This book is a welcome addition to the burgeoning literature on Central America. In the preface, the author states the book’s ambitious purpose: “to examine the nature of economic development in Central America and to resolve the confusion over the part played by economic factors in the current crisis” (p. xiii). Even with this strongly presentist orientation, however, pre-World War II decades, like the postwar years, are analyzed in extensive, solidly documented chapters with suggestive interpretations.
The book is an invaluable compilation of economic data, much of which the author has pieced together from primary sources. Perhaps more impressive, however, is the author’s success in analytically integrating aspects of historical change that too often are kept separate or treated in a misleading framework of linear causality. One important example is the relationships between external influences (e.g., export markets and U.S. foreign policy) and internal economic structures. A second example, closely related to the first, is the “political economy” of the title: the relationships among national economic structures, configurations of domestic power, and policy patterns.
While there are lapses, especially notable wherever the author personifies the nation (i.e., in such formulations as “Nation X benefited from the rise in coffee prices”), Bulmer-Thomas generally does very well in sustaining this complex analysis while avoiding confusion, obscurity, and crude reductionism. It is this analytical achievement that enables the book to identify clearly and productively similarities and divergences among the five nations’ historical processes.
While it is doubtful that Bulmer-Thomas has fully succeeded in his effort “to resolve the confusion over the part played by economic factors in the current crisis,” there is no question that his book makes an important contribution towards that goal. As such, I recommend it for all interested in twentieth-century Central American history, including advanced undergraduate and graduate students.