Struggling bodies, disputed rights
The emergence, expansion, and consolidation of religious fundamentalism in Central America
In recent decades, Latin America has experienced the emergence, proliferation, and consolidation of religious fundamentalist groups, organizations, and public figures whose purpose is to eliminate the recognition of the sexual and reproductive rights of women, girls, boys, adolescents, young adults, and people with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations. In the short term, the goal of their political agenda is to restrict the rights, freedoms, and autonomy of women and LGBTQI+ people; in the long term, they seek to reconfigure the way we envision the rule of law, nullifying state secularism and democracy.
Given this context, Central America is a region in which we can observe the cruelest results of the onslaught of fundamentalist and anti-rights groups and articulations.
The 1970s and 1980s: Warning Signs
In the 1970s, fundamentalist groups began to disseminate a social narrative that intertwined the ideas of “sin,” “immorality,” and “hell” in an effort to single out and condemn women who took birth control pills. Due to the popularity of contraceptives in the 1980s, these groups promoted legislative reforms to establish that life began at conception. In El Salvador, this proposal was rejected by the country’s far right in 1983 because, according to the legislative assembly’s deputies, this regulatory change would inhibit providers from performing therapeutic abortions.
Despite some resistance, as was the case in El Salvador, the sociopolitical crises of the 1980s contributed to the strengthening and growth of neo-Pentecostalism in Central America. To a large extent, its expansion occurred in contexts of high precariousness when people’s sense of well-being was non-existent. In fact, many of these churches ended up taking over governments’ duties and provided some social assistance.
The 1990s: War against Sexual and Reproductive Rights
In the 1990s, the international and regional political landscape shifted. With right-wing governments in power in most of Central America, a post-war reconstruction process that championed the implementation of neoliberal policies emerged. Meanwhile, there was an accelerated rise in neo-Pentecostal groups on the social margins, and the ensuing environment moved the Vatican to consolidate its political agenda in the region.
In 1994, the Salvadoran government prompted its Central American peers to adopt a joint declaration rejecting the use of terminology related to sexual and reproductive rights, which would be presented at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. Through this declaration, the isthmus presented itself as a staunch ally of the conservative geopolitics of gender and sexuality in the fight against the advancement of sexual and reproductive rights.
Due to the institutional dynamics that resulted from the ICPD in Cairo and the 1995 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in Beijing—particularly the acknowledgment of unsafe abortions as a public health issue (Cairo 1994) and the recommendation to review laws that punish abortion as a crime (Beijing 1995)—religious fundamentalists began a new war on childbearing people. For these groups, the effects of the Cairo and Beijing conferences represented a threat to their authority and the traditional definitions of reproduction, sexuality, and women’s bodies as dictated by their doctrines. Consequently, they mounted a new political-religious crusade against the expansion of sexual and reproductive rights, which was made manifest through their interference in politics to ban abortion under all circumstances by means of constitutional amendments and reforms to the countries’ penal codes. Through the absolute prohibition of abortion, Central America became an inhuman stage where conservative geopolitics played out in the cruelest manner. One of the first countries in the region—and indeed in Latin America and the world—to ban abortion was El Salvador, followed by Honduras and Nicaragua.
To garner popular support for the legislative reforms, conservative political advocacy groups created and disseminated the concept of “abortionist” to delegitimize feminist support for the permissible grounds for interrupting a pregnancy, which still prevailed in various countries. The moralistic and religious narratives equated so-called “abortionists” with people who committed criminal acts. When the laws came into force, they resulted in the incarceration of young women from precarious economic and educational backgrounds, who endured sentences of three years in Honduras and up to thirty in El Salvador for the crime of abortion or aggravated homicide.
These political advocacy groups evolved into anti-rights groups, which have specific characteristics: their leaders belong mainly to economically and politically powerful circles, and through their proximity to power, they can monopolize—or at least secure a considerable degree of influence on—their countries’ political, legislative, economic, financial, educational, and cultural life. One of their weapons is their strong presence in traditional media, especially the written press, which is in the process of migrating to online platforms and social media networks—a new arena for them to exert political influence.
The transformation of conservative political advocacy groups into anti-rights groups occurred as they were consolidating their political agenda, which was promoted in various social, cultural, and legislative spaces. This agenda has strong links with the Catholic Church’s most orthodox factions, whose stances, such as their rejection of sexual and reproductive rights and their “defense of children and the traditional family model,” were taken up as political guidelines.
To defend anything, one must identify, or fabricate, the enemy that threatens or endangers what one wishes to protect. For anti-rights groups, sexual and reproductive rights have become that enemy, specifically the right to abortion and the right to marriage between people of the same sex.
In the late 1990s, conservative political advocacy groups, aware of their political power in terms of global and local advocacy and of their capacity to prevent the advancement of sexual and reproductive rights in Central America, escalated their campaign. They became more visible, strategic, and aggressive, and they gained ground in several countries, from officially confessional states to states that presented themselves as secular democracies.
