At the height of the Cold War, in the 1980s, Central America suddenly became the focus of world attention. President Ronald Reagan of the United States declared that the coming of the Sandinistas to power in Nicaragua in 1979 signified a triumph for Communism and that, if the Salvadoran and Guatemalan guerrilla organizations were also to take power, the United States and the rest of the Americas would be seriously threatened.
In Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1960s and 1970s, university students, inspired by the successful example of Fidel Castro in Cuba, had formed guerrilla groups; at the same time social movements emerged that also sought to overthrown the military dictatorships that ruled all three countries. The Nicaraguan rebellion produced the first and only guerrilla group to come to power in Central America. For more than 40 years, Nicaragua, which in 1979 had a population of around three million, had been ruled by the Somoza family, a father and his two sons. The founder of the Somoza dynasty became head of the Nicaraguan National Guard as a result of the American marine occupation of 1912 to 1932 and then used this military power to take political control of the nation. In 1962, a small group of students from Matagalpa formed the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), aiming to overthrow the Somozas and adopting the name of anti-imperialist Augusto Cesar Sandino, who had resisted the U.S. occupation in the late 1920s. The beginning of the end for the last Somoza son was the great earthquake that devastated Managua in December 1972. When “Tachito” Somoza used the foreign aid for his personal aggrandizement, all Nicaraguan social classes – businessmen, the middle sectors, workers and peasants, together with the Sandinistas – turned against him. In 1978-79, almost all Nicaraguans rebelled against the Somoza dictatorship and 50,000 young people died in the uprising. In July 1979, the FSLN came to power and turned itself into a political party; thereafter, for ten years, the Sandinista revolutionary government ruled Nicaragua. The Sandinista regime was never communist in the sense that it never had a state-run economy, but rather a “mixed economy”, half controlled by the state and half by private businesses. During the 1980s, the Sandinistas carried out an innovative experiment of progressive socio-economic change. Ronald Reagan, though, perceived the Sandinistas as communists overly influenced by Cuba and the Soviet Union. To undermine the Sandinistas, the Reagan government imposed a trade embargo and created an anti-communist guerrilla – the Contras. The Sandinista government was at war with the Contras throughout the 1980s; another 50,000 Nicaraguans died as a result.
During this time (the 1980s), similar movements for social change emerged in El Salvador and Guatemala. Like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala produce and export coffee. Generally coffee in Central America (except for in Costa Rica) was grown on large haciendas, with a poor, exploited workforce. In Guatemala, many coffee harvesters were migratory indigenous people who maintained small subsistence farms in the highlands, while in El Salvador they were mainly rural wage workers (proletarians). During the 1950s and 1960s, El Salvador and Guatemala also began to export cotton and beef. This new export economy resulted in the formation of new large landholdings and an increased concentration of rural property; the gap between rich and poor increased. Meanwhile in San Salvador and Guatemala City, there was a surge in industrialization because of the creation of the Central American Common Market in 1959, which lasted only for a decade. Industrialization stimulated the growth of small middle sectors, an urban factory working class, and an increase in the number of university students. At the same time, the advent of Liberation Theology produced changes in the outlook of the Catholic Church; some priests and nuns began to speak of the urgency of structural change to overcome poverty and to advocate the formation of Christian base communities. From these community self-help groups, in which people read the Bible together, emerged many local leaders of the poor.
Throughout this time, both El Salvador and Guatemala had military dictatorships. In El Salvador, the military had held political power since 1931 and, in Guatemala, since 1954. Emergent social groups began to call for political opening and for social change – for democracy and for more equitable economic development policies from which all would benefit – but they were blocked: elections held by the military governments were fraudulent. There seemed to be no way to change the political system using peaceful means. The new social organizations – including peasant, teachers, and neighborhood unions were often repressed by the police or military.
During the 1970s in El Salvador, five guerrilla groups took form and came together to create the coalition known as the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN). In Guatemala guerrilla groups also took form around the same time with the participation of young men and women. The military governments of both countries responded to this social mobilization by repressing the civilian population.
In El Salvador, where the problem of land concentration was particularly acute, the internal war between the military government and the guerrillas lasted from around 1980 until 1992. The war in El Salvador was characterized by the formation of right-wing death squads which attacked union leaders, peasant leaders, journalists, and progressive priests and nuns. In El Salvador, where the guerrillas were quite strong, they succeeded in establishing “liberated zones” in the countryside. The Salvadoran army was also strong in part because it received massive aid from the United States’ government.
By the end of the 1980s, because of the war, the Salvadoran economy was in crisis and the military and the guerrillas reached a stalemate: it became clear that neither could defeat the other. Peace negotiations, mediated by the United Nations, began, and in 1992 the by now civilian government of El Salvador and the FMLN signed a peace agreement. According to this agreement, the FMLN would turn itself into a political party with the right to participate in local and national elections. The war of the 1980s in El Salvador resulted in 75,000 deaths and at least half a million displaced people: Many Salvadorans fled over the border to refugee camps in Honduras and thousands of others migrated through Mexico to the United States and Canada.
Turning now to Guatemala: Guatemala is the largest of the Central American countries, in land area and in population, with around 10 million inhabitants in 1980. Guatemala differs from the other countries of the region because of its enormous indigenous population: half of Guatemalans are Maya Indians, who speak 23 different Mayan languages.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Guatemala demonstrated many of the same trends as El Salvador: increased concentration of rural property, the beginnings of industrialization, the formation of new social groups, and the beginning of popular mobilizations to improve the living conditions of the poor in rural and urban areas. Like in El Salvador, the Guatemalan military intensified its repression of social movements, often labelling them “communist”. During the 1980s in Guatemala, three guerrilla groups took form as leftist students tried to communicate with and organize the native people of the western highlands. And, as in El Salvador, the military government tended to attack the civilian population in this region, which they saw as harboring the guerrillas. Particularly during the presidency of General Efrain Rios Montt, from 1982-1983, the army massacred whole villages of Maya peasants. The word “genocide” is sometimes applied to Guatemala in the 1980s when referring to the effect of the military’s repressive policies against the rural population of Mayan Indians. The death toll was devastatingly high in Guatemala from the end of the 1970s until the early 1990s: 200,000 Guatemalans died and around 1 million were displaced from their homes, and many migrated to refugee camps in southern Mexico or to the United States or Canada. Many Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees came to Montreal during the 1980s and the early 1990s. The war in Guatemala ended in 1996 with the signing of a peace accord between the Guatemalan government and the various guerrilla groups, which became political parties (though they never became strong, in contrast to El Salvador, where the FMLN party is one of the two main parties today).
What of Canada and the Central American crisis? The Canadian people and government were not convinced by Ronald Reagan that the root cause of the violence in Central America was communist subversion by Cuba and/or the Soviet Union. Canada endeavored to elaborate a different foreign policy toward Central America in those years, outside of the East-West fixation of the Cold War, and to pay attention to the internal causes of the struggles, which related to closed political systems and the tensions generated by unequal economic development. In the 1980s, everyday people in Quebec and other regions of Canada were very concerned by what was happening in Central America. In 1987, a public opinion survey asked Canadians, “What international issue concerns you most” and the answer was “Central America”.
We are fortunate in the pages that follow to hear the personal experiences of Quebecois who went to Central America in the 1980s and 1990s and who lived first-hand the crises of Central America.