At birth, human beings are the most incompetent of all creatures on earth. We are born with no understanding of the nature of our surroundings, nor what must be done in order to survive. The infant is totally dependent on other people to provide for his/her basic needs and gradually to teach the cultural code that provides the necessary but arbitrary definitions of the way things are and the way things ought to be.1 This artificial construction of reality2 which we call culture is largely, but not totally shared by the members of a society. Culture provides the rationale in terms of which people in different segments of society pursue their interests and define their relationships to each other and to nature.

Paradoxically, this distinctly human capacity for culture separates us from others with equally arbitrary symbolic elaborations of what is and ought to be. Indeed, differences in values and conventional understandings frequently have led to intra- and inter-societal conflict. Conversely, common understandings and values among members of a society, or segments thereof, are conducive to peaceful social intercourse. Conflict may be resolved or averted by appeal to commonly held beliefs and values. Given this brief description of the characteristics and functions of culture, however, it must be recognized that no-one has ever seen a culture. Cultures are not things. As a system of commonly shared meanings and understandings, culture is neither energy nor matter, and therefore does not exist as such. Rather, the concept of culture, itself, is a human artifact in the form of a symbol. It is an imperfect tool, like that which the concept denotes. The concept of culture facilitates our understanding of some aspects of the human condition, but is less useful in regards to others.

Presently, there is conflict and widespread violation of human rights in much of Central America. Neither of these conditions are especially new to the region, but in recent years both have entered a more acute phase. It would be ethnocentric to argue that these endemic problems are caused primarily by the culture(s) of Central America. Similarly, it would be unrealistic to hope that, by itself, reflection on the positive aspects of a cultural heritage will eliminate conflict and guarantee human rights.

The countries of Central America have unique, although related histories and cultures. The seven nations of the region are composed of varying mixtures of peoples derived from many different cultures: Spanish as well as various indian cultures, African cultures, and even Anglo-Saxon culture. Over time, distinct syncretic combinations of these cultures have developed in each of the Central American countries and in regions within them. Variations correspond as well to ethnic identity and social class.

But it is not just cultures that have come together in this region; people have come together. From the beginning of the colonial era to the present, fate has brought together in a common social and economic system peoples with varying amounts of economic, juridical and military power. Each of these peoples has had its own interests to pursue, but the degree of success that each has had has been anything but equal. Specifically, the political, economic and social structures of the region, and the shared systems of meaning and values that comprise the region's cultures, have been profoundly influenced by colonialism.3 It is argued that both the causes and solutions for human rights violations in Central America can best be understood, not by reflection upon the values of a single culture, but in terms of the relative power of individuals and other social entities with somewhat different cultural premises, values and interests.


One of the first to chronicle the devastating effects of colonialism was the former Spanish soldier turned priest, Bartolome de Las Casas. In his Brevissima Relacion de la Destruycion de las Indias, published in 1552, Las Casas argued that the cruelty with which the indigenous population of the Americas had been treated led to the death of 15 to 20 million people. Modern accounts of the colonial era claim that the indigenous population of Mesoamerica decreased from approximately 25 million in 1500 to 600,000 in 1620.4 Although this decline has been attributed to the spread of European diseases to a population without immunological protection, it is undoubtedly true that the various institutions of forced labor and/or massive resettlement (e.g. reduccion, encomienda, corregimiento, mita) greatly debilitated the population due to poor nutrition and the general disruption of society.5 In Central America, the greatest concentration of indians was (and is) in highland Guatemala. In other areas, such as the Atlantic lowlands where the Spanish colonizers found that the indigenous workforce was inadequate in number, 1.5 million slaves were imported from Africa to work on plantations.6 Although the colonial enterprise was legitimized in terms of Christianizing the Americas, and there were attempts by people like Las Casas to make colonial rule more humane, it is clear that the basic rationale underlying the pursuits of the Spanish Crown and of the colonists was fundamentally exploitative. Indians who did not become attached to the land of criolle hacendados as virtual serfs were forcibly resettled in nucleated hamlets to facilitate the collection of tribute7. Indians, especially those who were least exposed to the "civilizing effects" of colonial society, were typically labelled as unintelligent ("gente sin razon") or uncivilized ("no civilizados").8

The economies and societies of what later were to become the Central American states were geared to mercantilist demands dictated from Europe.9 From the beginning, not only was there little concern for the development of a system of production and of trade to meet the internal needs of the colonies themselves, but the Crown also insured continuing dependence by prohibiting trade among the colonies, and between the colonies and other European nations.10 Priority was given to the production of commodities for export rather than foodstuffs and other goods necessary for the well-being of the colonists. In Guatemala large numbers of Indians fled to remote "regions of refuge" to escape colonial administration.11 Most of the indigenous population of other Central American nations, however, was either killed or detached from their communities and assimilated into an emerging mestizo or ladino culture.12

After Spain lost control of its Central American colonies in the 1820s, most of Central America was briefly united in a common state. Soon, however, regional criolle elites asserted their control and their independence from each other.13 With the possible exception of Costa Rica, which was an area of little interest to the Spanish and in which great disparities of wealth between an urban elite and rural masses never emerged,14 history suggests that the contemporary economic, social and political structures of the Central American nations have been profoundly influenced by the 300 years of colonial rule.15

As was observed by anthropologists Eric Wolf and Edward Hansen, the nations of Latin America, including those of Central America, developed "enclave economies" since gaining their formal independence from Spain.16 For example, the economies of the Central American nations became dependent on the export of one or two agricultural commodities, such as bananas, coffee, cotton and sugar.17 In the Twentieth Century the presence of representatives of multinational corporations and national business leaders affiliated with the enclave economy led to the concentration of educational and medical resources along with economic and political power in the capital cities of each nation.18 Cities such as Guatemala City, San Salvador and Managua come to be perceived by many in their respective countries as centers of modernity, and repositories of Western civilization. In contrast, lacking these resources, the impoverished countryside came to be perceived as having not yet benefitted from modernization.19 Poverty, with its attendant chronic malnutrition, endemic infectious diseases and high infant mortality rates, was associated with the maintenance of a "traditional" way of life, particularly in regions inhabited by culturally and linguistically different indigenous peoples.

However, as has been argued by Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the absence of "modernization" is not the cause of poverty in places like highland Guatemala. Rather, the poverty of the countryside is primarily attributable to the gross inequality in access to productive resources such as land.20 Decisions were made by political and economic elites to produce export commodities in order to earn foreign exchange to acquire imported goods for which there is a demand in the domestic market. This ignores the unfortunate fact that a large percentage of the population of the Central American nations either does not participate in the enclave economy or earns very low wages as landless itinerant laborers. They do not have the earning power to make their needs for adequate nutrition and shelter felt in the marketplace. Without structural changes in access to productive resources economic growth and modernization are not likely to rectify these problems. In the l980's, however, both episodic and endemic structural problems have, not only inhibited economic growth, but caused profound economic contraction in the region.


It would be neither accurate nor fair to say that the economic and political leaders of the Central American nations are unconcerned about the malnutrition and disease endemic to the region. All the governments have tried to promote modernization and economic growth. Indeed, from 1960 until the start of the present decade, the absolute size of the economies of all of the Central American states (measured in terms of changes in the gross domestic product) increased substantially.21 However, since the economies of almost all Latin America have been shrinking during most of the l980's, with even more drastic declines in the Central American nations engulfed in war, per capita incomes recently have registered a marked decline. These standard measures of the "health of economies," however, do not address the question of the distribution of wealth. It cannot be assumed that the poor benefit even when there is growth in the economy. Nonetheless, with the exception of Nicaragua, government planners and businessmen continue to attempt to promote modernization and economic growth primarily through private enterprise.

The political and military conflicts that have engulfed Nicaragua, E1 Salvador and Guatemala all have their unique historical antecedents. However, all of these conflicts share many fundamental predisposing factors. Among these are the domestic maldistribution of productive resources and wealth, demographic expansion, international recession, high interest rates, unstable prices for export commodities, trade imbalances, and ever-increasing international indebtedness. Access to food, shelter and basic health care are the most basic human rights, yet these have not been secured for a large proportion of the population of the Central American states.

