Costa Rica, Guatemala, and the mass movement against austerity

Mass mobilizations in Costa Rica and in Guatemala, where the Congress building was set on fire.


Rob Lyons is an activist and journalist living in Central America. Here he discusses with French socialist Stan Miller the quasi-insurrectional movements that recently took place in Costa Rica and Guatemala.

Stan Miller: Can you please tell us about the reasons for the recent general strike in Costa Rica?

Rob Lyons: There is no easy or simple answer to this question. It is important to understand that the underlying conditions that triggered the mass movement were part of an ongoing process of pauperization of the Central American masses. The total domination of the national bourgeoisies and the local oligarchies by imperialism, and the immense weight that U.S. and Canadian capital plays in Central America, is the major structural reason for this process. It is a process which was “sped up” following the 2008/2009 crisis, and it affected all countries, though not all equally.

Specifically, in the case of Costa Rica, the COVID-19 pandemic was the straw which broke the camel’s back. Unemployment has now reached levels reminiscent of the Great Depression. The official figures, which are trailing events and which leave out a portion of the active population engaged in the informal sector, which now makes up 60% of the workforce, is at 25%. For women, the numbers are even higher. One in three women are now unemployed, with that figure reaching 50% for those over the age of 40 years. The small family-run shops were going bankrupt at an unprecedented rate.

The government responded to the fiscal strain on the national budget by proposing to borrow from the International Monetary Fund, and as a condition of the loan proposed a set of taxes that would fall directly upon the backs of the working class and petit bourgeoisie. These proposed taxes enraged people across the country, and taking advantage of the mood, a national organization called “Rescue Costa Rica” was formed by a former presidential candidate. In two weeks’ time, the organization was confident enough of the social temperature that they called for mass actions of disobedience across the country.

These actions ranged from local demos at government buildings to more massive marches involving the trade-union movement. But the most significant actions involved building roadblocks across many of the major highways in the country, which for three weeks essentially paralyzed transport. These barricades acted as rallying points for those without an official or structured organization to relate to, and as meeting points for all those willing to show solidarity in action with the mass movement fighting the imposition of the IMF conditionalities.

SM: What is the reaction of the government and the political parties?

RL: At first the government attempted to ignore the movement and denigrated its importance. But as the size of the barricades increased, and the breadth of the movement began to show itself, the ruling party, the Citizens Action Party (PAC in Spanish) attempted a two-pronged carrot and stick approach to try and split the movement. The carrot the government attempted to use was a promise of a dialogue mediated by the Catholic Church. Unfortunately for the government, nobody bit this carrot, but instead denounced it as a meaningless gesture and a political manoeuvre designed to get the mass movement off the street.

The stick approach was just as ineffective. Costa Rica abolished the military in 1948 at the end of its civil war, a revolution and counter-revolution wrapped up into one, where the social democrats mobilized the most exploited elements of the working class and racialized peoples to defeat the army of a Popular Front government—liberals and the Communist Party renamed as the Popular Vanguard. This military has been replaced with a national police force, which has elements of both a traditional repressive arm of the state and a quasi-popular community-based police function. The repressive forces are grouped into a special tactical unit, which is deployed against the populace engaging in local strike or roadblocks. But the sheer size of the barricade activities, and the militancy involved on the barricades made the use of the tactical squad solely symbolic as an effective force.

Let me digress to give you some examples of the contradictory pressures which the actions of the barricadistas were able to apply to the situation. When the local Fureza Publica were used in an attempt to lift the roadblocks, the activists responded in different and entertaining ways. For example, they loaded dump trucks with stones to guard the piles of dirt and debris used to block the roadways. If the police tried to clear the barricades, the militants then used the stones to rain down upon the heads of the police, who were forced to retreat, sometimes cut off from the main force of the police squads. These isolated police personnel were then either beaten and stripped of the uniforms, or depending upon the relationship they had with their local communities, were escorted back outside the barricade areas.

My personal favourite tactic that I saw used was the workers from the municipal septic tank cleaning service using their pumps to spray the contents of the trucks over the police who tried to attack the barricades. Some of the locally based police units issued statements to the effect that they were in agreement with the protests and would not participate in trying to break the strike. This level of confrontation between the mass movement and the police was semi-insurrectionary, and was consciously taking its cues from the Nicaraguan insurrection of the previous years.

The effect of the strength and militancy of the mass movement was to force the government to retreat on all fronts. It was forced to concede that the national dialogue would have decision-making powers over the recommendations crafted at the negotiating table. More importantly, the government was forced to withdraw the IMF conditionalities after the National Assembly, under the pressure of the movement, refused to adopt the program. It is a temporary victory, but a victory nonetheless.

SM: What is the level of repression?

RL: Some important lessons were learned by the population regarding the role of the police. One of the main components of bourgeois ideology in Costa Rica is “solidarismo,” the notion that “we are all in this together.” This is a quite overt and pervasive notion, and one of the key components of this construct is respect and trust. The way in which the government tried to repress the movement through the use of the police was a shock to this doctrine, and backfired spectacularly on the government.

