[Home] [Current Tables of Contents]

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


Volume 59 / Social Sciences

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS: CENTRAL AMERICA


RICHARD STAHLER-SHOLK, Associate Professor, Eastern Michigan University


WORK ON CENTRAL AMERICAN POLITICS in the late 1990s began to reflect a shift in the region's dynamics, from armed conflict to negotiated peace. Several elections marked a change in the scope and rules of political participation, while former rebels and armed forces underwent major transformations. Yet events such as the April 1998 assassination of Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi, just as the archdiocese was releasing the human rights report of its "Recuperation of Historical Memory" (REMHI) project, were reminders that Central America's democratic transition was incomplete.

As combat receded but democracy remained elusive, there was renewed scholarly interest in gaining historical perspective to put the revolutionary era into context. Scholarly attention also focused on newly salient themes such as political trust and reconciliation, civil-military relations, parties and elections, and issues of governability and civil society participation.

Several new or updated regional overviews reassessed the era of revolution in historical perspective. Some noteworthy examples include Vilas (item #bi 96001103#); as well as new editions of Brockett's much-consulted work (item #bi2001005682#); and Booth and Walker (item #bi2001005681#). An issue of the journal Latin American Perspectives also re-examined the revolutionary experience from the left (item #bi2001005684#).

From a historical perspective, two major works of political sociology re-evaluated revolution and democracy in the context of nation formation. Paige's Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America (item #bi2001005683#), and Williams' States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America (item #bi2001005685#), both focus on coffee-growing elites. Williams highlights differences in 19th-century socioeconomic organization that produced national variations in state formation, while Paige emphasizes 20th-century differentiation within dominant classes and their ideological adaptations.

Several new contributions to Central American historiography began to make up for the relative neglect of scholarly attention on Honduras and Costa Rica in the past decade of revolution. Two outstanding examples are Euraque's work (item #bi 98005972#), a fine examination of reformism in Honduras; and Yashar's Demanding Democracy, a comparative study of Costa Rican and Guatemalan political history, focusing on the formation of reform coalitions at critical junctures (item #bi 98005954#). Other valuable contributions include new histories of democratic development in Costa Rica by Booth (item #bi 98009530#) and Wilson (item #bi 99008188#), and comparative essays by Stansifer (item #bi 98008184#) and Peeler (item #bi 99006602#) which examine Costa Rica's semimythical exceptionalism.

The battle for historical memory and reinterpretation of the revolutionary era took shape in the late 1990s. A powerful argument for truth commissions, to help uncover past human rights abuse as a necessary condition for political reconciliation, is made by the Guatemalan Fundación Myrna Mack (item #bi 98005963#), and by jurist Buergenthal of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador (item #bi 97014858#). Other contributions to the campaign to overcome impunity include reflections by Gleijeses (item #bi 97005603#) and Handy (item #bi 97012134#) on Guatemala, human rights champion Custodio López on Honduras (item #bi 96001016#), and CODEHUCA's report (item #bi 99003595#). Mahony and Eguren's Unarmed Bodyguards (item #bi 98003763#) provides an unusual perspective on human rights by evaluating the role of international observers who accompanied likely targets of political violence in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Another genre of memories is that of activist-scholars, whose expertise and direct experience in the region can now be applied with the benefit of hindsight and distance. Thoughtful works in this vein, particularly relevant to actor-centered theories of revolution, include Byrne (item #bi 97014947#); and Hammond (item #bi2001005690#), which offers an inside look at the social and ideological dimensions of revolutionary transformation. The Nicaraguan revolutionary experience inspired a new generation of reassessments by Brentlinger (item #bi 98005945#), Hoyt (item #bi 98001775#), and Wright (item #bi 98001774#), all of which blend theoretical sophistication with personal reflections. Among these works by inside observers, of special note is Gordon's Disparate Diasporas (item #bi 99008192#), an intriguing ethnography of Afro-Caribbeans in Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast.

New studies of the Nicaraguan resistance (Contras) go beyond blame by seeking to understand the social and ideological roots of peasant support for the counter-revolution. Some noteworthy examples are Horton (item #bi 99008223#) and Martí i Puig (items #bi 98015641# and #bi 99006538#). From a political economy perspective, Luciak's The Sandinista Legacy (item #bi 96001104#) explores the erosion of peasant support for the revolution, focusing on the farmer's union UNAG.

A new batch of memoirs and documents of well-placed actors will fascinate historians. These resources include the personal letters of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador (item #bi 98005939#); transcribed interviews with Guatemalan Communist Party founder José Manuel Fortuny (item #bi 98005881#); and Guatemalan left intellectual Mario Monteforte Toledo's own memoirs (item #bi 98005957#), as well as his deft interviewing of former President Vinicio Cerezo (item #bi 99008215#). Revealing inside glimpses of life within the Guatemalan Revolution are offered by the guerrilla memoirs of Yolanda Colom (item #bi 99008186#), and the guerrilla diaries and papers of EGP commander Fernando Hoyos compiled by his sister (item #bi 98014003#).

