Inequalities, Economies of Fear and Geopolitical Turmoil: Southeastern Europe and Central America Beyond Borders
By Felipe Hernández
« Chaque partie du monde reflète l’histoire du monde entier, la subit, s’en accommode. »Fernand BRAUDEL, Au Brésil…, Annales, 1948, p. 102.
A priori, everything separates Central America and Southeastern Europe, just to begin with the size of the Atlantic Ocean. But the multiple forms of exploitation of territories and bodies, the revitalization and adaptability of political authoritarianism, the reproduction of inequality through domestic and international practices, turning them into “second and third category zones”, have brought them into consonance. Increasingly, citizens are opposing in more radical ways a social world that is becoming more and more extreme in its treatment of individuals, where institutional violence, injustices, its violence and the frustration of living in a late modernity seem to determine the future. Complex regions where the language of discontent and disaffection have become “spaces of breathing” against an order where inequality is the law. Conflicts inherited from the Cold War are now fed by the strength of social inequalities, “messianic populism” and the instability of the world economy.
This article explores the socio-political costs of global destabilization in countries where democracy is a contested terrain between opposing actors and where the rule of law is a reality experienced by a minority. Nowadays, these two regions allow us to follow the shadow zones of democracy, where a large part of their inhabitants live a life on the margins of the globalization of capital.
Inequalities and Fantasized Spaces
According to the latest IDEA report, “half of the world’s democratic governments are in decline, undermined by problems ranging from restrictions on freedom of expression to distrust in the legitimacy of elections.” This situation tells us a reality: the current world political arena is marked by the combination of fundamental aspects of liberal democracy with distinctive elements of authoritarianism. It lies basically in the maintenance of the vote as a collective force but without recognizing certain fundamental elements of liberal democracies, such as gender equality, independence of powers, freedom of the press, respect for human rights. Substantially, these factors represent dangers for leaders and their continuity in power.
Without denying the importance of democratic institutions, their durability, or the respect for democratic values in the strengthening of democracy, it is necessary in any case to ask ourselves about the conditions in which the regression of liberal democracy is taking place. The precariousness of citizens’ material and moral lifestyles, in a context of neoliberal capitalism, offers us critical points for reflection to explore this current decline.
Relevant to the present study is David Harvey’s analysis of the consequences of the growth of poverty rates in the world. By subjecting the social protection of individuals to the demands and logic of the markets, neoliberalism, as a phenomenon that facilitates extreme rates of monopolization of wealth, has made the lives of millions of people precarious, forming a large block of vulnerable beings in the face of the world’s demands. In this respect, it can be understood that the more a society is precarious, the greater the spaces of conflict that are created and, therefore, the greater the instruments created to make security a more sophisticated field. This is well known in South-Eastern Europe and Central America, where alternative social movements demanding not only participatory political democracy, but also the disappearance of natural resource extraction practices, the strengthening and respect of the rights of society as a whole have consistently faced isolation, criminalization and persecution.
A precarious life is accompanied by the implementation of international security measures that produce surveillance zones, materialized in rigid borders and international military camps, where mechanisms of power and sovereignty are fabricated that make “danger” something recognizable, palpable, locatable and governable. These measures are not just about operational factors. They are about protecting the richest sectors from the most vulnerable. Surveillance zones also represent socially constructed spaces, where discourses of power and practices of racial and cultural legitimization are fabricated. From where affective dynamics are structured to fix the perception of risk, where projections, speculations are created. What is striking about this phenomenon, at least in international politics, is the way in which those lives and spaces that do not contribute, or at least do not offer what is expected, to the development and progress of the economic centers, are explained and identified. Risk zones that must be protected and isolated to avoid the growth of more risks.
Thinking about inequalities in Central America and Southeastern Europe leads us to reflect on the ways in which global capitalism increasingly produces and legitimizes uncertainties, fears and tensions through complex structures of social and economic exclusion. The consequences are observable both in the relations between citizens, populations divided in ethnical democracies, and between citizens and their governments. Socio-political dynamics show that what is at stake today is not only institutional, for example the state of democratic institutions, or authoritarian threats. It is also a dispute over how to live in the future. That is, the interaction between citizens and the environment in which they live. The countless ecological struggles aimed at protecting living spaces, increasingly seen as rich zones for the development of the future technology of the economic centers, are proof of this.
