I spent last week in Central America, where in the 1980s, I got my political education in South and particularly Central America, hopping as a journo and writer between revolutionary Sandinistas in Nicaragua and guerrilla fighters in El Salvador. So this week’s posts will mainly be a download and reflection on that visit.
First, I took my ‘how change happens’ roadshow to Honduras, and a meeting of Oxfam’s Central America, Mexico and Caribbean (Camexca) team. Returning to the region after such a long gap, I was struck by the political sophistication on display – a deep feeling for ‘power analysis’, and instinctive grasp of the expansions and contractions of ‘political space’, and the cycles of conflict and cooperation that characterize so many processes of social change. I realized that a lot of what I’m doing on how change happens involves systematizing that ‘feeling for power’ for non-latinos.
But these days, those political talents are confronted with huge challenges in Camexca. Progressive actors face an extended political downturn, in which access to influencing is getting steadily harder:
– Drug trafficking and organized crime have contaminated the region, expanding into the vacuum left by corrupt and inept governments. Honduras, which used to be a safe (if dull) backwater, has become one of the murder capitals of the world – in several countries, the death toll is higher than during the civil wars of the 1980s.
– Tightly knit elites run the show, carving up the wealth and refusing to pay tax or contemplate redistribution.
– The liberation theologians of the 1980s have been largely eclipsed by a conservative backlash (Opus Dei and co), leading to a counterattack on sexual and reproductive rights. The rapidly expanding evangelical churches have so far failed to become significant political players.
And the progressive movement seems increasingly marginalised from power. As one veteran Oxfam worker lamented, ‘In the 80s, we built utopias here. Now they are being constructed elsewhere, so what should Oxfam be doing in Camexca?’ More generally, how should progressive NGOs respond to such a deep political downturn? I can see at least four options, and am genuinely uncertain over which offer the best path – probably depends on context.
1. Cut your losses, leave the region in search of new utopias and more promising opportunities elsewhere. But how do you square that with our commitment to partners and poor people or with the essentially long-term (and unpredictable) nature of most progressive change?
2. Since short term wins are unlikely, dig in for the long term by concentrating on shaping enduring attitudes and beliefs, e.g. working with new partners (youth movement, school curricula, churches, media – others involved in that area) and identifying where future movements for change are going to emerge from (urban slums, migrants and Diaspora, other?). But how do you fund this kind of thing?
3. Become more nimble in identifying and exploiting divisions and differences within elites, forming coalitions and alliances, finding common ground, and seizing windows of opportunity, however fleeting. The Oxfamistas felt we have a lot of experience in dealing with states in this nuanced way, both at national and local levels, but much less on the private sector and churches, which we still tend to see as homogeneous (and usually unsympathetic, at best).
4. Pursue a defensive strategy, trying to minimise the reversal of past gains on say, women’s rights or agrarian reform. Stay faithful to our traditional partners, helping them weather the downturn. It may even be easier to construct broad alliances to stop bad stuff happening than to push new demands. I can’t remember the reference, but the conversation reminded me of the psychology experiments that show that if you give volunteers a cup for a few days and then ask them to set a price for selling it to you, the average price they name works out about double that offered if you ask them how much they are prepared to pay for an identical cup that they have not previously ‘owned’, and the result is remarkably uniform across different countries. A bird in the hand really is worth two in the bush.
And to what extent do these options reflect the choices for progressive social movements in Europe in the current downturn, I wonder?