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.footnote footnote1 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.

This essay considers the distinct levels of the Central American crisis, which has so rapidly assumed regional dimensions. The complex configuration of political, economic and geopolitical modalities—some nationally specific, others supra-national—make generalities exceedingly difficult. There is simultaneously the crisis of imperialist control, expressed at a regional level, and the distinct crises of five distinct social formations, each with separate national dynamics. Common features exist; each state has based growth on the export of primary agricultural commodities—first coffee (classic crop of the local oligarchs) and bananas (in us-owned enclaves); later cotton, sugar and beef. In pre-revolutionary Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, the organically weak state was rapidly reduced to an instrument of coercion and elite enrichment. But these commonalties do not determine the simultaneity of crisis conditions. The state-society confrontation has been reached along different paths and with different rhythms.

None the less, we can assign some fundamental hierarchy to the manifestations of crisis in the social formations of Central America. In El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala the crisis of accumulation was preceded by—and in turn exacerbated—a mounting crisis of political domination. In Costa Rica and Honduras, with more elastic modes of domination, geopolitical pressures and economic slump combine to provoke a crisis of legitimacy at the political level.

Central America is not simply suffering a mechanical replication in the local economies of global capitalist crisis as it did in the 1930s, though the recession has aggravated structural economic weaknesses in the region. But nor is the inherent debility of dependent economic structures an adequate explanation. The current economic slump is the latest in a cycle—recurrent at roughly 5–7 year intervals—which has characterized the Central American economies in the twentieth century. What distinguishes the impact of this slump from others is partly the likelihood of permanently changed world market demand (prefiguring sustained crisis in all the agro-exporting economies of the periphery), but even more the incessant prior build-up of unresolved contradictions between ruling elites and the mass of the population, reaching explosive proportions in the last five years. Economic and political polarities in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala have been counterpointed by unprecedented popular mobilization and a revolutionary movement of coherence and originality. Partial reforms and concessions—even if compatible with the monopolistic ambitions of the ruling bourgeois elites—would not attenuate these conflicts.

Finally, the chronic inability of the United States to retain long unchallenged regional hegemony superimposes a geopolitical knot on domestic factors. Even more than a superimposition, however, interventionism has catalyzed general crisis conditions. The convergence of all these elements makes it legitimate to speak of a rupture at regional level. Only exhaustive analysis—beyond our scope here—would fully grasp the five separate social formations: the proletarianization of the peasantry, the growth of an industrial working class, and the fissures within the hegemonic bloc under the impact of retarded modernization. For unlike the majority of Latin America, the region had not launched a programme of industrialization during the readjustment of the world capitalist economy in the 1930s. This is one pointer to the ‘delayed’ quality of Central America’s revolution. The other was us selection of the area as a counter-insurgency guinea-pig after the Cuban revolution. By 1965, Guatemala had the continent’s strongest guerrilla movement. Two years later it was annihilated by ferocious state violence, which staved off the inevitable for another decade.footnote2

Twenty years of rapid, if erratic, economic growth and capitalist transformation have been unaccompanied by any parallel growth of democratic institutions. Far from encouraging democratic reforms, local elites have subverted them with suicidal single-mindedness. The murder of Sandino in 1934 and of Farabundo Marti and 30,000 peasants in 1932 presaged a fifty-year-long dark night of authoritarianism. Though today’s revolutionary movements seek lineage and continuity—incarnated in a unifying national-symbolic sense by the figures of Sandino and Marti—the resurgence of popular opposition is spectacularly abrupt after years of defeats.

Only one shaft of democratic light shot through this half-century of darkness: Guatemala’s 1944–54 Revolution. That unfinished process is a reference point pregnant with lessons. For the bourgeoisie and the United States, it was a threat which had to be aborted. Though its reforms were limited, the Guatemalan revolution brought tangible political advances, eradicated only by institutionalized terror.