Waves of Protest: Popular Struggles in El Salvador, 1925-2005
Paul D. Almeida uses the Salvadoran case to modify the political process model of social movements to better fit nonwestern societies. The original framework was based on the analysis of protest movements in stable democracies and thus focuses on increasing electoral opportunities and access to state actors. Almeida finds that this "regime liberalization- induced mobilization" (p. 14) model works well for the political openings in Salvadoran [End Page 410] history in 1927-1930, 1962-1972, and the mid 1980s. It cannot explain, however, how movements continue to mobilize when states close these openings, as in 1930-1932 and 1977-1981. Almeida develops the concept of "regime intimidation-induced mobilization" (p. 14) to explain how dissidents use the organizational capacity built during liberalization to radicalize protests as previous gains are wiped away by repression. He also suggests that increasing repression in 2004 may mark the beginning of a new cycle of intimidation-induced mobilization in El Salvador.
Almeida further argues that the antineoliberal protests of the 1990s and early twenty-first century do not fit into either model and thus require a theory of "globalization-induced protest" (p. 14). This combines the access of the liberalization period with the erosion of economic conditions associated with periods of intimidation. He characterizes the 1999-2003 movement against healthcare privatization as one of the largest and most successful examples in Latin America.
Almeida's analysis of the alternating periods of liberalization and repression from 1925-1984 is quite good, especially in his explanation of how dissidents were able to continue mobilizing during the early stages of repression. His warning of a potential reversal of recent gains is also important. There is a glaring omission from Almeida's account, however. He gives scant attention to the role of social movements in the negotiation of the peace accords and their partial implementation. Given its previous focus on dismantling the repressive state, why wasn't the Salvadoran opposition able to use the 1992 accords to actually do so? While this question is important in and of itself, it also has a substantial impact on the challenges facing Salvadoran protestors in the neoliberal era. As Almeida argues, mobilization by globalization is most successful "in societies that have undergone substantial regime democratization" (p. 29). El Salvador still does not fit this description, however, because of the continuing impunity resulting from the failure to implement the peace accords. Indeed, this is a key factor behind the surge in repression starting in 2004 identified by Almeida. (President Mauricio Funes's 2009 decision to violate the accords by further militarizing public security is very worrying in this regard.)
Almeida's account of globalization-induced mobilization provides a very good explanation of why there was often little resistance to the early stages of neoliberal reform. He runs into trouble, however, in his analysis of the latter stages of neoliberalism. He is overly optimistic about the level of democracy in this era, citing improved "access" even as the ruling party (and governments throughout the region) sided with international financial institutions while ignoring their constituents. (See Guillermo O'Donnell's work on delegative democracy, for example.) Nor does he consider the resulting widespread disillusionment with democracy in the region—especially El Salvador. Almeida is correct that the growing power of the main opposition party (FMLN) in the Assembly was an important element that encouraged protest by showing that change was possible. We must also appreciate, however, the impact of events outside El Salvador, including the protests that brought down Ecuadorian President Bucaram in 1997 and the 1998 arrest of General Pinochet.
Finally, Almeida's characterization of the 1999-2003 movement against healthcare privatization in El Salvador as successful is less than convincing. According to Almeida's own [End Page 411] account, each "success" was followed by government backtracking and the need for further mobilization. In contrast, protest movements in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina forced neoliberal governments from power. Furthermore, these nations have made much more progress in undoing neoliberalism, especially during the period covered by Almeida (before Funes was elected in 2009).
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