Although it is undoubtedly true that few would wish to deny these rights to the poor of the region, the previously mentioned chronic structural problems in fact do deny to the poor access to these rights. As noted by the anthropologist, Richard N. Adams, structure can be defined as that which is perceived to be beyond the control of individual human beings.23 Social, economic and political structures, of course, have dynamic properties that must be understood in their own terms. Yet these structures, when stripped of their mystifying appearance of legitimacy and unalterability, can and should be understood in human terms. Fundamentally, these structures are the habitual patterns in which human beings, each of whom think, feel, laugh, cry, and who have their own hopes and dreams, relate to each other.24

As documented by anthropologist Michael Richards in the case of Guatemala, the brutal repression of rural poor people challenging the legitimacy of existing economic and political structures is legitimized in terms of the noble struggle to defend city-based Western Civilization from the barbarism of the rural poor.25 However, in an ethnographic study of a Guatemalan Indian community conducted more than 20 years ago, Manning Nash found that the maintenance of a distinctive rural and Indian culture is not inconsistent with modernization or economic growth.26 Indeed, among the peasantry of Central America, relatively isolated rural communities have had an insulating and protective effect in relation to the national society. The rich folk traditions associated with such communities have long provided meaning to people considered marginal in terms of national society and facilitated self provisioning of basic needs.27

ln the face of continuing demographic growth and maldistribution of the ownership of land, however, life in these rural communities is becoming more tenuous. Increasingly, the rural poor are forced to leave their communities, become itinerant laborers, or join the ranks of the unemployed. Some have sought work in other countries, including the United States. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, many have come to the conclusion that the present social structure is unjust, and have found support for their conclusions in the Church, especially in Christian "base communities." Both in recent years and in the more distant past, many have sought change through nonviolent resistance. Typically, they have met with little success and much brutality.28 With many now taking up arms, the social order, as repressive as it may have been, is being seriously challenged. Violent threats against human life have become commonplace. Despite some recent tentative steps toward democracy in the region, the likelihood of establishing peace with justice in the foreseeable future is far from certain.


The theologian, Leonardo Boff, has defined justice in the following way: "Justice is the minimum amount of love without which relations between people cease being human and become transformed into violence" (translation mine).29 In a region so thoroughly steeped in the Christian tradition, virtually all parties immersed in conflict justify their actions in terms of Christianity. Like all cultural traditions, the Christian tradition of Central America has many variations, and certain values may be interpreted differently by persons in different positions in society. Few people could tolerate believing that they were personally responsible for injustice or for denying others their human rights. Rather, the distinctive pattern of cultural knowledge and beliefs of persons in different segments of society tends to justify the behavior expected of one in such circumstances. The affluent, and those whose interests are allied with what Wolf and Hansen called the "enclave economy," believe that justice is best served by opposing threats to the existing institutional structure which they perceive as the bulwark of Western civilization. For those who have suffered the insecurity, deprivation and humiliation of poverty, justice is more likely to be conceived in terms of eliminating the institutional structure that has failed to insure their basic human rights.

Is this conflict caused then by the culture? Would reflection upon the cultural heritage bring about justice and end the conflict? As stated above, it is not reasonable to argue that the conflicts of Central America primarily are caused by culture, although surely the distinctive understandings and values of participants in the conflict help to perpetuate them. Cultural justifications correspond to the historically derived structures--structures of external dependence and internal hierarchy that are the heritage of the colonial era. Reflection on that colonial heritage may be useful in enhancing understanding of a social and economic structure that has marginalized a large segment of the population. However, analyses of modern nonviolent social movements suggest that the likelihood of their succeeding depends largely on the resources that are available to dramatically demonstrate that it is no longer viable to maintain structures of oppression.30 Privileged groups must be made to perceive both the moral bankruptcy and the material impracticality of maintaining the status quo.331

No social system is capable of meeting all the needs and wants of all its people. It is the nature of society that the interests of individuals and groups will come into conflict. Thus, social structural change to eradicate injustice such as occurred with the Sandinista revolution will almost inevitably lead to calls for further change to protect the rights and interests of one group or another. However, in considering the possible causes and solutions to these problems, covert and overt economic and military subversion against Nicaragua, sponsored by the U.S. government, obviously must be taken into account; so must the reaction of the Nicaraguan government in seeking assistance from Soviet block countries at the risk of falling into a new form of dependence to an external power. The guerrilla warfare and the constant American intervention underscore once again the main point of this paper: the primary causes of the conflicts in the region are not cultural misunderstandings and are not likely to be resolved solely by reflection on positive aspects of the cultural heritage. Rather, the problems of Central America must be understood in terms of groups, both inside and outside of the region, who have conflicting interests and grossly unequal power, and who pursue those interests in a context of economic and military dependency.

