The Fuse is Lit: The Rise of the Mass Movement in Central America and the Desperate Response of Imperialism

It is now becoming clear that the rise in mass struggles which has shaken the countries of the northern portion of South America during the past decade – especially Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador – has begun to sweep through Central America. Like a building wave on an incoming tide, the inherent strength of its moment is hidden until it begins to crest and curl, suddenly revealing its power.

What at first appeared as a series of unconnected political events: the election of the Ortega and Funes governments in Nicaragua and El Salvador, respectively; the “left” turn and subsequent coup which removed the Zelaya wing of the Honduran Liberal party and replaced it with a servile oligarch from its conservative elite; the recommencement of indigenous movements in Guatemala resisting Canadian imperialism in the mining sector; and the mass opposition to the Free Trade Agreement in Costa Rica, as well as the electoral fraud which marked its formal support, can all now be seen as a complex of political, economic and social cross-currents modifying and strengthening what is in reality a Mesoamerican response to the neoliberal attacks on some of the poorest people in the Western hemisphere.

The New Austerity Drive

The recent confluence of events is now showing the interconnectedness of resistance to these attacks, without implying that a state of mass political self-consciousness has necessarily yet been reached, except at the level of some sections of the political vanguard. The impetus to this political convergence is the over-determination of the global economic crisis and its manifestations at the national level – that is, the specific forms by which the renewed neoliberal recipe is being shoved down the throats of the Central American people. If Greece is the laboratory for the IMF-World bank concoctions to be fed to the European working classes, then the whole of Mesoamerica is the operating room where the doctors of economic doom are operating to drain what is left of the already bled.

The global economic crisis has three dimensions in Central America: the effect on the local economies, the political response by the national ruling classes, and the offensive of US imperialism.

The local economies are being battered by two primary factors: the first is the drop in effective demand for exports as consumption falls in the United States, and a parallel drop in internal aggregate demand as the purchasing power of the internal market shrinks; the second is the expulsion of Central American workers from the United States, and the drop in remittances from the USA to a series of countries which depend upon this influx of dollars from its citizens working away. The effect of this on several economies is devastating. Remittances form the largest portion of GDP in El Salvador, for example, and their disappearance means increasing poverty and misery for the families and communities which have come to depend upon them. Even in countries where the remittances form a much smaller fraction of the GDP, such as Costa Rica, largely agrarian areas which produce a disproportionate number of immigrant workers have been impacted with a soaring unemployment rate and an increase in social tensions and crime.

This drop in economic activity and the contraction of the GDP has meant a decline in revenues for central governments. While the closure of plants has not meant a serious drop in taxation revenue from these manufacturing facilities, given the tax regime within the maquilladores, the rise in unemployment has meant that the sales taxes that form the primary sources of government revenues in a host of Central American countries have shrunk with the concommitment increase in government debt.

This government debt has become the target for the neoliberal economists at the IMF and World banks, as well as the Inter-American Development Bank. Thus we have begun to see savage attacks on the meager social wages as well as the direct wages of state and semi-state employees, combined with a direct assault on the democratic rights of workers’ organizations through legislative fiat and overt police and military repression. It is these two responses by the local oligarchies, combined with a massive military build-up in the region by American imperialism that is forming the framework for the convergence of struggles.

First Honduras

The spear point for the resistance, on a national scale, is Honduras. Born in the struggle against the coup which deposed Mel Zelaya, and now facing the assassins of the oligarchy, the National Front of Popular Resistance is more and more acting as the political pole of attraction for the militancy of the political movements. At its latest National congress, characterized by some on the left as “one step forward and one step back,”  the increasing radicalization of the constituent parts of the front repelled a portion of the Liberal party which had attached itself to the mass movement in an attempt to better control it. This Liberal wing has withdrawn and has entered into an alliance with the Pepe Lobo regime in order to better take advantage of upcoming electoral and cabinet opportunities. On the other hand, the granting of the title of “Grand Coordinator” to the ousted president Zelaya, whose refusal to decisively break with the politics of compromise and vacillation wasted a pre-revolutionary situation, is a symbol of the desire of the Honduran mass movement to continue on the march towards a constituent assembly.

More importantly, the congress affirmed its support for the economic and social struggles which are in process. As this piece is being written, the teachers are in the third week of a national strike against cuts to education and attacks on their living standards, in particular raising the demand that the regime return $210,000,000 USD which the golpistas of the Micheletti dictatorship took from the pension insurance fund.

