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Volume 54 / Humanities

HISTORY: CENTRAL AMERICA


STEPHEN WEBRE, Professor of History, Louisiana Tech University
DAVID MCCREERY, Professor of History, Georgia State University


THE ANTICIPATED BOOM in Central American historical studies has yet to arrive, but important works continue to appear. As in the past, the region's most developed historical production still originates from Costa Rica. In Nicaragua, the effects of the Sandinista Front's 1990 electoral defeat are not yet clear, but some of the more "politically engaged" foreign scholars have already turned to other interests; it is likely now that economic problems there will have a greater impact on academic work than political conditions. For Guatemala, with several significant exceptions, serious historical investigation and writing continue to be largely the work of outsiders, a condition due in part to scarcity of resources as well as to the dangers inherent in certain kinds of research.

Meanwhile, recent work on Honduras by a new generation of national historians is promising, and there is hope that in El Salvador a successful peace settlement will result in an atmosphere once again conducive to scholarly endeavors. Belize and Panama remain the stepchildren of Central American historiography, but several significant works have come out on the latter. An important event was the July 1992 Primer Congreso Centroamericano de Historia, held in Tegucigalpa and attended by approximately 200 scholars representing every Central American country except Belize, plus the US, Canada, Mexico, and several European countries. A second congress is planned for 1994.

New studies of the colonial period are few in number but of generally high quality. Particularly important are works on early Costa Rican society by Eugenia Ibarra Rojas (item bi 92011406) and Claudia Quirós Vargas (item bi 92011459), while the appearance in Spanish of Germán Romero Vargas' thesis on 18th-century Nicaragua is a major event (item bi 93009003). Of significance, too, is Bernardo Belzúnegui Ormazábal's study of the agrarian question in the period immediately preceding independence (item bi 94012141). No specialist should ignore new essays by Christopher Lutz and George Lovell (item bi 91010005) and by Lovell and William Swezey (item bi 92010617) which substantially reconceptualize the human geography of Spanish Guatemala. Researchers will benefit also from new reference works, such as Lawrence Feldman's exhaustive guide to 16th-century Guatemalan encomiendas (item bi 93002225) and Gustavo Palma's first-rate edition of the so-called Gavarrete index to Guatemalan land records (item bi 94010137). Among foreign scholars active in colonial studies, North Americans remain prominent, but Spaniard Jesús María García Añoveros continues to be productive (items bi 91023778, bi 91021050, and bi 92011314), and Mexican Mario Humberto Ruz has emerged as a distinctive voice, exploring unusual topics in unfamiliar archives (items bi 92011425, bi 93002704, and bi 93008166).

There are several important new works on national period topics. For Guatemala, Piero Gleijeses' new book on the 1945-54 decade offers a revisionist view of that controversial period (item bi 94011514), while Héctor Lindo Fuentes has published an excellent survey of the 19th-century economic history of El Salvador (item bi 94011619). If Nicaraguan historiography has been ill-served in the past, Jeffrey Gould's oral history of rural popular resistance (item bi 94011518) and the collaborative project directed by Orlando Núñez on the Sandinistas' struggle for survival in the 1980s (item bi 93004299) set new standards. Students of Costa Rica continue to generate many first-rate monographs, including Marc Edelman's look at latifundismo in Guanacaste province (item bi 94009865) and Claudio Antonio Vargas' examination of Church-State relations (item bi 93004207). Also impressive on Costa Rica are synthetic treatments, such as those by Iván Molina on the pre-coffee economy (item bi 92011555) and Orlando Salazar Mora on liberalism (item bi 92011554).

Studies of rural society figure prominently in the historical literature on Central America. The long tradition of such works on Guatemala continues with Norman Schwartz, who combines participant observation and archival research to explain changes in the northern Petén region (item bi 91011019), and with David McCreery (items bi 92011251 and bi 91010008), Piero Gleijeses (items bi 91006221 and bi 93006858), and Susan Berger (item bi 94010975), all of whom survey the impact of the State on the countryside. Also, the productivity of Costa Rican scholars remains undiminished, as is evident in recent works on such topics as tobacco (item bi 92016620), sugar (item bi 93002667), small settler agriculture (item bi 94012180), and land privatization (items bi 92011256 and bi 93010885).

Organized labor, both urban and rural, is receiving increased attention, notably in new studies of recent events in Guatemala by José Fernández (item bi 92012250), and in El Salvador by Rafael Guidos Véjar (item bi 92009775). Useful, too, are books on the early history of unionism in Panama by Hernando Franco Muñoz (item bi 93004244) and Ricaurte Soler (item bi 93004245). In Costa Rica, recent interest has focused on the black West Indian workers of Limón and their struggles against both the United Fruit Company and mainstream tico racism (items bi 93008815, bi 93002685, and bi 93002707), but Marielos Aguilar Hernández looks also at the failure of Costa Rican unions to develop as an autonomous force (item bi 92016618). Less rigorous are Ramón Amaya-Amador and Rigoberto Padilla Rush's study of the 1954 Honduran banana strike (item bi 93004294), and the volume compiled by Armando Amador on Nicaragua's unions before 1979 (item bi 93004306).

Among personal accounts to appear recently, two important ones from Nicaragua are the memoirs of Tomás Borge, a founder of the FSLN (item bi 92020271), and oral histories of individuals involved in the Sandinista Revolution as recorded by Denis Lynn Daly Heyck (item bi 92011491). From El Salvador's decade of revolutionary turmoil come Marta Harnecker's revealing interviews with FMLN leaders (item bi 93004329), Francisco Mena Sandoval's story of his conversion from army officer to rebel (item bi 92016633), and the remembrances of the crew of Radio Venceremos (item bi 92016631). Costa Rica offers more standard fare. Politicians putting their own spin on history include two ex-presidents, Rodrigo Carazo (item bi 92016616) and the late "Don Pepe" Figueres (items bi 92016636 and bi 93004213).

Traditional concerns of politics and economics continue to dominate historical writing on Central America, but some new topics are attracting scholars, primarily in Costa Rica. Recent studies examine popular consumption patterns (item bi 93002666) and education (items bi 91004711 and bi 92011257) in Costa Rica, literate culture in Guatemala (item bi 90011094) and Costa Rica (item bi 93004088), attitudes toward death in Costa Rica (item bi 93002665) and in Panama (item bi 93004262), and the construction of nationalism and a nationalist discourse in Costa Rica (item bi 93008813), Guatemala (item bi 93013787), and Honduras (items bi 93004321, bi 93002703, and bi 93004758). And finally, two radically different approaches to the use of photographic images as historical documentation come from Guatemala (items bi 92017569 and bi 92020132).


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