Ana Patricia Rodríguez

Central American Cultural Production under the Aegis of Neoliberalism*

  University of Maryland, College Park


In texts produced in Central America after the armed conflicts of the 1980s, the reconstruction of the isthmus is an underlying concern. Books such as América Central hacia el 2000: Desafíos y opciones (1989), Forjando la paz: El desafío de América Central (1988), De la locura a la esperanza: La guerra de 12 años en El Salvador (1993), Esquipulas, diez años después: ¿Hacia dónde va Centroamérica? (1997), and Traspatio Florecido: Tendencias de la dinámica de la cultura en Centroamérica (1979-1990) (1993) not only assess the recent period of civil unrest in the region, but they also suggest that Central American nations are attempting to move forward into the twenty-first century. An extensive production of essays, monographs and books invoke a past that is not easily erased, but upon which Central Americans must build new cultural-scapes given the context of recent economic and political realignments of Latin America. These texts are emblematic of new articulations linking the North and the South and reformulations of Latin and Central Americanist discourses. For Central Americans, as these texts imply, there is no starting from scratch, since Central America was indelibly marked by the recent wars and continues to be defaced by the onslaught of neoliberal programs throughout the region.

In Traspatio Florecido: Tendencias de la dinámica de la cultura en Centroamérica (1979-1990), Rafael Cuevas Molina explains that today there is an urgent need to examine the state of post-revolutionary cultural realities in Central America (Cuevas Molina, 1993: 11), as well as a need to forge a regional Central American cultural imaginary. For Cuevas Molina, the imperative is to bring to the fore connections between the peoples, histories, and societies of the isthmus and to underscore the differences among them (Cuevas Molina, 1993: 14). In his view, the wars of the last decades generated new heterogeneous cultural forms, which now offer other sites for critical study. In daily practice, however, there is limited cultural exchange and communication among Central Americans themselves. He explains that,

Tal descuido permite que, incluso en círculos de intelectuales preocupados por la temática de la identidad cultural, prevalezca el desconocimiento mutuo de lo que ocurre en países vecinos del istmo, de lo que en ellos se produce, se publica, etc., y se reproduzcan, en formas bastante acrítica, estereotipos, mitos, prejuicios provenientes del sentido común respecto a los otros países de la región. [Such neglect, even among intellectuals who are concerned with the issue of cultural identity, permits a lack of mutual awareness of what goes on in neighboring countries of the isthmus, of what is produced there, of what is published there, etc., to prevail. It also foments the reproduction of non-critical stereotypes, myths, common sense prejudices against the other countries in the region.] (Cuevas Molina, 1993: 13; translation into English is mine.)

To offset these biases, the construction of cultures of peace in the region requires the promotion of mutual identification and cultural exchange among Central Americans and the production of an extended Central American imaginary, a project in which cultural texts are indispensable. The integration of Central American cultures into a regional imaginary, as it is suggested here, serves as a defense against further cultural memory loss and as a front against cultural homogenization induced by the expansion of global (cultural and economic) capital in the region. Drawing from Raymond Williams’s conceptualization of cultural fields as outlined in Marxism and Literature (1977), Cuevas Molina suggests that Central American communities would benefit from composing a regional cultural field. He identifies the cultural field as “el sistema de relaciones (que incluye artistas, editores, marchantes, críticos, agentes, funcionarios, público) que determina las condiciones especificas de producción y circulación de sus productos. Dos elementos constituyen un campo: la existencia de un capital común y la lucha por su apropiación” (Cuevas Molina, 1993: 14-17). In his larger agenda, he suggests that the construction of a larger regional cultural network would foster co-existence of cultural differences, histories, and practices across nations.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Central American cultures are not the national cultures imagined by nineteenth century liberals and federalists, nor are they the revolutionary cultures projected in the last decades. Furthermore, they are no longer strictly located within national geographic boundaries. Central American cultures, in fact, have spilled over their national confines into other spaces in the South and the North. According to Cuevas Molina, regional and comparative studies of Central American cultures are necessary, as Central Americans share not only a geographic region but also similar historical developments. He notes, however, that there is a near void in full-length studies of Central American regional cultures, with the exception of Sergio Ramírez’s ground-breaking Balcanes y volcanes y otros ensayos y trabajos (1985), an overview of Central American cultural production from the pre-Columbian era to the decade of the 1970s. More recently, Sergio Ramírez's Hatful of Tigers: Reflections on Art, Culture and Politics (1995) (Estás en Nicaragua 1986) offers a compilation of essays that examine the direct and subtle impact of revolutionary cultures on the region. Rafael Cuevas Molina's own Traspatio Florecido and Magda Zavala and Seidy Araya's La historiografía literaria en América Central (1957-1987) (1995) have been important contributions to the field of comparative / regional Central American cultural studies.

