Social Movements in Central America: Paradoxes of Protest in a Post-War and Post-Revolutionary Society

By Salvador Martí i Puig

Thirty years after the crisis in Central America, the region has once again appeared on the political agenda. However, it is now some time since intellectuals travelled to the Isthmus interested in seeing the outcome of civil wars in which the logic of mobilisation was black or white: a fight between insurgency and the status quo.

At that time, the social movements (called Organizaciones de Masas – Organisations of the Masses) held a closed loyalty towards the guerrilla groups: the FSLN in Nicaragua, the FMLN in El Salvador, and the URNG in Guatemala. For their part, the more low-key social movements in Honduras and Costa Rica showed solidarity towards the insurgents. Nevertheless, in each country the relationship between movements and guerrillas was different. In Nicaragua, from the second half of the 1970s and throughout the revolutionary period, the movements always obeyed the FSLN, which served as the vanguard. However, in Guatemala and El Salvador, the movements were more autonomous and had a greater capacity for negotiation with the guerrilla groups.

As of the 1990s, with the FSLN’s electoral defeat, the signing of the peace accords in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the change in the geo-political contexts, the relationships between movements and guerrilla organisations (which turned into political parties[i]) changed radically.

In Nicaragua, with the FSLN’s exit from power and the implementation of neoliberal policies, the social movements (particularly the workers’ and women’s movements) gained greater importance due to their increasing autonomy and their firm, confrontational position. The women’s movement was the most critical of the FSLN (due to its rigid hierarchy, machismo, and homophobia), and was directly opposed to the moral and legal counter-revolution that the new governments promoted. [ii] With respect to the workers’ movement, after almost eleven years of a paternalist relationship with the Revolutionary State, it began to carry out mobilisations against the neoliberal, privatising policies and distance itself from an FSLN that was interested in negotiating with power[iii]. Furthermore, as in the rest of the region, the demobilisation of many members of the standard and Contra armies created protests and anomic violence, breaking the ideological affiliations which they had fought for, throughout a decade.[iv]

This question—violence—has been one of the issues that has caused greatest concern in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In the three countries, criminal networks have developed (las maras) made up of youngsters deported from the USA, “war children” and ex-fighters. As a result of this issue, one of the most relevant movements has been the defence of human rights, both to fight government’s punitive populism[v] as well as to promote reparation policies for the victims of the authoritarian repression and transitional justice (albeit with different degrees of success).

Yet beyond the violence, in Guatemala and El Salvador the “class” movements have seen a new resurgence. In the case of El Salvador, the mobilisations by workers in protest against the privatisations supported by the FMLN[vi] have been noteworthy; whilst in Guatemala the indigenous mobilisations[vii] have stood out, with demands related to peasants, the defence of their culture and the protection of their territories, which are on occasion threatened by mining companies.[viii] At the same time, throughout the region, organisations and NGOs have appeared which are inserted in transnational networks and denounce the working conditions in the maquilas and defend the dignity of child workers, the natras.

At the start of the twenty-first century, episodes of contestation also emerged in Costa Rica and Honduras, two countries which until then were characterised by their low levels of social conflict. In Costa Rica, the fight against the “Combo del ICE” is worth noting, given that it challenged a legal bill that aimed to commercialise the telecommunications sector, as is the No al TLC (No to the FTA) campaign. Both were led by a rather mixed coalition of social sectors organised into Comités Patrióticos (Patriotic Committees).

In Honduras, the mobilisation was linked to José Manuel Zelaya or Mel (President of the Republic between 2006 and 2009) who during his mandate created alliances with social movements and workers’ organisations, as well as trying to create his own social grassroots via the implementation of focalised social policies financed by the ALBA. Faced with this situation, the traditional elites and Armed Forces organised a coup. Once Mel had been overthrown, a wave of protests began in the country, led by the so-called Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (National Front of Popular Resistance), which was followed by a wave of repression under the auspices of the State.

As well as these mobilisations, it is also worth pointing out the emergence of another type of movement: one that demanded transparency and accountability on the part of the authorities and the State. These mobilisations (which were present throughout the region) took an unexpected turn in Nicaragua and Honduras at the end of the 1990s, denouncing the way in which the governments managed the resources destined for the victims of Hurricane Mitch. Later on, in 2000, this type of protest was reactivated in Nicaragua in order to denounce the blurring of institutions with political parties, as a result of the famous Pacto[ix] (pact) signed by Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega. In 2007, when Daniel Ortega assumed the Presidency, this type of protest, fomented by civil society and NGOs, came to the fore again in order to denounce his arbitrary administration, his hegemonic practices, and the lack of electoral transparency as of the local elections of 2008.

Yet not all of the mobilisations that occurred in Central America have been emancipatory in nature. The activation of focalised social policies and the cooptation of institutions by political parties have revitalised (and given new forms) to clientelism. An example of this has occurred in Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega has built his own base of popular support comprising the beneficiaries of the social policies fomented by the “para-institutional” platforms called Consejos del Poder Ciudadano (Consejos del Poder Ciudadano).

*          *          *

As a result of this brief description of what has happened in Central America, we can point out that the social movements in the region have experienced a profound change in transforming the logic of “discipline and unity of action” typical of the dynamics of the Fronts of the 1970s and 80s into new logics that require autonomy, pluralism, and even ideological and social transversality.

Throughout this process of change there have been new expressions by social sectors with very different interests and struggles. Some struggles have a marked class character; others seek moral emancipation, or the defence of human rights; other struggles speak of a new ecological sensitivity or new cultural identities; and others demand another type of relationship—more respectful and transparent—between the State and Society. These different struggles, which on many occasions have features in common, also show differences related to their geographical scale, since some are clearly local or community in nature, others are on a national scale, and others a regional or global scale.

It should also be pointed out that in this new activist framework, which is more complex and eclectic than before, there is no (strategic or tactical) agreement between the party left and social movements. The impossibility of constructing an alternative and transforming agenda from the national level, a result of the economic and commercial globalisation and intense migratory flows, demands a more difficult and subtle activity: the need to coordinate different scales of struggles, and to insert demands into transnational networks.

Over the last decades, the combination of an openness in the structure of opportunities (the presence of Rule of Law to protect rights and freedoms) with the permanence and appearance of new grievances has generated an explosion of mobilisation that is more centrifugal than unitary. Understanding, interpreting, and analysing it at regional level is a challenge. Supporting the fights to denounce the vulnerability and exclusion that permeates these societies is another.


[i] For greater information on the FSLN’s process of adaptation see Chapter 14 of the following volume: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9781857436747/

[ii] For more information on the women’s movement in Nicaragua see: http://www.ohioswallow.com/book/Feminism+and+the+Legacy+of+Revolution and chapter 8 of the following text: https://www.rienner.com/title/The_Sandinistas_and_Nicaragua_Since_1979

[vii] The Guatemalan indigenous movement, at the same time, had internal tensions between the so-called “populares” who carried out the struggle on class terms, against the “culturalistas” who focused on cultural issues.

[viii] Movimiento Mesoamericano contra el Modelo Extractivo Minero (Meso-American Movement against the Extractive Mining Model – M4) is one of the most important combative networks in the region. 49 organisations from eight countries in Latin America participated in this movement, including 32 from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala (Spalding 2013).

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Latin American Movements

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