In attempting, as he points out in the preface, to provide a treatment of the history of Central America which falls somewhere between “solidarity” literature on the one hand and academic monographs on the other, Dunkerley has written what is already a controversial book. In fact, Power on the Isthmus is at least two books. The first 220 pages describe the general political economy of Central America from independence to the 1980s. The organizing thesis of this part, not new but developed effectively here, is that the working-out of the nineteenth-century Liberal model for national economic growth, a project which emphasized export agriculture, latifundios, and repressed labor, has resulted in the “withering immiseration” (p. 179) of the mass of the region’s population. This material stands on its own, and might serve a variety of purposes as a general introduction to a course on regional underdevelopment.
The remaining almost five hundred pages examine the struggles in each of the Central American republics for control and direction of state power in the decades since World War II. Dunkerley focuses on the shifting balances within and between the oligarchy and the military, the chief institutional actors in what he labels the dominant bloc,” and on the efforts of this bloc in the postwar years to reconstitute authoritarian rule within a democratic “shell” which is both fit to sell to the U.S. Congress and adequate to repress growing popular demands from within for effective political participation. Again, the central argument is familiar but well worth hammering home, given the readiness of both leftist activists and Washington policy makers to forget or ignore it: the political histories of the Central American states do not respond only to the machinations of outside forces but are a product, too, of each of the republics’ internal socioeconomic formation. The author defines several regionwide political “points of rupture,” in particular 1944-48 and 1979, and uses these to show how changing external situations interact with varying local circumstances to produce independent, if interrelated, histories. Specialists will dispute, no doubt violently on occasion, some of Dunkerley’s points, but, overall, the arguments are effective and the evidence convincing (if, perhaps, not as overwhelming as the enormous footnotes are meant to suggest).
Leaving aside a certain awkwardness born of the forced marriage of solidarity moral outrage and an academic “balance,” there are two obvious difficulties with Power in the Isthmus. One is a writing style given to long and complex sentences from which no noun or verb escapes unmodified and marked by a vocabulary which occasionally resembles nothing so much as a Disney vision of a thesaurus run amok. It is fun, but it is not always clear. The other is a persistent absence of conclusions. The political history chapters, especially, are extremely rich in arguments and evidence, but, having waded through 50 to 100 pages of this, the reader’s mind begs for a few paragraphs or pages of summing up. Here the author lets us down. Chapters simply stop at some point in 1987, and the book itself concludes with an anemic 5-page afterword of little analytical intent or utility. Dunkerley quite evidently has labored mightily to organize, argue, and write this book, and its impact will be felt for years. Conclusions, however, do not speak for themselves, and, if the book is to serve the didactic purposes he intends, future editions must more directly address the problem of telling us what it all means.