Following the noted apex of the testimonio and the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary narrative in the 1980s, contemporary Central American cultural production is located at the crossroads of discourses on Central American regional cultures. Post-revolutionary movement literature shows the signs of recent historical and discursive transformations. Grappling with the legacy of armed conflict, post-revolutionary movement literature in Central America is in the process of constructing narratives produced under the duress of neoliberal cultural politics and the homogenizing trends of global economic and cultural capital. Major strategies of this literature include, as Cuevas Molina's study suggests, the invention of a Central American regional imaginary across diverse texts, which propose utopic and dystopic visions and which seek to disrupt embryonic neoliberal master-narratives of the region. Many recent literary texts interrogate the effects of neoliberal politics and economies on the specific and diverse populations of the isthmus, and offer critiques of the general devastation of the South, including Central America. They engage in a rethinking of alliances forged among Central Americans and their displaced refugee / immigrant populations (re)located in other sites in the North and the South.

Under neoliberal regimes, all of the countries of Central America show the impact of similar economic, political, social, and cultural programs implemented throughout the South. The imaginary of Central America as the South is not limited to the confines of individual nation-states, but covers a wide expanse of sites across the world currently ruled by neoliberal regimes, all of which share in common the implementation of violent domestic policies and reforms. In this construction of a southern Central American imaginary, individual countries identify themselves as part of a larger Central American entity, and as part of the even larger economic composite of the South. Located in particular sites spread across the globe, the South might be understood as a location of economically devastated and depleted cultures (Bhabha, 1994). Regardless of geographical location, neoliberal cultures are shaped by the heavy strain of the expropriation and accumulation of capital in the northern regions of the world. Jonathan R. Barton, in A Political Geography of Latin America (1997) offers a working definition of the southern region and the conditions of the South. According to Barton,

the South is a geographical reference within which the majority of countries share similar environmental, social, cultural, political and economic development contexts and conditions. . . . The South definition is neither precise, inclusive nor exclusive, and as such it reflects the heterogeneity of Latin American circumstances. Rather than attempting to justify the term, it is better to point out that there are many and various contradictions and ambiguities within this universalisation. The definition should continue that a recognition of difference within the South is as important as a recognition of the differences between the North and the South. (Barton, 1997: 6)

Spanning across a vast terrain and various national territories, the South comprises two-thirds of the earth's surface, where three-and-a-half billion people or three quarters of humanity live in extreme degrees of poverty. The South encompasses the sites formerly and recently known as the Third World, the developing countries, and the peripheries.

Barton further notes that “Within the globalised context of neocolonialism, the manipulation of armed forces is being replaced gradually by the manipulation of market force” (Barton, 1997: 3). Currently, Central Americans engage in a common struggle against the violent (economic) forces of the North. In the arena of the globalized state, as Barton points out, international firms, banks, agencies, and other organizations determine domestic policies in specific countries. Under such conditions of extreme expropriation of capital, Central America has gained a place among the impoverished states of the South, of which Latin America is a “key region” (Barton, 1997: 3).

