[Home] [Current Tables of Contents]

[ HLAS Online Home Page | Search HLAS Online | Help | FAQ | Comments ]

Volume 53 / Social Sciences


DALE STORY, Professor and Chair, Department of Political Science, University of Texas at Arlington

THE LITERATURE ON CENTRAL AMERICA remains as voluminous as ever. Most of the works also remain as myopic as ever. Writing about the "Central American crisis" in the 1980s has often and accurately been depicted as a cottage-industry quagmire. When Ronald Reagan in 1981 decided to test his new doctrine of "rolling back" communism in Central America, the plethora of ideological treatises on this topic began to emerge. What were, at best, a dozen reputable scholars and commentators on Central America suddenly became hundreds of authors focusing on this small region. Most of these authors simply fueled the fires of ideological fervor and added little to our understanding of Central America.

A light does shine at the end of the tunnel, however. The literature does show signs of improvement. Of course, the positive turn of events in scholarly writing is still due to foreign policy priorities. The Reagan Doctrine is history, and Central America is once again on the back-burner of US foreign policy priorities. Thus, the discussions of the region are now returning to a smaller group of notable and thoughtful authors who have viewed Central America as more than a pawn in the superpower struggle.

One of the most significant exceptions to the shallowness of most of the publications is the edited volume by Coleman and Herring (item bi 92007178). First published in 1985, this 1991 edition is updated and improved with five completely new essays and the others substantially revised. Though the authors do admit to a policy agenda, nonetheless the contributions are among the most balanced and objective available. The three divisions of the book are carefully crafted to examine the indigenous roots of conflict in the region, case studies of US influence, and overviews of US policy. Notably, this book does not suffer from the usual lack of coordination characteristic of so many edited works.

Equally commendable is Robinson's book (item bi 91009027), which is one of the best explanations of the indigenous crisis in Central America. The author focuses on Nicaragua (particularly the transition from Ortega to Chamorro), El Salvador (from Duarte to ARENA), and Panama (pre- and post-invasion). Robinson also has a definite policy perspective, arguing convincingly that democracy achieved through diplomacy is the preferable route out of the malaise of political and economic instability. She cites Nicaragua as the successful application of diplomacy in producing a truly competitive election and transition to a new regime. Rather than the pressure of the Contra war, the author posits that Central American diplomacy (such as the negotiations leading toward the Esquipulas Accord) was the principal catalyst to the peaceful transfer of power in Nicaragua. By contrast, both El Salvador and Panama are viewed as cases in which diplomatic solutions have not been given sufficient attention.

Two other worthy monographs focusing on Central America as a region are Krauss' introduction (item bi 92007130) and Mujal-León's unique analysis of the role of European socialist actors in Central America (item bi 91008953). Krauss' book is currently the best overview available of the region. Written in a journalistic style, this is a very readable volume intended for an audience not previously familiar with the region. Mujal-León traces a more multipolar (as opposed to bipolar) interest in Central America. This perspective becomes even more relevant in the post-Cold War era.

The most valid analyses conclude that the roots of the difficulties in Central America lie in the economic bottlenecks that have stymied any self-sustaining development. The empirical article by Lindenburg (item bi 91006190) is an excellent example of the type of research most needed here. Utilizing reliable comparative and longitudinal data, Lindenburg conducts cross-national analysis to reach conclusions regarding successful economic strategies.

One genre of the Central American literature which is relevant for understanding the last decade of international interactions in the region includes those works exploring the US foreign policy process. Though the US policy perspective is diminishing in significance vis-à-vis Central America, explanations of US foreign policy are certainly relevant to the regional situation of the 1980s. One of the most critical (and some would say personal) works is McNeil's book on the "fantasy isthmus" ideology of conservatives in the Reagan executive branch (item bi 91009019). In similar fashion, Gutman provides a better researched chronicle of the short-range limitations and long-term misrepresentations of US policy (item bi 91009020). Arnson stresses the executive-legislative conflict in US Central American policy in the 1980s (item bi 91008942). Finally, and appropriately from the Central American (rather than US) perspective, Eguizábal and Rojas Arevana analyze the decision-making process in Central American diplomacy in three key phases: debate, policy articulation, and bureaucratic operationalization (item bi 90009314).

