Society And Culture Of Central America Research Paper

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Most scholars know that a great deal of violence took place in Central America in the late twentieth century, but relatively few know the reasons for it, what its consequences were, or how it affected research on the region. The immediate causes of the violence were revolutionary attempts from the 1960s through the 1980s which led to brutal military reprisals, mainly against civilians—in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. The violence had an enormous economic impact on all five countries of the region (which also includes Honduras and Costa Rica), leaving already poor people much poorer. Civilians suffered the greatest casualties and many of the survivors left the region permanently, while those who remained live in heavily militarized states where ‘low-intensity’ conflict continues. Yet to everyone’s surprise social mobilization and protest by a wide variety of disadvantaged groups also continues. The vast social changes engendered by these phenomena have encouraged a new kind of social science research, such that most now deal with regional patterns and transnational flows, history, large institutions such as the state and military, and the nature of ongoing as well as past social movements. After a brief summary of what happened in the five countries of the region, this research paper will discuss recent comparative and historical research projects and will then treat the way in which ethnography changed and developed to deal with the questions raised by this period of history.

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1. The Central American Revolutions

Revolutionary movements began in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua following the 1959 Cuban revolution, which inspired them. The Central American insurgencies resembled those that took place in much of Latin America, although unlike the others, in the 1970s they became significantly more violent and threatening to their national regimes, which were in turn much weaker. Small guerrilla fronts led by relatively well-educated men (most of them members of the middle or elite classes) attempted to organize peasants or rural workers in most countries of Latin American in order to seize state power—whether or not locally inspired grassroots movements were already in place. The early guerrillas, whose basic strategy was focismo ( Wickham-Crowley 1992) worked largely in regions where they assumed popular support could be generated to overturn the old social order for a new one, but did little to describe their actual sociopolitical projects to the masses. The focistas operating in the 1960s suffered ignominious defeats, but became much more successful when they renewed their efforts under changed leadership in the 1970s. Several different guerrilla groups developed in each country, differing on strategy (insurrectionary versus prolonged popular war), revolutionary subject (workers, peasants, or middle groups), and international line (Russian, Chinese, or Third World). The actual number of guerrillas in Central America was never very large (from 2,000 to 10,000), but they were supported by most of the rural population in the areas where they worked. The military forces in Central America were of variable size and sophistication— greatest in Guatemala, least in Nicaragua—but always outnumbered the guerrillas by at least ten to one. By 1980 they had developed into formidable counterinsurgency powers (everywhere but in Costa Rica), being provided with arms, advisors, and tactical support by the USA (everywhere but in Nicaragua).

Nicaragua’s Sandinistas had the greatest popular support and took state power in 1979, thus becoming the only successful revolution in Latin America besides Cuba. The Sandinistas were defeated in elections ten years later; but most observers agree that the human and material cost of the contra war (Vilas 1995) instigated by the USA explains the defeat. The Guatemalan and Salvadoran revolutionaries came close to taking power shortly after the Nicaraguan victory, and were in a strong enough position to negotiate peace accords with the military governments of their countries in the 1990s. During the civil wars, the violence visited upon the rural civilian population by the military was extremely high and indiscriminate everywhere, but especially so in Guatemala, where Maya Indians were most heavily affected. In fact, both scholars and the UN Commission on Human Rights depicted Guatemala’s military actions as genocidal. Violence continued in much of the region, but now is mostly carried out by ex-soldiers and other uprooted people, unemployed by the previous cycle of violence. Nonetheless, very significant social movements, especially of indigenous people, are now taking place throughout the region.

Carlos Vilas (1995) provides an excellent general treatment of all of the phenomena described here in fewer than 200 pages. Vilas, an Argentinian sociologist, treats the cases in greater depth than other social scientists because he lived in the region for more than ten years, was in intellectual contact with revolutionary and state sectors in all five countries, and participated in the Nicaraguan attempt to establish a revolutionary social and political regime. Vilas’ earlier (1987) study of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua is the best general study of revolution in Central America.

