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Volume 61 / Social Sciences


RICHARD STAHLER-SHOLK, Associate Professor, Eastern Michigan University

AS THE TIDE OF REVOLUTION and accompanying counterrevolutionary interventions receded, Central America lost the dubious privilege of being considered a global hotspot. Scholars of the region turned their attention to more prosaic tasks of assessing the aftermath of that turbulent era. With the end of the Cold War and a shift in world attention to the Middle East and Central Asia, there was no flood of external resources for postconflict peace-building in Central America. Moreover, neoliberal policies were being implanted as coffee export prices sank to new lows, dampening expectations for the near future. At this conjuncture, the region was undergoing a "triple transition": from war to peace, from militarization to civilian politics, and from authoritarianism to democracy.

Two major themes and one subtheme stand out in the contemporary literature on Central American politics. The first of these themes links democratization and democratic consolidation to the development of a political culture that can sustain these transitions. Studies in this area focus on the concept of civil society. A growing collection of survey research takes the pulse of public opinion, invoking standard comparative politics categories of civic culture to investigate whether the requisite citizen support for democratic values is emerging. Some of this research specifically looks for evidence of civic engagement at the local level, linking public participation and sense of political efficacy to the increasingly autonomous workings of decentralized local government.

A second identifiable theme is centered on political and social institutions, reflecting the theoretical influence of the "new institutionalism" as well as the empirically observable transitions from armed conflict to more rule-oriented politics. The institutions and institutional actors examined include party systems and parties (among them some ex-guerrilla movements); legislatures; the judiciary; armed forces; police and security forces; media; and constellations of legal, constitutional, and electoral reforms. The assumption of these studies is that rules matter, and that the reshaping of institutions affects future patterns of politics.

An underlying subtheme of both of these themes is the apparent disjuncture between the institutionalization of formal democratic procedures on the one hand, and substantive satisfaction of the needs and preferences of the majority on the other hand. Alongside optimism about the spread of electorally competitive regimes and formal political rights, studies point to declining participation, limited accountability, and continued social polarization. These latter tendencies continue to hinder the elusive goal of democratic consolidation, long after the peace accords of the 1990s that ended armed conflicts in Central America.

Several works frame the changing era by extrapolating lessons from the peace negotiations that are relevant to postconflict democratic transition, and by assessing the correlation of forces as political contestation shifted to the electoral realm. These include regional overviews by Cardenal and Martí i Puig (item #bi2001005615#) and González (item #bi2002002877#); Burgerman's comparison of El Salvador and Guatemala (item #bi 00007637#); Montobbio's emphasis on negotiations in El Salvador (item #bi2001005566#); Dye et al. on Nicaragua's uneven transition (item #bi2001003520#); Booth et al. on globalization and the Guatemalan transition (item #bi2002002821#); and Jonas (item #bi2001005623#) and Sieder (item #bi2001005597#) with an evaluation of Guatemala's prospects. An article by Krznaric (item #bi2001002096#) emphasizes the growing role of civil society in Guatemala's negotiated transition. Pérez on postinvasion Panama (item #bi2001005581#) might be grouped in this category of works that peer over the horizon toward possible democratization.

Among the studies reviving old concepts of political culture, the broadest is a regional overview by Rodríguez et al. (item #bi2001005562#), using cross-national survey data to measure democratic sentiment. Of particular note in this literature is the regional summary by Córdova Macías and Seligson (item #bi2002002341#), part of a five-volume study of political culture and local government that introduces some conceptual innovation on work by Inglehart and Putnam. Country-specific "audits" on democracy-supportive public opinion by Seligson on Nicaragua (item #bi2001005628#), and a UNDP-sponsored version for Costa Rica (item #bi2002002342#), establish a useful comparative methodology and baseline. Less comprehensive survey-based research on political culture relevant to democracy includes studies revealing problematic aspects in Honduras, by Salomón (item #bi2001005611#); and among youth in Nicaragua, by Montenegro (item #bi2003005629#).

The potential development of a participatory political culture at the local level gets a mixed assessment. A regional overview by Ortiz Paniagua (item #bi2002002339#) shows some recent trends toward administrative decentralization, amid various obstacles. Public awareness of local government remains low. However, papers from a regional conference by Castañeda et al. (item #bi2001005587#) and a Guatemalan study by Barrios (item #bi2001005570#) highlight the potential for greater representation of indigenous populations at the local level. Other studies of municipal government in Costa Rica by Chacón et al. (item #bi2003005590#), and in Guatemala by Sacayón (item #bi2003005625#), note prospects for enhanced representation of women in local government.

