Civil Society, Transitions, and Post-War Reconstruction in Latin America: A Comparison of El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru

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In this paper, I shall examine the role of civil society in three recent and quite different cases of regime transition-cum-peace and reconstruction: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru. These tliree countries were characterized by open or 'low intensity' civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s, accompanied by severe socioeconomic problems and a difficult regime transition agenda. In El Salvador and Guatemala, a formal peace process has led to comprehensive agreements, but in Peru no such peace process took place. Peru shares with Guatemala the impact of ethnicity on the dynamics of the war and the post-war reconstruction effort, although in different ways. In all three countries, post-war governance is complicated by political and institutional problems. This poses a particular challenge to the role of civil society. Traditionally weakly articulated in these countries and battered by authoritarianism and violence, grassroots organizations, horizontal associations, and NGOs nevertheless took on an important role in the peace process in El Salvador and especially in Guatemala. Peru, in contrast, witnessed the erosion and eventual breakdown of civil society as a result of the civil war and the related economic, social and political crises. After a general overview of the role of civil society in Latin America (especially in the context of democratic transitions), the paper will provide a comparative overview of the recent cycles of war, conflict resolution and peace in the three countries. In the final section, the role of civil society in each country is dealt with more closely, bringing to the fore commonalties as well as differences in the way civil society has been operating within peace processes and reconstruction efforts. The importance of non-violence, civil and political freedoms, and the autonomy and pluralism of civil society organizations will come out as important preconditions for a constructive and lasting role of civil society in conflict resolution and democratic consolidation in Latin America.


Historically, civil society has until recently been weak within the social and political relations in Latin America. During the first century of independent statehood and nation building, Latin American countries were ruled by a succession of caitdillos and oligarchic regimes. Particularly true for the period between the 1870s and 1930, a neo-patrimonial conception of the state and politics prevailed. Economic and social elites usually controlled politics, either directly through personal ties, through oligarchic political parties, or through the military. This offered very limited scope for the development of civil society. In fact, virtually the only civil organizations that were active and heeded were the rural and commercial associations of the elites themselves. Violent confrontations was the rule rather than the exception among the non-dominant classes, such that this social problem became a 'police problem' (Kruijt & Koonings, 1999). Nevertheless, civil society organizations (CSOs) started to sprout up, especially in the urban areas where trade, infra-structural development and fledgling industrialization set the stage for the first trade unions (Koonings et al., 1995). Still, the overall position of the elites vis-à-vis popular organizations remained hostile until the 1930s. In a number of countries, notably the Central American countries (with the exception of Costa Rica), Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay, regimes and politics retained their oligarchic and exclusionary character well into the twentieth century (Hagopian, 1996). As we will see below, this was the prime structural factor behind the eruption of civil war in the 1970s and 1980s in Central America (Flora & Torres-Rivas, 1989; Torres-Rivas, 1991).

From 1930 onwards, social and political relations started to change as a result of urbanization, industrialization and the strengthening of the so-called 'popular sectors', placing on the agenda the question of the incoiporation of the 'masses' into Latin American political life. …