2. Comparative Research

What took place in Central America calls for comparative research, especially on the question of why three of its countries had major revolutionary movements, and two did not. Many such studies have been done, but few go beyond the obvious economic differences among the five countries. Most point to the pattern of export-led economic growth since the 1960s, which impoverished peasants everywhere but in Costa Rica. (The case of Honduras is usually explained by the fact that fewer peasants were displaced there.) The most useful and original comparisons have been done by Robert Williams, an economist who uses sociological, historical, and ethnographic methods in his research. Williams’s first book (1986) observes that cotton and cattle production for export expanded hugely in all five countries (with considerable economic aid from the USA for its own economic reasons) and led to significant dispossession of peasants everywhere, including in Costa Rica. But the five Central American states handled peasant protest quite differently, with both Costa Rica and Honduras carrying out land reform and expanding services while the three other states responded with repression and militarization—which led to war. In his second book, Williams (1994) examines the social and economic factors that led to two different kinds of states in Central America—the three revolutionary countries being controlled by rigid oligarchies, the other two being led by more open political groups. He finds an explanation in the social and political relations created by the coffee-export economy (among the owners, workers, merchants), the first major postcolonial export in the region, which played a critical role in state formation. (Paige’s 1997 study, which is less complete, reaches similar conclusions.)

Timothy Wickham-Crowley (1992) compares where, and to what effect guerrilla movements arose, and who participated as both leaders and cadre, as well as the military and regime responses provoked by guerrilla warfare. By treating all of the significant guerrilla-led movements in Latin America since (and including) the Cuban revolution, he provides a useful comparative context for the Central American guerrilla movements of both the 1960s and 1980s. Virtually no in-depth or ethnographic studies of one or more Central American guerrilla groups have been done. Such work may be forthcoming now that the wars are definitively over and the surviving guerrillas have returned to engage in peaceful politics in their countries. The Guatemalan and Salvadoran cases both cry out for research while the revolutionary protagonists are still alive, especially since Wickham-Crowley’s controversial study is not actor based and relies on rather weak secondary materials.

An important six-volume comparative history has been produced (Rivas 1993), most of its contributors Central Americans. The coverage of the civil wars and their aftermath is quite limited and little new theoretical ground is broken in these volumes. What is innovative about this work is the consistent comparative emphasis, unusual for historians, which expands information on all of the countries and identifies the major gaps in knowledge. The economic and political events of the last quarter of the twentieth century clearly led to the comparative focus.

Two other comparative historical and ethnographic works are under way in which the Central and North American scholars are more equal in number. The more traditional project is being done only in Guatemala under the guidance of anthropologist Richard Adams, who has worked in Central America for nearly fifty years. The emphasis of the ethnographic project is on how ethnic relations were affected by the violence that took place in different communities. (In this regard it is little different from the early book edited by Robert Carmack in 1988.) The second project, taking place under the leadership of Jeffrey Gould, Charles Hale, and Dario Euraque, is more innovative. The historians and anthropologists conducting the research often worked in the same sites (some in all Central American countries except Costa Rica) and met frequently to discuss methods and ideas. The project focuses on the nature and meaning of the process of mestizaje (the creation of a single people through cultural and biological mixing, encouraged if not forced by nation-state building) during the past two centuries and into the present. Throughout Latin America mestizaje is assumed to have been a ‘natural’ and noncoercive process that took place mainly in the colonial period and thus had little to do with state building; North and Latin American historians have mostly repeated this myth as fact, despite strong evidence to the contrary. This Central American project takes the myth on with detailed historical and ethnographic case studies, which illuminate a great deal about the general pattern of ethnic, gender, and race relations in the region. An early glimpse into the conclusions of this project can be found in Gould’s (1998) book on mestizaje in Nicaragua. Because of its many novel components— participation of both anthropologists and historians, North and Central American scholars, and group work in interpretation—this project promises to be a landmark study.

