James Dunkerley’s Power in the Isthmus ranks together with recent books by Weeks and Bulmer-Thomas as one of the best English-language works on Central America. footnote He presents a broad, successful and systematic analysis of a huge bibliography, especially of materials published in the region, and aptly combines the regional with the national dimensions, the recurrent with the particular. When one faces a book of seven hundred pages, it is very difficult to concur with all its propositions. But I should say that I am in general agreement with Dunkerley’s focus and analysis, apart from some differences in interpretation inevitable among colleagues with different backgrounds and familiarity with the same theme. For example, there are points at which a laudable emphasis on the endogeous leads him to neglect the direct action and moulding power of the exogenous factors (above all, the various types of intervention by the us government). Dunkerley has convincingly dismantled the image of Central America as a defenceless mass, perfectly malleable by such forces as us ambassadors, the Marines, and international bankers. This is indeed more a caricature than an analysis, and Dunkerley fully demonstrates in a chapter on Honduras that the same is true of the common perception of ‘banana republics’. Sometimes, however, one has the impression that the author is throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and the general argument is not always clear with regard to the strategic interests of the usa in the region. This slant is perhaps due to the scant attention paid to the external articulation of Central America to the international system, and to the perceptions of this which exist among policy-makers in Washington. Undoubtedly this aspect is beyond the scope of Dunkerley’s excellent study, but it would have helped the reader to understand the concerns of the United States in a region which means very little to it in economic terms, and whose strategic importance is not what it might have been fifty to seventy years ago.

The White House has tended to place Central America within a framework of relations with overseas powers that are capable of competing for regional hegemony. During the last century these ‘third parties’ were first Britain and then Spain; in this century, Germany and since the 1950s the Soviet Union. This indirect approach might be considered as evidence of the expansionist nature of us foreign policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean, a proof of the permanence of the doctrine of ‘manifest destiny’, or even simply a clumsy excuse to justify intervention (or all three together). But this element could help to explain why many decisions and policies adopted by reformist governments (a degree of democratization of economic resources, union organization, cooperative movements) which no one would consider subversive in other areas of the continent, provoke so many tensions in Central America. The anachronistic character of a good part of the traditionally dominant groups plays an important role in all this. For when they see their rule threatened by a reformist or modernizing initiative, they regularly raise a catastrophist hue-and-cry among us circles that they know to be sensitive on foreign policy matters in the region. In short, the subversiveness of democratic, reformist and modernizing policies depends more than anything else upon the backwardness of the traditional groups, but to a large degree the participation of these groups in the power structure depends upon the anti-subversive, anti-communist sensitivity in Washington.

The apparent immobility of Central American politics in the 1930s and 1940s evidently contrasts with the intense popular agitation, the armed revolutionary organization and the insurrectional outbursts of the 1960s and 1970s. An interesting facet of this is the uneven development of revolutionary processes since the 1960s. There are clear differences, as Dunkerley correctly points out, between Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, on the one hand, and Honduras and Costa Rica on the other. Within the first group, too, each of the three countries is distinctive in a number of significant ways, including in the pattern and efficacy of social recruitment, mobilization, access to political power, and socio-economic transformation.

Political sociology and studies of revolutions have centred more on the factors which make revolutionary processes possible than on those which prevent them from developing. To consider the latter is to accept, if only as a hypothesis, that there is nothing in a society’s structure that makes revolutionary processes inevitable—a notion particularly repellent to voluntarist variants of Marxism. Dunkerley’s book provides us with elements to explore this general problem in relation to Central America. In what follows, I shall try to deal with two questions: (1) why revolutionary processes involving broad mass participation have developed in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, each with its own characteristics and degree of efficacy; and (2) why they have not developed in Costa Rica and Honduras. Since Dunkerley pays particular attention to political factors and conjunctures, I shall give more emphasis to structural questions. I hope that a discussion of some hypotheses, however brief, might serve to complement Dunkerley’s analysis. footnote1

First, it is evident that the socio-economic differences between, say, Honduras and Guatemala—as much in what is referred to as their productive structures as in their class structures—are not sufficiently large to account for the existence or not of revolutionary processes. Similarly, the relevant differences between Costa Rica and Nicaragua are of a political and institutional nature more than a matter of the structure of land tenure or income distribution. footnote2 From the 1950s the five economies of Central America were seized by a broad and intense process of economic modernization in two major areas: agricultural exports, and industrialization within the framework of the Central American Common Market (cacm). However, this took place within political contexts that varied appreciably from country to country. The ‘junction’ of these two dimensions helps to explain the development of revolutionary strategies in certain countries and of reformist strategies in others, as well as the specific characteristics of them all.

Since the 1950s a rapid diversification has developed in the productive and export structure of the region. In part this was due to a range of exogenous factors: the evolution of international prices in the case of cotton; the development of fast-food chains in the United States in the case of cattle-raising; and the cancellation of the us quota of Cuban sugar following the triumphs of the revolution on the island. The production of irrigated rice also began in this period, with large capital investments, but directed primarly towards domestic consumption. This accelerated process of diversification and transformation was conducted mainly by domestic capital; foreign—chiefly us—capital participated through the banking system, supply of inputs and international marketing, more than directly at the production level. The state played an active role through the provision of infrastructure (roads, electricity, communications), bank credit and subsidies for the new items in production, favourable exchange rates, supportive tax policy, and the fostering of mechanization and technological research. Various international organizations, such as the World Bank, and United States government agencies, collaborated with Central American governments in the promotion of this capitalist modernization.

Modernization was not limited to the strictly economic domain. On the contrary, productive differentiation fueled a similarly rapid process of social differentiation in the five countries of the region. New bourgeois groups emerged in the new sectors of activity: partly through a broadening of investment by the traditional groups of landlords and agrarian capitalists, but also through the access of some urban middle-class groups—professionals, public servants—to the new areas of economic dynamism. At the same time, the expanding functions of the state created conditions for a rise in public sector employment and for the growth of the salaried petty bourgeoisie. Furthermore, as a result of the demand for new labour skills, reforms of the educational systems (usually under usaid sponsorship) broadened the employment opportunities and mobility aspirations of the urban middle classes. In the countryside pressures on the peasantry accelerated the trend toward its internal differentiation. The least fortunate—the majority—initiated or speeded up a process of progressive proletarianization; they lost their lands and the possibilities for permanent employment and had to change to different forms of seasonal wage-labour. Others chose to migrate: towards the agricultural frontier, where the most successful were able to settle on virgin lands taken over from the forest; or towards the cities, to join the ranks of the low-income, low-productivity tertiary sector. The development of agro-export, above all of cotton, created a crisis in the traditional model of clientelist relations dominant in the region. Traditional relationships based on reciprocity rapidly disappeared as rent in work, or in kind, gave way to rent for money, and from there to the eviction of the peasants. The impetus towards proletarianization of the workforce destroyed the peasant household. The traditional mechanisms of agrarian society, combining domination with paternalism, disappeared when confronted with the uneven but progressive advance of the market. footnote3