If it is accepted that justice, as defined by Leonardo Boff, is worth pursuing, then deliberate efforts to eliminate violence from relations between human beings necessitates, at the least, that sufficient concern be manifested about the problems of the region such that those involved try to understand how their actions, in the context of existing structures, affect others. However, as Jurgen Habermas noted in a critique of his own work, knowledge acquired in the process of self reflection is not a sufficient condition for social transformation.32 Social transformation requires that knowledge of how interests influence cultural premises be complemented by capability--by power.33

In conjunction with reflection, the people of the United States can do little more, but should do nothing less, than support policies that place priority on the defense of human rights and the provision of basic human needs. Given the history of domination that the U.S. has exerted over the region since World War I,34 it would be presumptuous for North Americans to suggest what the people of Central America should do. Besides the ongoing armed conflict, nonviolent action against injustice continues within El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Much of the power--potential and actual--of such organizations as Servicio Paz y Justicia, and Guatemala's Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo is derived from their association with religious institutions, leaders, and values. Although the support for these organizations by the Christian churches, as institutions, has varied from time to time and place to place,35 the cultural heritage of the Christian message has been, in recent years, a powerful force for change. The transforming power of the church is limited, however, by the fact that the conflicts of the region are reflected in the Church, itself. The endemic violence of poverty, as well as the acute violence of warfare presently show few signs of abating. Nonetheless, it appears that reliance upon the Christian Church, both as cultural heritage and institution that bridges the boundaries of class, ethnicity and nationality, is perhaps the most viable means of promoting the reflection that is necessary and the structural social transformation required to bring peace with justice to Central America.

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C.


1. Ward Goodenough, "Comment on Cultural Evolusion," Daedalus, 90: 521-528.

2. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1980).

3. Stanley J. Stein and Barbara H. Stein, The Colonial Heritage of Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

4. Thomas E. Skidmore & Peter M. Smith, Modern Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 22.

5. Eric R. Wolf Europe and the People Without a History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 134.

6. Ibid., p. 198.

7. Ibid., p. 145-149.

8. Michael Olien, Contemporary Peoples and Their Cultural Traditions (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973), pp. 63-115.

9. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World Economy, 1600-1750 (New York: Academic Press, 1980), pp. 128-177.

10. Ibid., pp. 27-54.

11. Gonzalo Aguirre Beltran, Regiones de Refugio (Mexico City: Instituto Indigenista Interamericana, 1967).

12. Michael Olien, Latin America: Contemporary Peoples and Their Cultural Traditions (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1973), p. 110.

13. T. Skidmore and P. Smith, Modern Latin America, pp. 286-292.

14. Ibid., pp. 302-303.

15. S. Stein and B. Stein, The Colonial Heritage of Latin America (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, l970).

16. Eric R. Wolf and Edward Hansen, The Human Condition in Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), pp. 7-27; 118-204.

17. Economic and Social Progress in Latin America (Washington, D.C., Interamerican Development Bank, 1985), pp. 433-434.

18. Douglas Butterworth and John Chance, Latin American Urbanization (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 1-32.

19. Richard Morse, "Some Characteristics of Latin American Urban History," American Historical Review, 67 (1962).

20. Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Social Classes in Agrarian Societies (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor, 1975), pp. 3-94; 163-233.

21. Economic and Social Progress in Latin America, pp. 3-15.

22. Ibid., p. 388.

23. Richard N. Adams, Energy and Structure: A Theory of Social Power (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1975), pp. 97-100.

24. Roger Keating, Cultural Anthropology: A Contemporary Perspective (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1981), 2nd ed., pp. 212-214.

25. Michael Richards, "Cosmopolitan World View and Counterinsurgency in Guatemala" Anthropological Quarterly, 58 (1985), 90-107.

26. Manning Nash, Machine Age Maya: The Industrialization of a Guatemalan Community (Menasha, Wisc.: American Anthropological Assoc., 1958).

27. Andrew Pearse, The Latin American Peasant (London: Frank Cass, 1975), pp. 39-76.

28. T. Skidmore and Peter Smith, Modern Latin America, pp. 286-320.

29. Leonardo Boff, "A ingreja e a luta pela justica e pelo direito dos pobres," in Igreja carisma e poder (Petropolis: Vozes, 1982), pp. 42-75.

30. Alden Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change (New York: The Free Press, 1984), pp. 275-290.

31. Louis Fischer, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1955).

32. Jurgen Habermas, Introduction to Theory and Practice. (London: Heinemann, 1974).

33. Anthony Giddens, Hermeneutics and Social Theory. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

34. T. Skidmore and P. Smith, Modern Latin America, pp. 323-326.

35. Phillip Berryman, The Religious Roots of Rebellion: Christians in the Central American Revolutions (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1984).