Those interested in these spaces will find a similarity in terms of a regional identity that is commonly conveyed within and beyond academia. They are described as major challenges to the international politics of their neighbors. In other words, they seem to carry “within them” threats to the maintenance of stability in their regions. From the arrival of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans to the construction of new states after the collapse of former Yugoslavia. From the dismantling of Mesoamerican civilizations to the new models of democracy in Central America, a mythical or fantasized space, a sense of mistrust and a closed-mindedness have been constructed and promoted in both academic literature and diplomatic semantics, narrowing the understanding of these regions and simplifying the field of experience of many of those charged with understanding them.
Narratives that present them as spaces of permanent risk, as zones producing regional instabilities, attest to the importance of maintaining a simplistic and exclusivist perspective in order to maintain a hierarchy of international power. What is at stake here are the power relations that are woven into world politics through the propagation of ignorance, the implementation of international policies that produce violent and harmful effects on populations. Lisa Marie Borelli argues that “ignorance legitimizes structural violence as it limits the ‘other’s’ agency, for example by consciously creating knowledge gaps and not acknowledging the other’s aspirations and thus, voice.” Humiliation can be defined as “any authoritarian prescription of lower rank than desired and not in conformity with established norms.” The violation of the territorial integrity stipulated in the UN Charter is a major example of humiliation that marks contemporary international relations. This prescription leads to frustration, to the deterioration of the legitimacy of the international model. Humiliation appears as a deregulation that negatively transforms social relations and causes a loss of legitimacy of the international system because asymmetrical relations based on the logic of “the strong State reigns over the weak State” are encouraged.
The production of a historical narrative about these spaces in the second half of the 20th century and throughout the 21st century, excessively anchored in Eurocentric paradigms, is evidence of this impotence. Their conflicts have been used in various fields of knowledge as evidence of an internal dysfunctionality inherent to these zones, while maintaining in silence that this dysfunctionality has been essential for the design and promotion of political, security, economic and geopolitical programs.
Since the 1970s, events have largely been explained as the result of internal dynamics, from the perspective of the nation-state. Examples are numerous. From the emergence of anti-state currents, ethno-nationalist social movements in the former Yugoslavia, to the anti-imperialist movements in Central America. The civil wars, the various conflicts in Yugoslavia since 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, as well as the conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua between 1980 and 1996, have generally been analyzed as events that respond exclusively to the dynamics of these regions, their elites, and the rupture of social ties. However, the involvement of extra-state interests in perpetuating conflicts is a knowledge gap.
It is essential to recognize that these regions have been approached as places of “dangers” to be “normalized”. It is precisely a knowledge built on the terrain of threats that has dominated many development programs implemented there. Thanks to a semantics fabricated in terms of danger-security, it has been possible to accelerate the processes of implementing models of transition to democracy based on the liberalization of the economy and the construction of quasi-permanent security regimes. A complex perspective, in the holistic sense, is needed in order to integrate dynamics, internal and external levels in building political and social alternatives. Unilateral visions of a complex world establish and reproduce a system of discriminatory hierarchies and intensify inequalities. The construction of simplified and simplifying knowledge potentially contributes to the (re)production of an unequal socio-political order. One of the great tasks facing the social and political sciences today is to deconstruct the unilateral visions that explain social and international events.