For example, one of the strongest areas of the movement is in the northern province of Guanacaste, which borders on Nicaragua. It is the province through which the north-south traffic passes along the Interamericana Highway, and of course the road blocks there resulted in a massive traffic jam of truckers blocked at the border points and in nearby towns. This area was one of the points that the government tried desperately to take control of, but they badly overplayed their hand. They launched early-morning raids against the houses of the strike leaders of the area, arresting the men, women, and children of entire families.

Unfortunately, this was filmed by journalists of the national television and cable network, which was one of the entities that the tax regime has favoured, and has become a hated symbol of the privileges enjoyed by the national oligarchy. The journalists who were filming the police raids were then attacked by the police, and this was broadcast not on the television news but over the journalists’ social media accounts. The link between the activities of the government, the police and the oligarchy could not have been made clearer.

Similarly, the government was caught red-handed using agent provocateurs to try and incite sympathy for the police. On the day the government was forced to back down, the mass movement tried to descend on San Jose and march on the presidential residence. First, the government issued a warning to the bus companies that anyone allowing their busses to be used to transport the movement activists to San Jose would have their operating certificate lifted. This had the effect of reducing the number of participants from both the north and south zones of the country, the areas of the strongest confrontations. Despite this, the march on the presidential residence proceeded, but was met with a large contingent of the tactical repressive unit.

As the two sides came together, the television cameras focused on two of the demonstrators attempting to beat the police with clubs. As luck would have it, these same two “militants” we soon caught on social media cameras marching arm in arm with the tactical squad to their headquarters not far away. This was broadcast across the country and within an hour the Minister responsible for the police was forced to admit that the two persons involved were indeed agents of the police, and that the government did use agent provocateurs to discredit the movement. Needless to say that this admission sent a wave of anger and shock through the population, shaking the notions of trust and respect to the core.

SM: Was there self-organization by the protesters?

RL: The level of self-organization was incredibly impressive for its breadth, but also terribly uneven as to its level of political sophistication and for a lack of clearly defined goals. These shortcomings became obvious very early on to the participants, and though there were attempts to unify the demands around a common program, the political cross currents produced by the leadership of Rescue Costa Rica became an impediment to that. In a word, nobody trusted the motives of Corrales, the ex-presidential candidate, whose checkered political history reflected the petit bourgeois social basis he represented. It was a mixture of an anti-government populism and a hodge-podge of ideas whose only coherency began with the demand of “no new taxes” and quickly morphed into “No to the IMF, Costa Rica is not for sale.”

Despite this diversity and variability, the sheer combativeness of the movement was very similar to that of the Yellow Vest movement in France, and its breadth tapped into a long-simmering anger at the national oligarchy and its political representatives. Because of the numbers of people involved, it was able to change the political dynamic of the country at many different levels. The cause of that anger has not gone away. Nothing has fundamentally been resolved, but the present period is allowing the masses to be able to discuss the possibilities for the future. I think that the next wave of struggle, when it comes, and it really is a question of “when, not if,” will be at a higher level of political understanding. This period of reflection also applies to the left, who though understanding the overall level of frustration building in the country, were quite startled by the way in which the movement exploded onto the political stage.

SM: What was the role of the far left?

RL: The far left in Costa Rica is tiny and outside some very specific areas, like the struggle for abortion rights, plays a very little role in the political life of the country. I am optimistic that will change as there are signs that a new layer of young and very militant activists, many involved in the trade unions, and who were participants in this mass movement, are breaking from the hegemonic role of the broad left bloc represented by the Frente Amplio (Broad Front), a coalition of left social democrats and popular vanguard activists. The inability of the FA to develop any coherent policy toward the social and economic crisis facing the masses of working people in the country has been exposed under the pressure of the mass movement, and has opened some latent fissures, which is leading to splits and realignments, a process which is now just beginning to manifest itself.


SM: Can you please explain to us the cause of the crisis in Guatemala?

RL: The crisis in Guatemala is part of the ongoing regional crisis of social and economic dimensions, but of course with specifically country-focused characteristics. It is important to place it within the historic context of Guatemala’s evolution as the most important country in the Central American context, both in size and in its vast potential for wealth production. This importance was understood from the time of the Spanish colonization, when it became the center of administration for all of the five Central American provinces.

Because of this importance and the social weight of the criollo bourgeois and a real feudal system of land holdings, the experiments in liberal bourgeois democratic forms of domination have been short lived, including the period of the republican revolutionary regime of Francisco Morazan Quesada, the Simon Bolivar of Central America.

The agency of imperialism, through the United Fruit Company, has in effect run Guatemala since the start of the 20th century. Successive governments have been a series of overt military dictatorships, dictatorships produced through rigged elections, and weak but extremely corrupt governments, usually quickly replaced by military coups.

