W.B. Gallie and John Markoff remind us that many of humanity’s most important and transcendental concepts are essentially contested across space and time. In my recent life and research in El Salvador and Nicaragua, terms like the left, revolution, and democracy have become deeply contested in discourse and practice. This is the case in no small measure because the left has actually attained state power, throwing into sharp relief the tensions between revolutionary ideals and political, economic, and social realities. But these tensions are also impelling some social movement activists to reinvent democracy, the left, and their revolutionary dreams.
El Salvador and Nicaragua both passed through revolutionary processes in the 1970’s and 80’s. The Frente Sandinista para la Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) came to power through arms and popular insurrection in 1979, while the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) fought a protracted civil war with the US-backed authoritarian regime of El Salvador through the course of the 80’s. In the 90’s and early 2000’s both countries saw elite, right-wing rule, and the left’s halting, but ultimately successful adaptation to representative democracy and global capitalism. Now in 2016, the Sandinistas have been back in power for a decade, and the FMLN is halfway through its second consecutive presidential administration.
Over the past three years, I have interrogated how social movements on the left in El Salvador interact with an ostensibly allied government, and for the first time this past summer, I have begun asking this question in Nicaragua. The answers are delicate, complex, and multiple, despite the fact that some literature on interactions between movements and leftist governments in Latin America depicts a simple dichotomy between cooptation and confrontation.
The Horizon of Critical Collaboration
In El Salvador, a third tendency has emerged: what members of the Concertacion de Mujeres de Suchitoto and the Colectiva Feminista call critical collaboration: a practice of working together with officials of government institutions in the formulation, implementation, and oversight of public policy. Critical collaboration as an idea and a practice positions state institutions and social movement participants as equals, whereby movements are experts in their specific area, “supporting what is good and critiquing what is bad”, while always maintaining their autonomy as a movement. The women’s movement in the semi-urban territory of Suchitoto has been quite successful in enacting legislation for gender equality, the construction of a women’s hospital, and at a cultural level, a generalized awareness and public respect of women’s rights that is unrivaled in El Salvador and perhaps throughout Central America.
In other “movement territories” critical collaboration is incipient. In the urban, gang-controlled zone of La Chacra, a coalition of community organizations have begun collaborative work with the government’s Youth Institute in the construction of cultural and employment opportunities, but with an emerging consensus to maintain their community structures in the face of the government entity’s attempts to supplant them with official “structures of participation”. Throughout the country, the Foro de Salud exercises strict social oversight on the Ministry of Health to ensure that health care reforms approved on paper are actually executed in practice. In their totality, the movement practice associated with critical collaboration are expanding the purview of democracy in El Salvador—taking it away from the ballot boxes and even street protests—to include deeper processes of negotiation between societal and state forces.
These processes of/attempts at critical collaboration have depended not only on the organization and autonomy of social movements, but also on the relative openness of successive FMLN governments. The recent Policy of Citizen Participation unveiled in July institutionalizes spaces for social movements to lobby and collaborate with state institutions, but (as is problematic in La Chacra) largely on the government’s terms. While the viability of critical collaboration as a core concept and practice remains to be evaluated, the possibilities that it opens for the empowerment of social movement activism vis a vis state structures in El Salvador is monumental, especially when compared with the situation in Nicaragua.
Silent Movements and Reinventing the Left
Many social movement leaders coincide with critical news sources in maintaining that the Sandinista government, led by President Daniel Ortega, has created a virtually totalitarian state in Nicaragua. Opposition lawmakers were recently removed in a weakly substantiated Supreme Court decision, and Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, was recently announced as the Vice Presidential candidate in a November electoral contest with little presence of any opposition. The Sandinista party has fashioned its own network of subordinated social movements and an expansive fabric of clientelistic social programs that cover basic needs without the messiness of authentic citizen participation
But there is much more at play under the official radar in Nicaragua. The concentration of Sandinista power into a closed, bureaucratic, male state machine has marginalized and radicalized many movements motivating them to organize outside traditional state, party, and movement structures. In the women’s, environmental, and cooperative movements, there is an emergence of decentralized, territorialized practices that rely on endogenous resources as opposed to the government or international cooperation.
Rene Mendoza, of the Winds of Peace Foundation, talks of the “silent movements” in the Nicaraguan countryside that are organized along cooperative and kinship networks. Here, there is a new mentality coalescing around decentralization of power and leadership, a struggle for territorial sovereignty, and in general, more “autonomous thought” in small producers who have learned to achieve a balance between a” business and cooperative mindset.” For Rene, these silent movements—that do things at night, on foot, in ways that are imperceptible to NGO’s and government agencies—are “where the left is now.” Not only are these movements largely imperceptible, they are also “uncontrollable,” according to Rene: “they are conquering small spaces, until they will one day erupt.”
Haydee Castillo, the President of Foro de Mujeres Para la Integracion Centroamericana y Del Caribe, provides a similar perspective from the feminist movement. She speaks of an emerging awareness that the Sandinista Revolution of 1979 occurred within a patriarchal and authoritarian political culture that has only intensified within the ruling party upon its return to power in the 2000’s. This has “caused the values of the left to come into dispute.” Optimistically, she states that, “I think we are watching an old part die and a new part emerging, where we need to see a visionary, strategic, honorable, and horizontal leadership—to no longer do things how we used to… a new way to exercise power, another way to construct political culture, and a repositioning of values.” Referring to her territorial organizing work, she says, “In the Segovias, we have begun to talk about self-governance, and that is where the hope of the people is: we can no longer think about depending on the national government… “
So while in El Salvador, a marginally open left government has worked with social movements (albeit sparingly) in a spirit of critical collaboration that portends opportunities for a deepening of democracy, a decidedly closed left government in Nicaragua has marginalized independent social movements to the point that the values of the left have come into dispute and some community organizations speak of (or are already enacting) self-governance. What conclusions do these developments suggest for democracy and for the left in Central America? First, democracy can run deeper than participation in elections, or in street protests when elections go awry. Second, the left need not be simply expressed by the vanguard parties of yesteryear. Third, the state is a wildcard, and my question is this: can the state actually “come down” (as a community leader in La Chacra, El Salvador demanded)? Which is to ask: can we hope that grassroots, localized, social movement forces succeed in subordinating the state to their myriad interests, or does the assumption of state power necessarily imply a separation from “where the left is?”