and poverty which has and will be resisted in various ways. Those who do not accept poverty are dealt with harshly.
Democracy and the free market are the rhetoric of the leaders of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua and their Washington connection. However, they and the parties they lead, supported the systematic violence of the 1970's and 1980's against those who struggled for social justice and the dignity of all. Although these political parties have changed their spots a little, democracy is not substantial when wealth is so concentrated in the hands of a few.
In Olympia, Washington where I live, there are still groups working in solidarity with the people of Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Today, March 13th, there is a picket at Penney's, to protest their selling clothing by Phillips Van-Heusen, which just closed their one plant in Guatemala that had been unionized. It is harder to oppose an economic war than a military war but that is our current task, as well as linking the economic and social inequality in the U.S. to the same forces causing it south of the border.
Peter Bohmer has been active for 30 years in solidarity struggles with liberation movements around the world and for radical social change in the United States. He is currently teaching political economy at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington