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Volume 63 / Social Sciences


MARCO FONSECA, Sessional Assistant Professor of International Studies, York University, Toronto

STUDIES ON CENTRAL AMERICAN POLITICS have evolved in recent years. Just as cultural and political dynamics throughout the region have changed, so too the scholarship on Central America surveyed in this section has moved from an emphasis on the history, conditions, and dynamics of peace processes and democratic transitions in the late 1990s to a focus on the process of consolidation of democracies. The literature on democratic consolidation examines variables such as well-institutionalized political parties, the electoral system and electoral dynamics, new forms of protest and contention, the rise of indigenous movements (item #bi2006000862#) and new forms of women's movements (item #bi2005000899#), problems of governance and the "crisis of governability" (items #bi2006003255#, #bi2005000873#, and #bi2005004519#), and the contradictions of building institutional and state capacity. In some exceptional cases, we find first-class studies linking environmental practices and politics both within and beyond local nation-states. Therefore, most studies surveyed in this essay reflect these important scholarly preoccupations. Furthermore, some scholars today have concluded that, for the most part, Central American countries have now met the most basic and necessary conditions of democratic transition and that the process of transition to democracy in the region has ended. This is unquestionably an interesting conclusion.

The new realities of Central American politics are raising some disquieting questions about the current literature on the region. In Costa Rica, the country with the longest and most stable democracy in the region, whose politics and political culture could certainly justify the scholarly themes that have come to constitute Central American political studies these days, the electoral regime has undergone a substantial process of normative erosion. This development brings to light obvious and serious concerns about the legitimacy and stability of electoral results, as well as less obvious questions about the traditional agents of electoral participation, i.e., conservative and progressive political parties alike.

Indeed, the Tico model of the social contract, still a source of nationalist pride and the justification for political isolationism for many Costa Ricans, as well as a constant source of envy for some of Costa Rica's neighbors, continues to offer reasons for pursuing nation-state building strategies in the context of a fragmented Central American region and thus nation-state-centered research agendas. However, this model of the social contract appears to be on the verge of political collapse, rendering the former foundation of Costa Rican philosophical and political self-assurance, as well as scholarly preoccupation, into a shaky platform that has garnered local and regional suspicion. The success of Costa Rican social, economic, and political development since 1948 has been threatened by the impact of neoliberal politics and the challenges of globalization. In addition, more subtle currents of discontent and dissatisfaction have emerged—manifested by declining levels of public participation and party support, rising levels of socioeconomic inequalities, and deepening strains on the traditional solidarity networks in the work world and the local public sphere—that have yet to be addressed by scholars. With the relatively successful isolationist Costa Rican approach to socioeconomic and political development and consolidation of the nation-state in doubt, and the specter of de-democratization and de-nationalization threatening the beacon of Central American politics and development, an even more disturbing trend is taking hold among Costa Rica's less fortunate, less auspicious, and increasingly more violent, criminalized, and contentious neighbors. These regional case studies of "postconflict" societies appear today to be, counterintuitively, more conflictual than ever before.

Indeed, throughout the region the enduring and undeniable legacy of violent conflict, creeping instability, and rising levels of criminal and social violence have led scholars to raise pertinent questions about the obvious lack of "social capital" that afflicts these societies and damages their prospects for democratization. Scholars are also attempting to determine which strategies could realistically assist these states in their efforts to build stable democratic regimes given their extremely adverse socioeconomic conditions and contradictory political cultures. Today it appears to many scholars that the long-sought consolidation of democratic regimes within local nation-states is far from secure. Unresolved cultural and structural problems from the Cold War era coupled with new challenges (rising criminality, vigilante justice, youth gangs, returned migrants from the US, further deterioration of socioeconomic conditions and increasing levels of absolute poverty, etc.) plague the political dynamic of these increasingly impoverished nations as they seek a promising niche for themselves in the era of globalization.

Cultural, political, and economic globalization itself is conceptually undermining the legitimacy of traditional nation-state politics in the region. Any observation of local social, political, and economic trends ought to see that the future of the region does not lie in the past with the parochial politics of fragmentary, traditionally autocratic, and unambiguously monocultural and inward-oriented nation-states. The processes that are most likely to lead the region into a more auspicious, prosperous, and peaceful future have not yet received the scholarly attention they deserve. More research is needed on the process of sustainable differentiation and construction of a nonpredatory regional market economy. In addition, work is required on the viability of creating a pan-regional regulatory framework able to domesticate wealthy and productive national elites and to curb structural inequalities. Finally, scholars should then examine possibilities for the construction of sustainable pan-regional public spheres capable of integrating multiple systems of participation and representation, and determine processes of building citizenship knowledge and capacities. The participation and consultation of a knowledgeable citizenry would in turn influence and help sustain prosperous economies and democratic political policies. This literature survey found only timid hints of these themes. In fact, works reviewed here did not demonstrate any sustained concern with processes of regional integration beyond the economy and the various incarnations of the Central American Common Market. Little scholarly attention has been given, for example, to the Central American Parliament—as an important institution of a possible pan-regional public sphere—and to ways in which this hitherto dysfunctional, elitist, and largely symbolic institution could be transformed into a mechanism for the expansion of a Central American postnational citizenship and the development of a regional political community. With some exceptions, questions of consolidation or failure to consolidate stable and inclusive political regimes in the region are still being posed within methodological statist, cultural ontologist, and/or legal positivist approaches and frameworks. This observation is equally applicable to studies by Anglo-American, European, and Central American scholars. Even after years of failures, breakdowns, and erosion, the siren song of state power and its possible consolidation through stabilization of its natural liberal balances and counterbalances, continues to seduce many students of Central American politics and lure their attention to issues that either contribute to or undermine the specific institutions that define the nation-state. As of yet there is no postnationalist and/or cosmopolitan current of political thought in Central American studies.

The research on political parties, electoral systems, state capacity, strengthening state institutions, and stabilizing and legitimizing the liberal balance of state powers is very strong in the English literature on Central American politics and is flourishing once again in the literature of local scholars and policy analysts writing in Spanish. Although the balance sheet of net political contribution of political parties to building stable and legitimate regimes within the region is at best undecided and at worst negative, the attention these topics continue to command from scholars suggests that these organizations have played or can still play a role that is grander and more decisive than their record indicates.

The slow rise and self-constitution of civil societies starting in the mid-1980s and the construction of open and participatory public spheres within local nation-states has attracted the attention of some scholars (e.g., item #bi2006003271#). Although most analysts of civil societies tend to identify them with popular movements, NGOs, trade unions, professional organizations, and even the private sector or private sector-funded foundations, these studies do tend to properly highlight the contribution of these elusive entities to the building of democracy (items #bi2005000902# and #bi2004002742#), to the strengthening of the rule of law (item #bi2006003479#), and to the reform of state institutions. At the same time, scholars also detect an increasing degree of appeal to international law to justify local claims, an area of research that scholars are now beginning to explore.

Explaining why Central American societies and political regimes are so unstable has become routine among students of the region. While most studies highlight the violent and authoritarian legacy of past regimes in El Salvador (item #bi2005000866#), Guatemala (item #bi2005000861#), and Nicaragua, some scholars highlight this legacy only to propose common explanations for the lack of socially stable ground on which to build democratic institutions. Although some of these arguments are worth repeating and emphasizing, few scholars would seriously dispute the claim that processes of extended and expansive militarization profoundly damage lifeworld networks of trust and thus tend to have seriously detrimental effects on the post-transition building of stable, peaceful, and democratic institutions. Even some right-wing academics accept the authoritarian and violence thesis as an explanation, albeit sometimes in reverse terms, for the lack of political development in the region.

This survey of the literature includes some excellent studies on citizens, citizenship, and civil society in postconflict societies like El Salvador and Guatemala (item #bi2006000862#). Although most of these studies are largely a reflection of or application to the local political scene of various bodies or paradigms of political literature prevalent in the English-language academic world on both sides of the Atlantic, their importance and timely publication cannot be doubted. Several studies draw from the English literature on transitions to and consolidation of democracies. In addition, some studies draw from the literature on "Third Wave democracies" (items #bi2005004810# and #bi2005000879#) as well as from the Anglo-American liberal literature on rights and justice.

Works drawing from the Latin American contributions to the literature on justice, rights, and citizenship, such as that found in the work of the Argentinian theorist Carlos Santiago Nino, are less frequent. Although this pattern of research can be explained and to some extent understood, and even justified, in the context of Anglo-American and European students of Central America, the situation of scholars from Central America themselves points in another and more worrying academic direction. Indeed, with some exceptions, the scholarly gaze of local Central American political analysts and theorists remains firmly focused on the ideas and arguments that emanate from their Anglo-American and Anglo-European counterparts without realizing that these arguments are elaborated in the context of academic discourses that take place within the dynamics and institutions of Anglo-American and European academia. The notable exceptions are the internally focused Costa Rican scholars who, just as their social contract seems on the verge of collapse, appear to have reached a stage of cultural and political self-assurance and autonomy still lacking in other areas of Central America.

Despite the critical tone of this introductory essay, the present survey of the literature on Central American politics is an excellent example of research in transition. As is the case with any body of work in transition, the present one reflects and continues to engage with themes and scholarly approaches that belong to older stages with their particular questions and concerns. At the same time, the present survey represents a body of work that points in new and exciting directions that will surely yield valuable scholarly research in the future.

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