Just as Central America was a backwater of the Spanish empire, so has it been a neglected area for historians in the United States. To confirm this judgment, one need only consult the Research Inventories of the Latin American Research Review or the tabulation of articles that was published in the November, 1971 issue of the HAHR. Consequently, the works considered in this review are welcome additions to the Central Americanist’s library. Thomas Anderson has written an account that fills one of the many gaps in Salvadorean history; John Bell has stripped away some of the myths that surround the Costa Rican revolution; and Harry Kantor has produced a useful research tool.
There are a number of similarities between the Anderson and Bell monographs. Each offers a detailed account of an armed uprising. Both authors fully explore the causes for the revolts and give ample consideration to the central, although differing, roles played by communists. Neither, however, ventures far into the area of theoretical abstraction. Each supplemented his archival research with personal interviews, and the techniques of oral history were particularly essential to the success of Anderson’s work. Both volumes exhibit minor stylistic problems. Some of Anderson’s allusions seem better suited to an undergraduate lecture, and Bell has an irritating tendency to repeat himself.
More than forty years have elapsed since the event, but Professor Anderson’s work provides the first dispassionate and complete study of the revolt that erupted in El Salvador in January, 1932. The first half of the book is given over to a discussion of the circumstances that produced the uprising. The remaining chapters trace its progress, suppression, and lingering effects. Anderson demonstrates that the revolt had its roots in widespread peasant discontent which was organized and channeled by Salvadorean communists through devices that ranged from crude drawings to “popular universities.” He identifies the sources of the rebellion as the antagonism between landowner and peasant, the economic dislocations caused by the expansion of coffee culture and exacerbated by the effects of the great depression, and the frustration of hopes for reform that had been generated by the election of Arturo Araujo in 1931. Of particular interest is Anderson’s finding that Indian hostility toward ladinos fueled the revolt in western El Salvador. These factors do not, however, provide the answer to Anderson’s question, “why the communists chose El Salvador for their debut in the Western Hemisphere” (p. 2). The causal elements cited in this case are applicable to a number of other Latin American countries. But, on the whole, Anderson’s explanation of the revolt makes sense; the chronicle of events is remarkably detailed; and his conclusions concerning the number of lives lost in the revolt and in the matanza that followed appear to be well founded. It seems safe to say that this volume will serve as the standard account of the uprising for a number of years to come.
The fact that the Costa Rican revolution of 1948 has received a good deal of attention does not limit the value of Professor Bell’s contribution. With the exception of Oscar Aguilar Bulgarelli’s Costa Rica y sus hechos políticos de 1948 (San José, 1969), much of what has been written on the subject is overly simplistic, portraying the event as a triumph of the champions of democracy over the forces of oppression. The present study is a welcome departure from the “good guys and bad guys” school of interpretation. Bell approaches the problem of causation through a topical framework and examines the development between 1940 and 1948 of what he regards as the key issues of social and economic reform, communism, mismanagement and corruption in government, and electoral legitimacy. Separate chapters are devoted to the organization of opposition to the National Republican government, the course of the revolt, and the early experiences of the Junta of the Second Republic. For the most part, Bell takes a sympathetic (objective may the better word) view of the administrations of Rafael Calderón Guardia and Teodoro Picado, and his treatment suggests that the development of leftist opposition involved an amalgam of claims to moral superiority and political opportunism. More importantly, Bell shows that the electoral crisis of 1948 was not the cause but rather a pretext for the revolution which José Figueres had earlier decided was a necessary precondition for the establishment of the Second Republic. Bell’s work will undoubtedly prompt further study, but it will be difficult to challenge his conclusion that the National Liberation party’s “plans for improving economic, social and political conditions in Costa Rica were generally complementary rather than antagonistic to those of the National Republicans” (p. 161).
Professor Kantor’s bibliography lists, by my count, 337 titles authored by José Figueres and 331 selections written about the Costa Rican leader. More than two-thirds of the items were published in newspapers. The entries are drawn from a wide variety of sources, many of which might ordinarily escape the scholar’s attention, and the inclusion of bibliographic information concerning reprinted materials is particularly helpful. It is regrettable that the entries are not annotated. Kantor probably is familiar with all of the works cited and could have provided valuable insights regarding their content. He has, however, limited his remarks to an introductory discussion of the well-known aspects of Figueres’ career. The utility of the compilation would also have been greater if some system of classification other than alphabetical arrangement had been employed. These criticisms aside, Kantor’s bibliography suggests numerous opportunities for research and provides an excellent point of departure for future studies.