Central America Central America, just south of Mexico and North of Panama, consists of just six countries; Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Of those six, all share a distinct common history except for Belize. Belize for one is incredibly small, and while Spanish is the official language of other Central American countries, in Belize English is spoken. So throughout this paper as I carelessly say ‘Central American’ I am not including Belize whose history and development was far different than the others. Although Central America is located close to the United States in relation to the Eastern Hemisphere, our ways of life are indescribably different.
When we discuss Poverty in the United States many of us, including myself, don’t really know what ‘poverty’ is. It seems like only a select few are afflicted by it here and programs like Welfare and Food Stamps (with varying degrees of success) seem to lessen the effects. In Central America when one speaks about ‘poverty’ he/she is including a large proportion of the population. One measure of poverty is the earning power of an individual. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) which is a measure of income is around $12,000 in the United States.
In Central America on the other hand, the wealthiest Country, Costa Rica, came in at just under $2000. Distortion plays a role on the $2000 also, due to the fact the the elite-rich have an enormous concentration of wealth and land ownership, the real GDP of the poorer half of the population is around $200-$400 a year (Pg 10, Booth and Walker). Accompanying poverty or as a result is poor or unavailable education, health care, and an extremely bad job market. Government ‘for the people and by the people is not present is Central America’. What is present is a corrupt military- big business conglomerate which cares little or none for the common people. The military is responsible for enforcement, which includes death squads, torture, and public execution. The big businesses who are able to extract an endless supply of ‘minimum wage’ labor, amass great wealth but instead of reinvesting it locally, most invest overseas or in capital intensive labor whereby local jobs are eliminated.
Taking all this into effect and the fact that social classes and living conditions of many Central Americans are deteriorating rapidly leads some to rebellion. Some have taken a path of Passive rebellion. This can be seen in literature and popular music which questions the government. Others exercise their right to vote (even if it doesn’t really matter because the results are fraudulently attained). For example, “the 1974, 1978, and 1982 presidential elections in Guatemala were all fraudulently manipulated by military regimes “(Pg 109, Booth and Walker). Others take a more active stance. During times of increased repression by the government many coalitions and reform-aimed organizations were formed.
Many were actively involved in large-scale marches, labor strikes, and transportation boycotts. A little more on the radical side are the Guerilla groups. Composed mostly of peasants fed up with the government who see no other way than violence. This guerilla groups have special ties to the community. Many times they visit villages explaining their cause hoping to recruit new guerrillas.
The typical guerilla varies from young to old, male to female. The Guerillas are a most important part of rebellions but they are not effective alone. Their effectiveness is increased greatly when they develop formal links with outside organizations and have strong popular support. An example of popular support occurred in Guatemala where peasants would fight alongside the guerillas, greatly increasing their number. The Catholic Church was activity involved in rebellion also. They helped to organize community and labor groups for the people (Christian base communities). These groups gave people the inspiration and mass power to combat the government.
Although the Catholic clergy did not fight violently alongside the guerillas, their lives were at risk, and some were taken. A situation that combines all these ideas happened not too long ago in Nicaragua. All the hardships discussed earlier were present : extreme poverty, corrupt government, and worsening of conditions, driving many to rebellion. The early 70’s was a time where, unions were repressed, wages were set by the military regime, inflation was 10%, and 13% of the working class was un/under employed (compared to 5-6% in the United States). This set the stage for the 1973-1975 ‘revitalization of labor movement’ which included strikes, stoppages, and organization of labor unions. Christian Base Communities began to spring up, whose goal was better urban services and housing.
This point in time was important because due to heavy repression by the government, industry and the private sector were becoming doubtful and critical of the government. Other groups were developed who were anti-Somoza also (Somoza was the president at the time). At the same time FSLN, a rebel group of twenty guerilla bands, was expanding and gaining popular support. Many university students now supported FSLN’s actions. As a result the government felt it needed to reassert its power once again. This was in the form of widespread terrorism and repression, enforced by the National Guard, and practiced for years.
In 1978, the FAO (Broad Opposition Front) was created. Backed by the United States, Nicaragua’s Catholic hierarchy, and key business interests this organization tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an end of the Somozan rule before FSLN could take over. This organization seems to have been created out of fears, of its backers, of what future Sandinista rule would be. As a last resort the supporters of FAO, who were “moderate and conservative anti-Somozists turned to the Sandinistas as their last option ” (Pg 66, Booth and Walker). This is a crucial turning point, up until now the Sandinistas lacked broad based support.
Now they had financial backing and access to even greater human resources. This helped FSLN troops grow from “500 in 1978 to between 2500-5000 in 1979” (Pg 67, Booth and Walker). In doing so FSLN received diplomatic support from France and elsewhere in Latin America. Consequently, FSLN was able to purchase arms from abroad. To supplement that, many local residents pledged to fight alongside the Sandinistas.
Truly FSLN was becoming strong. Because of this Somoza lost most of his support base. Still by his side were, the National Liberal Organization, and of course, the National Guard. The Carter administration announced that it “no longer supported Somoza rule after an ABC reporter was murdered before his own cameras” in 1979 (Pg 69, Booth and Walker). This was perhaps Somoza’s biggest loss.
By losing US support he lost financing, arms, and the valuable training that he would need to curtail the Sandinistas in the near future. Obviously this was detrimental for Somoza but the Sandinistas weren’t sure where it put them. Would the US try to neutralize the Sandinistas and hope for a calm negotiation (Like Guatemala in 1954, Cuba in 1961, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1973) ? A quick answer came in 1980 when Ronald Reagan became President of the United States. All through his campaign he denounced the action of the Sandinistas and his support of Somoza. This was extremely bad for the Sandinistas and their cause but a major boost for Somoza.
Reagan quickly “appropriated the CIA $19.8 million to organize and train anti-Sandinista counter-revolutionary elements” (Pg 70, Booth and Walker), called “Contras”. In 1986, after the Iran-Contra scandal was public, Reagan wasn’t sure how much more aid he could get to Somoza so he pushed for a major offensive. In, 1987, without each side attaining a clear victory, negotiations began. In 1990, Daniel Ortega, a Sandinista was voted out of power to a more conservative , Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. In the end there was basically a stalemate, neither side attained a clear victory. Had the United States not intervened things most likely would have been very different.
Our intervention has left a lasting impression on Nicaragua’s political and economic situation. In a rebellion which caused ” $1.5 billion in property loss, a 2% reduction in the overall population, and years of turmoil ” (Pg 68, Booth and Walker) the domestic market was destroyed. No one can say whether our actions were justified or not but it will most likely be on the minds of many Nicaraguans for a long time to come..