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Culture, Human Rights and  Peace in Central America 

September 5 - November 10, 1985                                                                        Washington, D.C.



After a long and relatively quiet period during which Central America attracted very little attention beyond its borders, it has entered a period of great and urgent tensions. Social, economic and political patterns which had long prevailed are now called into question. The responses to these questions range across the spectrum from revolution to repression, and are accompanied all too frequently by violence in its many guises. Real progress seems ambiguous and elusive. In a situation of change, in which understanding is desperately needed but only extremists claim clarity, a process of disciplined and concerned reflection is a pressing need.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the region due to threats imposed by extreme poverty, political repression and violence. In the last fifteen years, over 100,000 Central Americans have settled in the city of Washington alone.

In turn, in these days of global interaction, regional unrest does not long remain a matter of indifference to other peoples. Expressing concern primarily about geo-political considerations, some nations have attempted to influence events in Central America by intervening through political, economic and military means. Even beyond such intended intervention, the normal interchange of commerce and culture by other countries vitally affects patterns of development in Central America. Both within and between nations, such issues have become the basis for multiple engagements, intense concern, and deep division. In order to avoid being destructive and to play a responsible and positive role there is need for balanced and penetrating insight.

In the midst of these problems members of the Association of Presidents of the National Universities of Central America (CSUCA) visited their sister universities in North America in the hope of developing a better understanding, and hence a more appropriate response, to their crisis. In preparation for their initiative, George McLean visited each of their Universities. As a response to their visit a mere informational series of lectures did not appear to be enough. It seemed that concerned scholars could go further by pooling their personal competencies in an intensive 10-week interdisciplinary seminar aimed at generating better understanding of the issues as a basis for future interaction. This seminar was sponsored jointly by CSUCA, represented by Raul Molina, and the Council for Research in Values and Philosophy (RVP). The work carried out in the seminar is the basis for this volume.

The principal participants were the authors of the several chapters. The contributors wrote from the perspective of various disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, education, political science, economics, philosophy, theology and literature. Seminar participants met weekly in order to form a community of understanding in which a cumulative process of discovery, reflection and insight could take place. As the seminar progressed, the many dimensions of a problematic were progressively unfolded. Participants came primarily from universities in the Washington area. On occasion, they were joined by other specialists: an economist from the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB); a political scientist from the Wilson Center and the Center for Advanced Study at Princeton; two anthropologists from international human rights groups; and a specialist in the methodology of the social sciences from the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. All added new and challenging insights.

Interpretative reports on the pattern of the themes developed in the course of the discussions were drawn up by the Seminar Director, George McLean. They have been included in this volume after the relevant chapters. The first of these, found after Chapter III, reflects the discussions up to that point. The sequence of the discussions reflects the cumulative character of the engagement of the issues and the deepening of insight. A written interchange between G. McLean and T. Ready regarding the interaction between cultural resources and distorted power relations took place over a number of weeks; it is appended to the report of the discussion after Chapter III. This interchange typifies the struggle progressively to articulate and rearticulate the issues through interdisciplinary dialogue in search of ever better comprehension.

The volume, then, is not simply a collection of disparate essays, but reflects an effort to work and think together in order to develop one's insights in response to those of specialists in other fields. This constituted a true community of learning stemming from a shared deep concern for the peoples of Central America. The organizing concepts, methods, and themes for the volume are set forth in the first chapter, written by George McLean, entitled, "Hermeneutics of Cultural Heritage: Social Critique and Future Construction." McLean raises the question of how the cultural heritage of Central America can serve as a foundation for bringing together conflicting perspectives on Central American culture and society in such manner as to provide a basis for social critique and thereby lead to the enhancement of the dignity of all. In other words, what resources can be utilized from the ennobling cultural traditions which Central Americans share to address the changing realities now emerging?

In Chapter II, Timothy Ready raises the troubling fact that an inequitable distribution of social power, originating in the colonial era and persisting in various forms until the present, lies at the origin of the alternate cultural horizons of the parties now in conflict. He argues that in order to secure peace with justice, material and political inequality must be dealt with so as to arrive at a value consensus based upon principles derived from a common cultural heritage. Only addressing the inequality which leads to the violation of the most basic of human rights will make possible a cultural resolution which can enhance the shared human dignity of Central Americans as they interact in their communities.

James Riley reviews the history of Central America in Chapter III and emphasizes the challenges which they face in developing viable, functioning nation states. The problems of the region are considered to be fundamentally of internal origin, rather than as having been caused by external forces. He suggests that the Mexican development of what could be called a populist authoritarian democracy as a result of its Revolution of 1910, could serve as a model for the smaller Central American states which now face problems similar to those faced by Mexico in the early Twentieth Century.

Paul Peachey discusses in Chapter IV the impact of modernization upon family structure. One common correlate of modernization is that domains of life which were addressed within the realm of the family in traditional societies are now handled in a more impersonal, bureaucratically organized manner in modern societies. How adequate are the institutions organized at the level of the state to address the needs of individuals in the context of their communities? How are families and modern institutions articulated in the various countries of Central America? Peachey raises the question of similarities and differences between the Central American and other regions of the world in the effect of modernization upon family structure.