There is a tendency to subject politics to religious creed. As far as the confessional politician is concerned, the boundaries of the political and the religious are indiscernible or become very tenuous. The separation of Church and State disappears. There is a total blurring of the relations between the State, as an all-encompassing society, and the Church, as a special society. Religion, which overwhelms every state area, inspires all acts that take place in the public life of the community.
Source: Rodrigo Borja, Enciclopedia de política.
The early 2000s: A “New Enemy” Joins the Black List
In some Central American countries, the battle to criminalize abortion had already taken root while in others it was emerging forcefully. Given the context, the political agenda of religious fundamentalists drove them to seek out a new enemy, a new geopolitical target, at the beginning of the new century: same-sex couples, who had to be precluded from legally marrying through discriminatory constitutional reforms.
The anti-rights groups wasted no time. In El Salvador, they began to publish speeches in the country’s biggest newspapers that stirred up a new moral panic, which soon turned into sexual hysteria, in relation to the possibility of same-sex marriages.
[The term] moral panic describes a social eruption or outburst (the social “climate”) that transforms a marginalized group into a “folk demon” or a “deviant” group. It describes social configurations that have the ability to publicly demonize a group or its practices.
Source: Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (2002).
The narrative used to justify this discriminatory practice coincided with essentialist discourses that stated that civil marriages were between so-called biological men and women. This stance not only articulated the Catholic Church’s traditional discourse, it also expressed the groups’ opposition to the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), claiming that the Convention would open the door to same-sex marriage. Moreover, they continued to rail against the alleged pressure exerted by United Nations bodies to remove any legal obstacles in the way of issues such as same-sex marriage.
These discursive and legislative assaults triumphed first in Honduras, where same-sex marriage was constitutionally banned in 2005. Honduras is a paradigmatic case in Central America because it was the first country in the region to prohibit—through an invidious constitutional reform—legal unions between people of the same sex. On October 28, 2004, the National Congress’ 128 deputies voted unanimously in favor of this discriminatory amendment; the vote evidenced the emerging political preeminence of evangelical groups within the Honduran state’s legislative branch and throughout its institutional framework. The reform was ratified on March 29, 2005.
Anti-rights groups found a new ally in religious fundamentalist groups to jointly advance their political agendas.
At the Turn of the Decade: Neo-Dictatorial Fundamentalism
In June 2009, a coup fractured Honduras’ democratic life and established a military dictatorship. In Nicaragua, a similar story was about to take place. In 2014, the country’s constitution was reformed to allow the indefinite reelection of president Daniel Ortega; in April 2018, the country experienced a political rift that remains unresolved to this day. And in February 2020, Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, participated in a failed parliamentary coup. These sociopolitical processes in Central America have been supported by religious leaders, and in El Salvador, Bukele justified his actions by claiming that God had spoken to him.
Political-religious alliances need to construct and defend their conservative agendas around and against women’s rights and the rights of people with diverse gender identities and sexual orientations. By the same token, opposition to abortion has become one of their most recurring banners. As evidenced by the most recent general elections in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Honduras, Central America has become one of the epicenters of these alliances and of the fundamentalist agendas pushed by the military, private enterprises, and politicians.
As regards the success of fundamentalist narratives, the number of people in Central America who identify as Protestant or belong to an Evangelical denomination has increased in recent years. It should be noted that neo-Pentecostalism’s massive expansion has occurred primarily in sectors affected by poverty and multiple forms of violence. According to data from the CIA (2020):
- 41% of Hondurans are Protestant; this high percentage has encouraged evangelical pastors to call for the erection of a “Christian State.”
- El Salvador and Nicaragua have similar numbers, with 36% of Salvadoreans 33.2% of Nicaraguans identifying as Protestant.
- Costa Rica, 14.9%, and Panama, 15%, have the lowest numbers in the region.
- 15% of Guatemalans are Evangelical Christians according to a trans activist and leader.
“Fundamentalism takes root and bears fruit in systems of social inequality,” and this inequality has been abetted by several historical characteristics, such as the centralization of public services in metropolitan areas at the expense of peripheral rural areas, the racial geopolitics that marks the Caribbean lowlands as a region for resource extraction that benefits the Pacific region, and the low levels of education in most of the isthmus, which often hinder people’s discernment and consequently foster breeding grounds for indoctrination. It is not coincidental that religious fundamentalists seek to control their countries’ education systems and oppose not only attempts to establish a comprehensive sexuality education program but also the actual teaching of human rights.
The presence of conservative and fundamentalist political parties and the promotion of policies that go against human rights are a great source of concern because they evince significant levels of popular support. In fact, these stances against human and women’s rights tend to become “official narratives of the state,” which are based on fundamentalist agendas and have a direct impact on the lives of girls, women, and trans and non-binary people. This is particularly evident if we consider
- the criminalization and imprisonment of young women in situations of poverty for committing the “crime” of interrupting a pregnancy due to obstetric emergencies.
- the educational curricula that demonize the right to enjoy and find pleasure in sexuality, which is said to be restricted to reproductive purposes only.
- the fact that the region’s children and adolescents are burdened by one of the highest early childbearing rates in the world.
- the exclusion, discrimination, and stigmatization of trans and non-binary people.