They are joined by the union federations in the north who are planning a general strike over economic and political demands. Despite the repression, murders, torture and threats, the mass movement is gaining in strength and a campaign for an unlimited general strike to bring down the regime has been launched by sectors of the left, in conjunction with the call for the organization of local committees of popular resistance to build self defense mechanisms against the repression, and to democratize the constituent elements of the Popular Resistance Front.

Now Panama

While Honduras is the present locus of the mass struggle, the Panamanian struggle has taken a qualitative leap forward with a semi-insurrectionary general strike in the western Panamanian city of Changuinola, close to the Costa Rican frontier. What began as a strike by the main banana workers union over economic demands became an intensely political battle against the extreme right-wing Martinelli government, whose electoral campaign was partly financed by the libertarian-right of the US Republican party (the same folks who backed Otto Guevara’s Libertarian Movement in Costa Rica).

The Martinelli government has introduced Law 30, called The Law on Aviation, but whose popular name is the Ley Chorizo (The Sausage Law). This law, among other things, outlaws the automatic collection of union dues through payroll deduction (the dues check-off), and makes unions accountable for all the actions of its members, whether authorized or not. In addition to this law, the Panamanian government has promulgated a law which outlaws actions blocking access to public thoroughfares – that is, setting up picket lines on streets, which carries with it a mandatory sentence of six months to three years in jail. This direct attack on the rights of workers to organize is part of a generalized attack on democratic rights in Panama, and it was in this framework that the Changuinola uprising took place. The workers not only shut down the city for three days, they also seized the airport and other public facilities in order to forestall the “forces of order.”

The government responded by sending in the Panamanian Defense Forces (the Army), who killed 9 combatants and injured hundreds of others, including many indigenous activists who had joined with the workers in struggle. This action was met by a massive resistance from the public sector workers and the construction workers union. The government, for tactical reasons, partially backed down by holding the law in abeyance for 90 days and establishing a roundtable to which some, but not all, union leaders accepted invitations. At the same time it began to selectively repress the leadership of the banana workers, the head of the construction workers was jailed, and a popular and respected left-wing professor was also incarcerated.

However, the murder of the inhabitants of Changuinola by the repressive forces has massively backfired on the Martinelli government. It has provoked a united response from the relatively weak and fractured left and strengthened the forces of  the National Front for the Defense of Social and Economic Rights (FRENADESCO). This united front of left social and union organizations, has become the main coordinator of the struggles against the Ley Chorizo, the struggles of the Canal Zone workers opposing the widening of the Panama Canal, the hunger strike of the Social Security workers, and of course, the bananeros of the Bocas del Toro region. SUNTRACS, the construction and general workers union which is one of the main organizers of FRENADESO, and which is the most powerful force on the trade union level in Panama, has come out fighting against the Martinelli regime and is working towards a general strike to abrogate the Ley Chorizo and bring about the political demise of Martinelli.

The SINTRABANI, the independent banana workers union, has also announced that without the withdrawal of Ley Chorizo, they will return to the streets to force Martinelli to back down. In addition, the indigenous people of the region have been mobilizing with marches and demonstrations, including a protest involving hundreds of representatives in front of the presidential palace on August 9th. This mobilization was a culmination of the International Day for Indigenous Peoples, and featured a solidarity caravan from Chiapas, Mexico, and an International Solidarity Tribunal who are investigating the murder of the workers and indigenous people of Changuinola, among other human rights violations.

Education Under Attack

While the resistance is growing throughout the region, and across all popular sectors, the sectors under the heaviest attack are to be found in the social economy: health care, social security, and education are all the targets of the newest wave of austerity and structural adjustment measures. This has reactivated the students’ movement on a regional basis, which has in some respects taken its cues from the massive student struggle in Puerto Rico. Students at the Pedagogical University of San Carlos, El Salvador, the National Autonomous University of Honduras and the Panama university system have all mobilized against the attacks on education, university autonomy and funding. The struggle is reaching its most organized and massive expression in Costa Rica, where on August 17th more than 20,000 students, union workers, professors and administrators marched on the National Assembly demanding that the cuts to funding public education be reversed, and that private education not be prioritized at the expense of  public education. The slogans raised included the demand that the Public Education Fund allotment be increased by 13% and that it be done without increasing the foreign debt, thereby directly challenging the role of the IMF and World bank.