One of the obstacles of a knowledge deeply rooted in the “danger-security” dichotomy is the lack of deep insights to better understand the diversity of socio-political phenomena in different contexts. Two experiences illustrate this. On the one hand, the impact of economic austerity policies created by those who produce economic crises on the degradation of democratic institutions in countries where the construction of the rule of law is at stake, as is the case in the two regions mentioned here. On the other hand, an international model that protects the logic of “zones of influence”. It is fundamental to think about the deterioration of liberal democracy in terms of otherness: How do we perceive and influence the “other”? How does the construction of the perception of the “other” produce discursive fields that have material effects on bodies? How do we (re)produce stigmas, vulnerabilities, polarizations in our interactions with the “other”? If pluralism is one of the bulwarks of liberal democracy, can we say that the liberal international system is based on plurality? What image does the world receive of Western democracies when economic crises emerge in them, activating processes of impoverishment of moral and material life in spaces where democracy depends on a thread?
 IDEA, “The Global Democracy Weakens in 2022”, published: https://www.idea.int/news-media/news/global-democracy-weakens-2022. (accessed 30.11.2022).
 Katerina Kolozova and Niccolò Milanese (eds) (2023), “Introduction: On the Phenomenon of Illiberal Democracy in Europe”, in “Illiberal Democracies” in Europe. An authoritarian response to the crisis of liberalism, Illiberalism Studies Program, The George Washington University, Washington D.C.
 David Harvey (2003), The New Imperialism, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
 Former president Donald Trump’s comments about some Central American and African countries (“shithole countries” or “shitholes”, are not unprecedented – https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-attacks-protections-for-immigrants-from-shithole-countries-in-oval-office-meeting/2018/01/11/bfc0725c-f711-11e7-91af-31ac729add94_story.html. (accessed 01.04.2023). They are part of a historical colonial process that arose with the arrival of European Empires after the fifteenth century and was expressed in policies ranging from genocide, elimination, forced assimilation, legal exclusion, forced labor to myths about the “disappearance of the Indians”. For more details, see: Brian W. Dippie (1982), The Vanishing American: White Attitudes & U.S. Indian Policy, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. The Monroe Doctrine based on the “axis of evil” was revived during Trump’s term in office, clearly recalling Washington’s unilateralism and arrogance towards Latin America and the Caribbean. Similarly, and keeping the differences in mind, we can find in the European historical imaginary, a strong tendency to perceive Southeast Europe as a “dirty”, “polluted” and “other” part of Europe. In other words, “the dark side of the collective Europe”. See: Maria Todorova (1997), Imagining the Balkans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Dušan I. Bjelić and Obrad Savić (eds) (2005), Balkan as Metaphor Between Globalization and Fragmentation, The MIT Press. Such a distorted image of this part of Europe leads us to reflect about the nexus between knowledge, non-knowledge and power in international politics, and more particularly about the production of ignorance and of “secrecy zones” in knowledge production: Fabio Bego (2023), “Whose Europe? Brussels Museum Presents Western-centric Picture of Balkans” March 6th, https://balkaninsight.com/2023/03/06/whose-europe-brussels-museum-presents-western-centric-picture-of-balkans. (accessed 16.03.2023).
 Lisa Marie Borrelli, “Using ignorance as (un)conscious bureaucratic strategy”, Qualitative Studies, 5:2 (2018), p. 97.
 Bertrand Badie (2014), Le temps des humiliés. Pathologie des relations internationales, Odile Jacob, 2014; Evelin Lindner (2006), Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflicts, Londres, Praeger, Greenwood pub.
About the Author
Felipe Hernández is an academic researcher interested in the intersection of history, critical geopolitics and international relations. His current research focuses on how the major centres of economic and international power, the EU and the United States, interact with their neighbours, especially with Southeastern Europe and Central America. How power dynamics are constructed, how discourses are configured, how the deep contradictions of democracy promotion are reveale – these and other questions guide his publications. Dr Hernández was Research Professor at the University of Paris 8, France, Academic visitor at the University of Oxford, (OSGA-LAC), and 2020/2021 re:constitution Fellow.
Citation: Felipe Hernández, Inequalities, Economies of Fear and Geopolitical Turmoil: Southeastern Europe and Central America Beyond Borders, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.11.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49396
Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 21. November). Inequalities, Economies of Fear and Geopolitical Turmoil: Southeastern Europe and Central America Beyond Borders. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 23. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut8a