Central America: Evolution of Economic Elites

By Alexander Segovia*

 

El Salvador landscape

El Salvador landscape / Google Images / Creative Commons

The elites of Central America – traditionally organized in national business groups with strong family ties – have lost power and allowed certain reforms to advance over the past 30 years, but the full impact of this historic shift has been blunted by the lack of broad, inclusive national debates and the growing role of regional economic powers. Until the 1980’s, the powerful interests of the traditional agricultural export economy dominated for more than a century, with enormous influence by virtue of their control over property and every facet of the production, processing, and domestic and foreign marketing of their products.

  • For these traditional elites, the state was to be used for their own benefit. Their decisive influence continued even as economies changed and exports diversified somewhat after World War II. It survived the growth of cities, the emergence of new players in industry, the growth of organized labor, and the expansion of government bureaucracies. Elites obstructed changes that threatened their interests and parried others into minor tweaks of the essentially agro-export model that they dominated. They preserved many inequities in social and economic systems, slowed diversification, and protected governments that were weak, corrupt, disorganized, and often authoritarian, repressive, and undemocratic.

Since the late 1980’s, according to my research, the agro-export model that enabled elites to have such power has changed significantly – facilitating the emergence of new economic models (albeit with different manifestations in each country) and eroding the old elites’ grip on society. The change was driven by the armed conflicts, political and social crises, emigration, and the flow of remittances. Neoliberal economic reforms, including liberalization, deregulation, privatization, and opening to foreign investment, had an impact within the context of the broader capitalist globalization gaining momentum during the period.

  • Although not always with alacrity, elites had to accept the advent of new spaces and patterns in which other actors were able to accumulate wealth and power. Tourism, telecommunications, banking, and other service sectors gave rise to new voices, as did the development in some countries of non-traditional exports. New entrepreneurs brought in new foreign actors, including many from neighboring countries and the rest of Latin America. Powerful transnational economic groups (known by the Spanish acronym GETs), with strong family ties, began to operate across borders – creating both new opportunities and new challenges. The GETs have already flexed their enormous influence over public policies. As a result, the traditional elites gradually have found themselves forced to function within a matrix of national and regional power, with new dynamics, over which their grip had been broken or at least significantly weakened.

National elites such as El Salvador’s have broken with the old stereotype of selfish economic interests united around an extreme right wing ideology – being more heterogeneous today in composition and perspectives than ever before – but deeper, lasting change is going to take time and effort. An inclusive national dialogue in each country to build agreement on the broad outlines of a political project to address how to effect national transformation and modernization would be the best way of reassuring all sides that their voices count, but unfortunately no country is holding one. Generational change – characterized in part by younger family members’ constant connectivity with peers outside strictly national circles – could also be a factor.

  • The increased activism of the GETs may explain why breaking the grip of the nation-based traditional elites has not led to deeper and broader change – essentially swapping one elite’s manipulation of government for another’s. The GETs have important, and sometimes decisive, influence over public policies not just in their home countries, but beyond. The future of reform therefore would appear to depend on the willingness of regional elites to pursue them. Several initiatives, including one undertaken by the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y Cambio Social (INCIDE), of which I am President, aim to promote a constructive dialogue between society and the GETs. Progress hasn’t been easy or quick, but we have proven that change is indeed possible.

March 21, 2019

*Alexander Segovia is a Salvadorean economist and President of the Instituto Centroamericano de Investigaciones para el Desarrollo y el Cambio Social.  He was Technical Secretary of the Presidency of El Salvador (2009-2014). This article is adapted from his recent book, Economía y Poder: Recomposición de las Élites Económicas Salvadoreñas.