3. Ethnographic Research

The social scientists most challenged by the revolutionary situation in Central America have been anthropologists. Anthropologists have mainly worked in particular communities of Mayan Indians in Guatemala. Such work continues, but is impaired by the limited insight into state and subject formation, social movements, and transnational flows that such bounded research can produce. Those who have stayed within community boundaries have dealt mainly with the impact of fear and community divisions on local culture (e.g., Zur 1998); those who initially dealt with the larger issues (e.g., Smith 1990) lost most of the strengths of an ethnographic approach. But in recent years ethnographers have stretched themselves to do quite innovative, multisited ethnographic research.

Jennifer Schirmer’s (1998) research broke new ground by providing an ethnography of military political perception and strategizing in Guatemala— where counterinsurgency tactics were best developed, as well as more violent and politically significant than elsewhere. Schirmer interviewed hundreds of Guatemalan army officers multiple times between 1986 and 1996 about everything from the nature of the guerrilla threat to their views about the proper political role of the military in the state apparatus. Criticized when her research began on the assumption that she could only parrot military views, Schirmer’s published work on Guatemala’s military project is now widely recognized as providing invaluable information on the formation of a military ideology, one that was nativistic (even though strongly supported by the USA) and extremely successful. Especially revelatory is how deliberately the military increased their control over Guatemalan politics, culture, and civil society. The first stage of pacification used strictly military means, including murders of suspects and massacres of civilians; the second stage involved economic and cultural restructuring of the communities most affected by the violence (the indigenous ones) together with reorganization of national party politics and elections; the final stage was reached with the 1994 peace accords, in which the military helped to reconfigure both state and civil society. As one military officer enthused, ‘We [planned] the State in all of its ramifications!’ (Schirmer 1998, p. 235).

The most important of the postwar social movements that have taken place in Guatemala has been that of the indigenous Maya, who have always been the largest and most exploited group in Guatemala. They had not been politically active on their own specific causes or identity issues, however, until the late 1980s—although they certainly did participate in Guatemala’s revolutionary movement. As it is presently constituted, the Maya movement is a cultural movement led by indigenous intellectuals, who take language, dress, and religious tradition to be the main (and probably safest) issues. But the political ramifications are much broader and a less well-known Maya movement is building on a more popular base, making economic and political issues central (Bastos and Camus 1993). Before the movement, the Maya majority rarely held important political offices, even where they outnumbered Ladinos. Today they play a major electoral role, are in charge of several major public institutions, and have to be taken into the political equation on all national issues. Among other things, the movement challenges North American ethnographers to take up issues of importance to the Maya ( Warren 1998). An edited book on racism (Arenas et al. 1999), a major issue to Maya activists but a topic rarely addressed by anthropologists before the 1990s, fits this still small genre. Sieder (1998) edits a discussion of the Maya and other kinds of social movements—women’s, human rights, and so forth.

Only Diane Nelson (1999) has attempted to characterize the Maya movement in relation to the state. This inventive work covers many different public signs of change in the cultural politics of ethnic relations in Guatemala (movies, signs, advertisements, jokes about Rigoberta Menchu) as well as real cultural politics over the past 15 years. Use of such a variety of materials allows Nelson to describe a complex social movement which has been extremely significant for the cultural reconstitution of Guatemala. In truth, Nelson treats state politics in only one chapter and on one issue, thus not producing a true ethnography of the state, but rather an entertaining postmodern pastiche of the multiple issues that surround ethnography in the Central American context—from new social movements, to new public cultures and discourses, to new kinds of reflexive positioning for activist analysts.