Representative of the new focus on institutions is an edited collection by García Laguardia on constitutional reforms in the region (item #bi2003005637#). Like most of the authors on this theme, these contributors situate the discussion of institutional reform in the context of low public trust in existing political institutions, a problem for democratic consolidation. Public opinion surveys in El Salvador highlighted skepticism about branches of government, as reflected in studies by IUDOP on the legislature (item #bi 00006938#) and by Jackson and Dodson on the judiciary (item #bi 99009948#). Electoral mechanisms and reforms are the subject of studies on Costa Rica by Lehoucq (item #bi2001003652#), looking at the historical context of a less democratic era; El Salvador by Artiga González (item #bi2003000471#); and Guatemala by Torres-Rivas et al. (item #bi2003005622#). Changing party systems are examined in works by Pérez Brignoli on Costa Rica's PUSC (item #bi2001005603#); Sichar Moreno on Guatemala (item #bi2003005644#); postinvasion Panama by Franco (item #bi2003005584#) and González (item #bi2001005598#); and Nicaraguan studies on party development in the 1960s by Soto Vásquez (item #bi2003005634#), the 1990s by Santiuste (item #bi2001000301#), and a provocative retrospective on the Sandinistas' decline by Vargas (item #bi2002002338#).

Amidst the incomplete transitions in the region, several studies focused on the military and police apparatuses, highlighting shortcomings in accountability of these institutions to elected civilian authorities, as well as high levels of social violence and citizen insecurity. These included studies of the military and civil-military relations in El Salvador, by Córdova Macías (item #bi2002002344#); Honduras, by Salomón (items #bi2001005611# and #bi2002002328#); and Harding's study of the Panamanian military's institutionalized role in politics through the PRD Party (item #bi2001002345#). An influential study by Gutiérrez on Guatemalan military intelligence (item #bi2001005619#) is explicitly aimed at formulating institutional reforms, to bring the apparatus under civilian oversight as part of the ongoing democratic transition. Similarly, Castellanos and Salomón's work on the newly demilitarized Honduran police (item #bi2003005586#) calls for intensifying the reform process.

Complementing these studies on institutional change aimed at improving accountability, several works focus on the need for an independent and critical media. Major shortcomings on this score are documented in Guatemala by Koberstein (item #bi2003005618#), in Honduras by Leyva (item #bi2003005642#) and Meza (item #bi2003005595#), and in the cautionary tale of the Sandinista newspaper in Nicaragua by Jones (item #bi2003005646#).

Some of the more interesting work currently being done on Central American politics raises questions not just about formal procedural aspects of elections and democratic governance, but rather substantive concerns about the qualitative content and inclusiveness of democracy. Even in Costa Rica's seemingly consolidated and stable democracy, a significant volume edited by Rovira Mas (item #bi2003005594#) examines indicators of waning legitimacy in a two-party electoral democracy that many feel does not represent them. Amid declining voter turnout in El Salvador, veteran centrist politician and social scientist Héctor Dada examines why electoralism does not generate more public engagement (item #bi2001005618#). Abstentionism is analyzed by Boneo and Torres-Rivas in Guatemala (item #bi2001005604#), and by Córdova Macías et al. in Nicaragua and El Salvador (item #bi2001005229#); while Gálvez seeks to explain the electoral victory by Guatemala's ghosts of the undemocratic past (item #bi2001000139#). The political economy of "reactionary despotism" may have given way to more diversified and globalized models of capitalist development; but socioeconomic polarization and entrenched political resistance to redistributive reforms remain major obstacles to real participatory democracy. These patterns are the subject of interesting studies on the limits of agrarian reform in El Salvador by Cardenal (item #bi2003005598#), and in Nicaragua by Abu-Lughod (item #bi 00007636#) and Everingham (item #bi2002004460#); and Guatemala's notoriously backward fiscal structure, by Noriega et al. (item #bi2003005585#).

Also among the more interesting works are several gendered perspectives on the aftermath of the revolutionary era, all adopting a healthy skepticism about the egalitarian claims of both the revolutionary and liberal-democratic agendas. Luciak's comparison of the revolutions in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala (item #bi2003005636#) assesses how much the revolutions contributed to participatory democracy, measured in terms of gender issues and women's empowerment. Bayard de Volo's ethnographic study of a pro-Sandinista women's organization (item #bi2003005597#) presents a nuanced picture of a revolutionary process that reproduced certain gender stereotypes, yet at the same time opened space for women to organize more autonomously.

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