Possible portents of the future of scholarly work on Central America are found in several works that explore national dilemmas outside of Nicaragua and El Salvador. In what may become a seminal piece, Jonas provides an update of the dependency perspective of Guatemalan development (item bi 92007180). Although recognizing the role of the US, she does not focus exclusively on this single, exogenous factor. Predictably in the aftermath of the US invasion and Noriega's arrest, several efforts examine the sordid history of US ties to the Panamanian dictator. The best works here are essentially biographies: Kempe's discussion of the Noriega-US linkage (item bi 91008961) and Dinges' more general account of US-Panama relations (item bi 91008937).

Turning to the literature on Mexican international relations, the over-riding dominance of the US is inescapable here as well. In fact, one of the most common themes is that Mexico has averted an opportunity to pursue a more multilateral approach to foreign affairs in favor of a return to bilateral emphasis on the US. Thus, it is certainly relevant to take note of the publication by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (item bi 91009028) resulting from a series of meetings in the late 1980s of over a dozen US Congressional leaders from both parties. Their conclusions represent a moderate, and even enlightened, view of US Congressional positions showing considerable bipartisan agreement. "Mexico bashing" is not in evidence here. Even in the controversial area of drug trafficking, these Congressional authors do not put the entire blame on Mexico but view the problem as one of a "negative interdependence."

In one of the few works devoted entirely to the issue of narcotics, González and Tienda (item bi 91008983) present an edited work as part of the binational Commission on the Future of Mexico-US Relations. The various authors explore US anti-drug policies toward Mexico as well as Mexico's reaction in terms of its own policies. The approach is to view narcotics as a commodity (albeit illicit) with sociopolitical causes and a variety of repercussions.

From the Mexican perspective, the tendency is to focus more strictly on economic issues and to discuss the difficult problem of reconciling Mexican nationalism with growing ties to the US. In a fairly prescriptive piece, Castañeda takes the Salinas Administration to task for a "retrenchment" into isolation from the rest of the continent and a concentration on its dominant partner to the north (item bi 91005469). A similar article in a nationalist vein is the analysis of the possibility of a North American Common Market by Ortiz (item bi 90014158). Though written before Salinas initiated negotiations for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the article emphasizes the asymmetries between Mexico and its northern neighbors and stands as a reminder of Mexican protectionist sentiments. In a more objective effort, Castro Martínez (item bi 91004784) explores the trade liberalism achieved in Mexico under the De la Madrid Administration. His conclusions lend credence to the argument that NAFTA only solidifies policy changes already implemented in Mexico.

The issue of multi- versus bilateralism becomes even more salient in the broader examinations of Mexico's international role. From one perspective, Mexico can be seen on the verge of regional significance. Its role in Central American peace efforts and regional economic development combined with the growing multipolarity in global relations argue for a more diversified approach in Mexican foreign policy. Chabat clearly places the international diplomacy of the De la Madrid team in this multilateral framework (item bi 91006018). Gutiérrez-Haces posits that new opportunities for US-Mexico relations have been created as the tensions between the two traditional superpowers have diminished (item bi 91004777). Garza Elizondo (item bi 90013386), however, provides an alternative viewpoint that the end of the Cold War has created openings for new international blocs, such as a North American alliance. In this way, Mexico's bilateral relations with the US become more salient than ever.

Despite possible opportunities for a more global approach to Mexican diplomacy, the reality is that its ties with the US remain central to its foreign policy. The most significant contribution in recent years to understanding Mexico's international relations is Roett's compilation of articles by 14 Mexican and US scholars (item bi 91002549). The volume begins and ends with recognition of the primacy of the US-Mexico linkage. However, an important intermediary section does examine Mexican external relations in three other areas: a new and more unified Europe, the economic powers of the Pacific Rim, and Mexico's neighbors in Latin America. The alternative interactions certainly provide choices for Mexican diplomacy, but the pull of NAFTA seems to override other considerations. This volume, and probably much of the future research on Mexican foreign policy, ultimately focuses on difficult issues raised by efforts at regional economic integration in North America.

Go to the:

Begin a Basic Search | Begin an Expert Search

[ HLAS Online Home Page | Search HLAS Online | Help | FAQ | Comments ]

Library of Congress
Comments: Ask a Librarian (12/30/04)