In Chapter V the contribution of Federico Sanz, an economist from the Interamerican Development Bank, describes the structure and functioning of the economies of Central America in statistical terms. He reviews both the transitory and more permanent features of Central American economies, and assesses their adequacy in addressing fundamental human needs in the areas of health, nutrition and education. He argues that modification of development strategies and changes in the international trading system will be necessary in order more adequately to address the severe poverty and related human tragedies experienced by the peoples of Central America.

Mario Rojas and Roberto Hozven both address the central theme of the seminar by reviewing the poetry and prose of prominent literary figures. In Chapter VI Rojas discusses the work of Central American writers of liberation, who impress upon the consciousness of their nations and the world the unpublicized drama and tragedies of the oppressed of their countries. He emphasizes that dialogue among the various segments of Central American societies must be the basis for the emergence of a universal sympathy and concern for the well-being of others. Censorship makes the establishment of mutual sympathy and understanding difficult; it contributes to the potential for the perpetration of violent, and dehumanizing acts and policies by whichever segment of society is in power.

Hozven, in Chapter VII, emphasizes the role of the writer as critic of society. Writers such as Rubén Darío and Ernesto Cardenal have contributed penetrating commentary on Nicaraguan society in their respective eras. Both called attention, in an aesthetically forceful manner, to the corruption of communication and of the sociopolitical context in which it occurs. Both write about the challenge of creating authentic cultural discourse where the language of the community has been repressed and perverted.

Hozven draws attention also to the dissemination of repressive power in Central American and other societies by means of the widespread utilization of "arrogant speech." He defines this as speech which attempts to dominate the other through erudite references or by the categorization and subsequent dismissal of what is said by the interlocutor. He cites Darío's call to put the arrogance of speech at a distance in order to hear one's own speech from the viewpoint of the hearer.

Consistent with the hermeneutic method presented by McLean in the opening chapter, Hozven calls attention to how the method of the great literary figures of the region can serve as a model to emulate in the search for a just peace. The method is at least as important as the specific message which the writers have communicated. It is, "to move from the production of arrogant speech to its recognition so as to produce the distance which permits knowledge. This means that we must become the other through distancing ourselves from the self that we were."

Henry Johnson, in Chapter VIII, discusses the appropriateness of various models of education for the promotion of peaceful development in Central America. He defines peace as not merely the absence of conflict, "but the possibility of a certain quality of life to the achievement of which education is thought to be ancillary." In the light of the previous chapters his review of the relationship between educational systems and the cultures from which they are derived leads to the startling question of whether education in any real sense is possible. "Is there any longer a pedagogically adequate culture? . . . In other words, given the situation we have been exploring, educational theory must now begin . . . with historically grounded sociocultural critique, and rebuild: it must, so to speak, make itself possible." He criticizes the dehumanizing trends in modern cultures taking hold in Central America and in other parts of the world as tending to de-contextualize knowledge from the communities in which people live. This leads to questions regarding the worth of an educational model in which the primary goal is to train members of society to perform technical functions in impersonal bureaucratic systems, whose value remain unquestioned. Johnson concludes by arguing that an appropriate model of education is one that emphasizes contextualized knowledge, as in the study of the arts, rather than one which uncritically emphasizes "scientific" training to assume technocratic roles.

Eulalio Baltazar and Brian Johnstone describe Latin American theologians as interpreters of culture, just as are the literary figures discussed by Rojas and Hozven. In addition, literary figures and liberation theologians both can be understood to function as prophets in dramatically describing the ills of their societies and articulating new vision of reality. In this light and with Johnstone, Baltazar, in Chapter IX, discusses liberation theology as a product of the Latin American experience. He focusses upon the philosophical roots from which liberation theologians write, and the correspondence of systems of theology to the societies from which they are derived.

Brian Johnstone describes theology as mediating between faith and interpretations of existing cultural and historical realities. Hence, it is important to note that the historical realities which gave rise to the predominant theologies of Europe differ from those which affect Central America. Johnstone argues that suffering, especially the suffering of the poor, is a point of departure for liberation theology, and that suffering is an experience with which human beings everywhere can empathize.

In the discussion and the subsequent redevelopment of his paper for this volume, Prof. Hozven carries the theme further through in-depth literary analysis to show that suffering is not only a mute and indifferent universal semaphore, but that in their bodies persons who are violated express their deepest, and hence culturally most specific, sensibilities.

In liberation theology, as Johnstone points out, empathetic understanding with those who suffer leads to action to eliminate the sociopolitical causes of that suffering. But while recognizing the historical and cultural appropriateness of liberation theology, he suggests its need for a more elaborate theory of human rights. This, he believes, would lead to a more adequate theory of justice and thereby safeguard the human dignity, not only of groups which have been oppressed, but of all persons in a society.

The authors present this volume of their work as a serious effort to contribute, along with other people of good will, to the understanding needed to address the challenge of promoting peace and human rights in Central America. Their deep realization that much more needs to be taken into account implies that this volume is also an invitation to further interchange with CSUCA and scholars of the universities of Central America.



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