In the 1950s, the Arbenz government, a mildly center-left regime, tried to reform the tax system to modernize the country’s infrastructure, including nationalizing the land holdings of the United Fruit Company. It was overthrown in a USA-backed coup in 1954, a coup witnessed by a certain Argentinian doctor who later became famous by proclaiming; “The revolution will be socialist, or it will be a caricature of one.”

However, for the past 10 years or so, the mass movement has played an increasingly important political role. Its strength has been able to bring the former military dictator, Rios Montt, responsible for the genocide of at least 150,000 Indigenous people and social activists, to trial and conviction in 2011. It has been able to organize a national movement to oust two corrupt administrations, including the 2015 “cell phone revolution,” a mass movement in the streets of the capital famously organized by two women who used their cell phone contacts to spread the word of a planned demonstration against the obscenely corrupt administration of the retired General Perez Molina and his vice-president, Roxana Baldetti. Both were later convicted on various corruption charges for initiating a vast kickback scheme known as “La Linea.”

Having once thrown out a corrupt administration, the mass movement begins to understand its real power that lies behind the latest anti-corruption demonstrations in Guatemala, a movement which is also bringing into question the legitimacy of the electoral process as well.

SM: Why did they burn the parliament on Oct. 21?

RL: There is increasing acceptance that the fire set in the Congress was of the Reichstag variety. Video evidence of the police failing to intervene to stop the masked intruders and standing by while the fire was lit points to an attempt to discredit what has been a strong but peaceful political movement against corruption. This tactic is nothing new for Guatemalan politics, where in the past massacres of Indigenous villagers were undertaken to try and blame it on the guerrilla forces active in the 1980 and 1990 period.

Remember that in 1980, during an occupation of the Spanish embassy to protest the massacres perpetrated by the Guatemalan army against the indigenous population, the army stormed the building, killing almost everybody inside, and then set fire to the building to eradicate traces of the bloodbath. This was later affirmed by the Spanish ambassador who was able to survive by hiding, and subsequently led to the break off of diplomatic relations between Spain and Guatemala.

SM: What is the current situation?

RL: The broad left in Guatemala has been under the hegemonic political orientation of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (UNRG) since it was formed in 1982 as a product of the fusion of the four main guerrilla forces operating at the time. In 1996, the UNRG and the Guatemalan government signed a peace accord, upon which the accord between the Colombian government and the FARC has been likened, and the UNRG disarmed itself. Its politics are left social democratic, and its orientation strategically has been the accumulation of electoral forces sufficient to win the national presidency and Congress.

However, similar to the social situation in Costa Rica, the government’s attempt to impose a budget designed to not only shift the costs of the crisis onto the backs of the masses, but to enrich the corrupt empresarial allies of the oligarchy, and the resulting movement has changed the political dynamics of the country, and his forced a leftward shift, at least rhetorically, in the position of the UNRG.

I want to quote from their communique of 20 November, where this is expressed most cogently: “Universal history shows that when the political and institutional spaces are closed to channel social demands, legitimate social rebellion ensues and its consequent consequences of instability and conflict that our country has already experienced and that no one wants to repeat themselves. However, these spaces have already been closed and the only thing left for the people is the path of social protest and the leadership in the three State bodies, the possibility of correcting and avoiding the crisis.”

In this one paragraph is contained the contradictions and conundrum faced by the broad left formations throughout Central America: a crisis of a lack of a strategic path and focus. Recognizing the impossibility of social advancement through the institutions of a venial, corrupt, and unreformable rickety structure of a bourgeois democratic form, controlled by imperialism and the national oligarchy, the broad left calls for social pressure to be applied to this tottering structure, pleading for the oligarchy to reform itself.

However, this pressure is designed not to topple, destroy, and burn the rotten edifice to ashes but to amplify the pleas of a left which has neither the self-confidence nor the political analysis sufficient to turn the mass movement into a workers, peasants, Indigenous, and poor people’s government. A government, moreover, based upon vastly strengthened self-organized structures already present, especially in the peasant and Indigenous communities, and which would be formed during the stormy revolutionary rising necessary to capture power and crush the oligarchy and its imperialist allies.

This is the Stalinist legacy of the theory of stages, where like their Menshevik bedmates before them, they deny the possibility of a revolutionary overturn of social relations in the so-called “developing” countries (itself a term derived from those academics from the Stalinist tradition), despite the example of Cuba staring them in the face.

On a personal note, if ever there was a country in the Western Hemisphere whose super-exploited and physically abused long-suffering masses needed a mass revolutionary party with a leadership smart enough to take power, probably only Haiti would rank above Guatemala in the historical need for it. Unfortunately, such a formation is not to be found in Saint Nicholas’s bag of gifts, but will be forged through a regional strengthening of the forces of revolutionary Marxism, from Mexico to Colombia and beyond, a process which the present global crisis of imperialism will hasten. The alternative is unthinkable.

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