Central American Elites Are Evolving But Cling to Power

From left to right: Manuel Torres, Ricardo Barrientos, Hugo Noé Pino, Aaron Schneider and Elizabeth Oglesby participating in the project seminar in Costa Rica

From left to right: Manuel Torres, Ricardo Barrientos, Hugo Noé Pino, Aaron Schneider and Elizabeth Oglesby participating in the project seminar in Costa Rica

The sources of Central American elites’ wealth are evolving, as are their fundamental interests and the ways they wield political power.  Land‑intensive production – the focus of decades of insightful scholarship – continues to prevail in Guatemala and Honduras, but the economically powerful now maintain their position through a growing array of service-sector activities and by capturing rents from public coffers.  Changes in their economic foundations are but one of several transformative processes that swept the region beginning during the 1980s, making the past three decades a period of fundamental rupture with the past.

  • Civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua during the 1980s transformed the economies in all three countries and had spillover effects in Costa Rica and Honduras.  Most striking is the case of El Salvador, where elites abandoned the countryside upon which they had depended from time immemorial, never to return.
  • Structural adjustment programs, implemented throughout the region during the 1990s, changed the role of the state in Central American economies and thus the ways in which the public sector intersected with the elites’ wealth-accumulation strategies.  Hasty and corruption-ridden privatizations, in particular of energy and telecommunications and of an array of public services, created a reformist façade but gave private-sector groups a piñata that helped to ensure uninterrupted enrichment.
  • During that same decade, transitions to electoral democracy contributed to elite reliance – albeit with some important exceptions – on political parties, campaign strategies and legislative lobbying to protect their interests.  Ties to military and death squad enforcers are no longer the principal vehicles for the enforcement of elite imperatives, though Honduras today is increasingly reminiscent of the worst times in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Central America’s elites have yet to offer the region a vision of reform that will enable the isthmus to overcome misery, exploitation and predatory rule.  While dominant groups have embarked on aggressive state-building strategies, experts question whether these are producing the virtuous dynamics that advance the general welfare of the population and ensure effective governance. 

Scholars from across Central America have reached these conclusions through research and seminars under a multi-year AU program on Central American elites and power.  To foster better understanding of the shifting landscape in the region, and thus to illuminate plausible paths toward more equitable distribution of power and resources, the Ford Foundation is supporting this effort, undertaken in partnership with more than two dozen researchers from institutions throughout the isthmus and the United States.  The project was the focus of a recent workshop at FLACSO Costa Rica, and several publications will result over the course of 2013 and 2014.  Click here for more information.

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