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New Left Review I/135, September-October 1982

George Black

Central America: Crisis in the Backyard

The five republics south of Mexico seemed until the late 1970s the most secure region of domination for a us imperial system in retreat after the trauma of South East Asia. [*] My thanks to colleagues at the North American Congress on Latin America (nacla), especially the Central America research team and Americo Badillo-Veiga and Judy Butler, whose indispensable comments improved an earlier draft of this article. I am also indebted to fellow participants in the first regional seminar of the Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales (inies), held in Managua, June 1982—a unique and exemplary effort to place the social sciences at the service of the Central American people and their revolution. [1] Panama is omitted from this study in accordance with convention. Historically it has remained outside attempts at regional integration. Though geopolitically relevant to Central America, its peculiar economic structures set it apart. Not dependent upon cash-crop exports, it serves primarily as a base of operations for transnational capital and services, and as a platform for us counterinsurgency. Despite this powerful imperialist presence, the Canal Treaties have secured a continuingly stable social base for the regime. Existing political structures appear resilient, able to minimize contradictions between bourgeois fractions. Industrial growth rates remain high. One can speak neither of a crisis of accumulation nor of an exhaustion of the current political model. Many saw Nicaragua’s 1979 Sandinista victory over the Somoza dynasty as merely vindication of theories of the inevitable collapse of dependent capitalism in the most grossly archaic outposts of the periphery. But the rapid emergence of revolutionary challenges in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the decomposition of the ruling bourgeois alliances in those countries, forced greater scrutiny of events in Central America. Now, economic disaster threatens to engulf Costa Rica, long one of Latin America’s most sophisticated models of bourgeois consensus rule. And Honduras—archetypal banana republic—is undergoing a vertiginous descent into militarism under a facade of democratic legitimation. In these two countries, where internal social formations have not reached a critical point of rupture, the crude new geopolitics of Reaganism have accelerated their domestic contradictions by selecting them as instruments in a strategic design.

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