Not surprisingly, after more than a decade of death and devastation, the changing role of militaries in the region faced serious scrutiny. Noteworthy contributions include the outstanding historical examination by Williams and Walter (item #bi 99008249#); and Schirmer's provocative study of counterinsurgency (item #bi2001005596#). The latter might be usefully contrasted with the selective memory of Gen. Héctor Gramajo, Guatemala's defense minister during the period of changing civil-military relations (item #bi 98005878#).

Democratization was the focus of a number of comparative studies, most building on the "transitology" theoretical frameworks generated by the South American and Southern European experiences of previous decades. Works in this vein include Coleman et al. (item #bi 97006207#), Domínguez and Lindenberg (item #bi 98005971#), Rovira Mas (item #bi 99006600#), and Torres-Rivas (item #bi 98005755#). More conjunctural analyses of the problems of negotiating peace accords include insightful perspectives on Guatemala by Gutiérrez (item #bi 98010381#) and Armon et al. (item #bi 99008198#). Nicaragua's transition from the Sandinista revolutionary government also received critical scrutiny in useful compilations edited by Prevost and Vanden (item #bi 98003767#) and by Walker (item #bi 98003765#).

Parties and elections took on new relevance in Central American politics, generating historical re-examinations such as Krennerich's review of Nicaraguan electoral history (item #bi 98013177#), Gaspar Tapia's regional study of Christian Democratic parties (item #bi 96001020#), and studies of Costa Rica's electoral system by Lehoucq (item #bi 98011400#) and Molina Jiménez (item #bi 98013141#). Other studies focused on the newly competitive electoral processes of the 1990s and the peculiar institutional features of the new electoral systems, including articles by Rojas Bolaños (item #bi 98005260#), Artiga González (item #bi 98008073#), and Córdova Macías and Stein (item #bi 98005332#). Interesting analyses of voting behavior during times of dramatic political transition include the excellent comparative study of Nicaragua and El Salvador by Barnes (item #bi 99007539#). Whatever the pitfalls of polling in Central America, there are now major databases available, such as those compiled by the University of Pittsburgh and by the Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública (IUDOP) at the Jesuit-run UCA in San Salvador. New interpretations of public opinion include studies by Seligson and Córdova Macías (item #bi 98005978#), Booth and Richard (item #bi 99004655#), and Cruz (item #bi 99006826#). Interest in local government may have been reinforced by the surprising electoral success of the FMLN in El Salvador's 1997 municipal elections, interpreted in articles by election-watchers Montgomery (item #bi 98002963#) and Colindres (item #bi 98011381#).

One of the major trends affecting the region that remains understudied is the impact of neoliberal economic reforms. Too many studies on subjects such as governability, decentralization, and modernization of the state presuppose the neoliberal orthodoxy of state rollback and privatization, and focus narrowly on technical requirements for implementation. Among the few exceptions is the work by Rojas Bolaños (item #bi 98005948#); and an interesting study by Seligson, Martínez, and Trejos on Costa Rica's efforts to balance economic adjustment with social compensation policies (item #bi 98009031#). More research is needed on the impact on specific social sectors, such as Membreño's contribution on maquila workers (item #bi 98005884#) and Kroshus Medina's essay on free trade in Belize (item #bi 99002969#).

Women and indigenous groups also received insufficient scholarly attention. The 1999 failed referendum in Guatemala to ratify the peace accord provisions on indigenous rights and culture highlighted a glaring gap in the construction of participatory democracy. Kay Warren's provocative new study (item #bi 99008187#) demands serious consideration of the pan-Maya movement. The growing Maya scholarly and political self-assertion that she examines contrasts with the picture presented in David Stoll's work (see HLAS 55:765 and 56:1787), of a people caught in the crossfire. Debates over representation of indigenous experiences will likely continue in the wake of Stoll's highly publicized 1999 accusations that Nobel prizewinner Rigoberta Menchú had misrepresented some of her family history in her bestselling testimonial. Comprehensive works on women's roles in Central American politics were absent, but research on specific issues included Blanco's article on women and agrarian policy (item #bi 99001575#); Camacho (item #bi 99008191#), Moreno (item #bi 98011429#), and CENIDH (item #bi 98011434#) on women and elections in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, respectively; Baines on Guatemalan refugee women (item #bi 99007416#); and Randall on why the Sandinistas weren't feminists (item #bi 99007307#).

Panama and Belize continued to be sparsely studied. A noteworthy exception is the publications by the Interhemispheric Resource Center, which provided handy but basic introductions to Belize by Barry and Vernon (item #bi 98005961#), and to Panama by Barry and Lindsay-Poland (item #bi 98005876#). Postinvasion Panamanian politics tended to generate more heat than light, aside from a few articles on constitutional and electoral reforms by Furlong (item #bi 97012462#), Gandásegui (item #bi 99003699#), and Scranton (item #bi 97012463#). The end-of-millennium deadline for the Panama Canal treaty implementation and debates over US military bases also provided new attention for the isthmus.


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 (10/31/11)