Closer to a true ethnography of the state is the as yet unpublished work of Finn Stepputat, a Danish cultural geographer. Over a long period he worked with several distinct indigenous groups, some of them returned refugees, as well as both Indian and Ladino state and military actors—all in one large municipality—on the implications of the violence, new social actors, and political movements of various kinds on indigenous political subjectivity. To summarize his thesis very briefly, he suggests that intensified interaction between indigenous groups and various representatives of the state (e.g., the military, Ladino representatives, and actors in foreign nongovernmental organizations) as well as social and religious leaders of various kinds, has evoked changes in indigenous subjectivity to the point that many now operate in the state rather than apart from the state. His ethnography promises to show how specific statelike operations and powers interact with those in civil society to produce modern citizens states—a kind of ethnography of the state that will be of general interest to social science.

A very different kind of indigenous movement took place in Nicaragua during its revolution, one spearheaded by the Miskitu of the Atlantic coast, a large, remote, and politically neglected area. This much smaller group of Indians resisted the revolutionary Sandinistas, who wanted to assimilate them into the state. The dialog between the Miskitu and the Sandinistas over several years produced an agreement of autonomy for those living in the Miskitu region, but one whose economic and political features were ambiguous. Charles R Hale’s (1994) analysis of Miskitu history and identity, together with the more contemporary negotiations between Miskitu of various positions, Sandinistas of various positions, and other ethnic groups in the region, is a rare ethnography of a multifaceted political movement, one that treats culture, social relations, and political consciousness as dynamic historical phenomena. Roger Lancaster (1992) writes a more typical ethnography of urban Mestizos in postrevolutionary Nicaragua, notable for its treatment of race, gender, and sexuality in the context of a ruined economy.

The only ethnography on El Salvador for any time period is that by Binford (1996) on El Mozote, the community that was eradicated by an elite Salvadoran brigade directly under the tutelage of US advisors. Binford tries to bring the dead to life in his ethnography, by piecing together the nature of their lived experiences before their community was destroyed. He also situates the destruction of this community in the complex environment of Salvadoran guerillas, military, and US support. There are literally no ethnographies written of Honduras and very little social science done on the country, even though Honduras represents an especially interesting Central American case in many respects. It has been divided between a modern, lowland banana enclave owned by the USA and a highland region backward in both economic and political development—in part because of the banana enclave; it was heavily militarized in the 1980s, yet its military governments engaged several times in significant land reform; and the peasants joined no revolutionary movements, even though they struggled for land (often successfully) for decades. The case asks for innovative ethnography on all of these features. Yet only one case of ethnographic research is now being written up (by Sarah England), which looks at another feature of life characteristic of all Central America, transnational migration. Though at least 10 percent of the Central American population are now transnational migrants, the phenomenon has been little treated by social scientists working in any Central American country. England’s research on the Honduran Garifuna describes the multiple cultural identities taken on by a black, indigenous group, who move between Honduras (where they hold an indigenous identity) and North America (where they are considered black).

The final ethnography to be treated here is Marc Edelman’s (1999) study of ‘peasants against globalization’ in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is the model Central American country, with a small, very homogeneous population, an early democratic government whose social services rival the best in Latin America, and no significant military presence in recent history. While little other innovative social science has been done there recently, Edelman’s study of Costa Rican social movements during the 1980s is a gem, possible only for someone who has worked in a country for more than a decade. Combining a sophisticated political economic analysis of global neo-liberalism with a strong political ethnography of a multitude of peasant organizations which dissolve and regroup repeatedly, Edelman’s book is bound to be controversial because of its opinionated stance on a multitude of issues, including the literature on social movements and globalization. It remains, however, an example of the innovative ethnography being produced in Central America because of the global nature of its problems, the complexity of its social movements, and the peculiarities of its state-level institutions—which operate on a scale small enough to invite national-level ethnography.


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  4. Carmack R 1988 Harvest of Violence: The Mayan Indians and the Guatemalan Crisis. University of Oklahoma Press, Norma, OK
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  17. Warren K B 1998 Indigenous Movements and their Critics: PanMaya Activism in Guatemala. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
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