In much current literature and visual representations (film and photography), Central America is imagined as a site undergoing great socioeconomic and ecological devastation (the general condition of the South). The image of garbage or waste surfaces as the metaphor of Central American nations attempting to rebuild themselves from the rubble of armed conflict, while at the same time confronting the disruptive fallout of global capital. Waste also serves as the sign of the uncertain future of the isthmus, requiring critical readings of the devastation of the region throughout its long history of imperialism and intervention. Throughout the history of Central America, structures of power and attendant systems of thought have converted the region into raw material and terrain for the (mis)use of the North. In an act of reification, the same devastating effects produced in the South by the North come to represent Central America as a natural(ized) site of decomposition (underdevelopment), which requires regeneration by outside forces. Regeneration from the North comes to Central America in the form of imperialism, (neo)colonialism, and now neoliberal programs.

In “Through the Tropical Looking Glass: The Motif of Resistance in U.S. Literature on Central America,” Stephen Benz explains that the isthmus is imagined as a “deadly, diseased, disorderly, dissolute, and decadent” region, which must be brought to order by outside forces (Benz, 1997: 69). According to Benz, tropicalism (the southern version of Edward Said’s orientalism) is the underlying logic that informs many projects of imperialism, (neo)colonialism, and neoliberalism that take root in Central America. Responding to this legacy of decomposition, Central Americans, today, attempt to reconstruct narratives for the region in post-war conditions. Many cultural producers, writers, and critics seem to trace the source of devastation of Central America directly to the North. The metaphor of waste, in many Central American texts, has become the premier sign of the degradation of the South, as produced by northern agents. Communities living in inhospitable conditions and in the virtual, extended wasted lands of Central America are represented in texts such as Carmen Naranjo's story “And We Sold the Rain” (1989), Fernando Contreras Castro's Única mirando al mar (1994), Manlio Argueta's Milagro de la Paz (1994), and two premier novels of the Central American diaspora in the United States —Héctor Tobar’s The Tattooed Soldier (1998) and Francisco Goldman’s The Ordinary Seaman (1997)—, all of which I discuss at length elsewhere. Part of a wider post-revolutionary cultural politics and cultural production, these texts represent a general scene of devastation, which sets the ground for the construction of peace in Central America. The survival of Central America into the next millennium depends on the reconstruction of its societies and the reimagining of more equitable narratives of development and progress in the region. Read together, the aforementioned texts and others construct a transnational Central American imaginary where waste is a prime signifier of the contradictions of peacetime conditions and where the ambivalent f(r)iction of peace casts subjects into internal and external holding spaces of economic, material and human expropriation.

Developed under the aegis of neoliberalism, the logic of tropicalism envisions Central America as a degraded and disorderly site requiring the aid, in this case, of agents skilled in ultra-modern technologies. Following this imperative, the case is made that Central America does not possess the capital and technology to refurbish its societies. The material and human potential of Central America is converted into expropriatable excess that can be recycled into profit by neoliberal economic programs such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and Plan Panamá. Against these large-scale, regional economic policies, contemporary Central American literature has responded with the extreme representation of societies robbed of their own productive (sustainable) means and potential. A brand of Central American literature produced under the pressure of neoliberal economic programs has generated a regional isthmian imaginary of devastation, decay, and depletion of resources. Central America is represented in the shantytowns of Carmen Naranjo's and Fernando Contreras Castro’s narratives, the assaulted villages of Manlio Argueta's Milagro de la Paz, and the disenfranchised, homeless migrant labor populations in Hector Tobar’s and Francisco Goldman’s U.S. Latino / Central American novels. In these texts, Central Americans have been commonly abandoned by the nation-state, left to negotiate and struggle for their very material existence. Empowered, however, by the experiences of trauma and war, the subjects of this new “southern” literature use their resiliency, ingenuity, and survival tactics to envision more hardened yet realistic narratives for the Central American region as a whole.

© Ana Patricia Rodríguez



vuelve * This article is excerpted from a more extensive, previously published piece. See Ana Patricia Rodríguez, “Wasted Opportunities: Conflictive Peacetime Narratives of Central America”, 2002: in Virginia M. Bouvier (ed.), 2002: The Globalization of U.S.-Latin American Relations: Democracy, Intervention, and Human Rights, Westport, CT: Praeger, 227-247.




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