The forms of struggle which are developing in this fight are leading towards the self-organization of the students, union workers and professors to direct the campaign. For example, at the National University branch in Liberia, in the Guanacaste region, the student and left leadership was able to organize a campus wide assembly where a plan of action was debated and voted upon by the assembly. In addition, a national meeting of student representatives was held at the University of Costa Rica on the August 21st, as a  joint initiative of the Movement towards Socialism and the Socialist Workers Party student organizations, where a joint plan for escalating the struggle based on mass forms of democracy was debated.

It is on the teacher and student movement that the repression throughout Central America is also directed. Brutal police attacks, arrests, expulsions and selective assassinations have all been methods employed to try and contain and destroy these movements. The response of the movements has been to increase the mobilizations in the face of the repression and to reach out to other social sectors for support and solidarity.  In particular, the teachers of Honduras have taken to the streets in massive numbers to fight for their demands, despite the intimidation by these repressive forces. Their display of bravery emboldens the other sectors of the national resistance, who themselves come into the streets to march with the teachers. This “multiplier effect” has not been lost on the leaderships in other areas of the region.

The Yanquis are Coming, the Yanquis are Coming!

Behind this wave of social struggles lies a unifying political theme: the remilitarization of the region by American imperialism. The coup in Honduras shattered the myth propagated by the local ruling classes that the bad old days of Yanqui imperialism were over, and that Central America was a democratic zone on the way to prosperity. The coup stunned large segments of petite bourgeois society and raised the specter of the old imperialism at the time of the US-backed Contras. This unease has turned into anger with the revelations of the seven new military bases in Panama, which will be accessible to the Americans, and the approval in the Costa Rican National Assembly by the National Liberation Party and Libertarian Movement coalition majority to allow up to 13,000 US armed forces personnel and 46 American warships to use Costa Rican ports for supposed “drug interdiction missions.” 

This agreement has been challenged by the opposition parties with a reference to the Costa Rican Constitutional Court. The Court has agreed to hear the challenge on the basis that the Costa Rican constitution prohibits the stationing of any foreign troops on Costa Rican soil, and that any breach of this is a breach of national sovereignty. Costa Rica has no armed forces as they were disbanded and abolished after the 1947-48 civil war. 

The issue of the remilitarization of Central America is understood broadly within the framework of the militarization of Columbia – that is, the house of horrors which Columbia has become is, in the minds of the people, directly linked to the presence of American troops and special-forces in the form of Plan Columbia. A broad-based opposition to American military presence informs the political discourse at a regional level, and reinforces the themes of anti-neoliberalism.

But of course the remilitarization of the region is no accident; it is part of a larger strategic plan to halt the spread of the Bolivarian revolution, and to ultimately overturn it. Its ancillary targets are Nicaragua and Cuba. Its short term effect has been to move the Funes government of El Salvador to the right; to bolster the right wing elements inside the Costa Rican government, including President Chinchilla herself; and the overthrow of Zelaya in Honduras.

In the longer run, however, the use of the military option represents a failure of American foreign policy and diplomacy, as well as the recognition that the United States does not have the geopolitical clout it once had. The anti-imperialist forces throughout the region are winning, albeit slowly with some setbacks along the way.

This was most vividly demonstrated on July 17th in Managua, Nicaragua, where the Sandinista movement mobilized over 500,000 supporters to celebrate the 31st anniversary of the Revolution which ousted Dictator Anastasio Somoza. The breadth of this mobilization surprised the Sandinista leadership, who were expecting between 250,000 and 300,000 people to show up. The reason for the massive turnout was to send a signal to the Yanquis that any renewed attempts to overthrow the Sandinista government would be met by mass force. It was also a message to the Nicaraguan oligarchy that the Nicaraguan people were not going to be patient with them much longer, and that any attempts to destabilize the government in conjunction with the enemy would be repudiated by the people in the streets. It was also a signal, backed up by the results of differing polling firms, that the Sandinistas are on the way to winning the next National Assembly and presidential election. The polls are confirming what took place in last March’s Atlantic coast elections, where for the first time the Sandinistas won an outright majority amongst the indigenous peoples of the Northern Autonomous area.

The size of the Nicaraguan mobilization was one more defiant gesture by the people of the region who are no longer willing to sit passively by while their lives, those of their families and communities are sacrificed on the alter of American imperialism. It is this awakening of the need to struggle which will alter the course of history in the region, and indeed, change the lives of the peoples of the north as well. 

The front page of the August edition of El Socialista, the monthly newspaper of the Socialist Party of Central America sums up this regional perspective: “Forward with the Central American Struggles to Defend Education, a Living Wage, and the Gains of the Workers.”