Michael Dodson and Laura Nuzzi O’Shaughnessy, co-authors of Nicaragua’s Other Revolution, observe in their preface that the 1980s witnessed “an impressive outpouring of new books” relating to Central America (ix). Indeed, beginning in 1979 the dramatic events in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere on the isthmus inspired a virtual avalanche of journalistic and academic assessments of Central American affairs. Most of these works are contemporary in their orientation and focus almost exclusively on events that constitute only the most recent in a long series of isthmian crises. The works under review for the most part reflect such an emphasis.

Benjamin T. Harrison’s Dollar Diplomat, however, does not focus on the contemporary scene. Harrison, a diplomatic historian, concentrates instead on the early twentieth-century lobbying career of Chandler P. Anderson. In his study Harrison offers a challenge to those revisionists who insist that U. S. foreign policy has been the handmaiden of the capitalist system. Revisionist scholars often cite Mexico and Nicaragua as representative examples in Latin America of the baneful effects of Dollar Diplomacy. Anderson was a respected international lawyer with close links to both corporate interests and the Department of State, for which he worked in an official capacity on a number of occasions during both Democratic and Republican administrations. Harrison chronicles Anderson’s efforts as a departmental insider to secure U. S. government protection and support for business interests in Mexico and Nicaragua. Despite persistent, almost heroic efforts on Anderson’s part, Harrison concludes that the lobbyist’s “dedicated voice for big business. . . most often fell on deaf ears” (p. 126).

Anderson’s failure to secure Department of State support for his economic and political agenda in Nicaragua was perhaps the lobbyist’s bitterest defeat of all. He had developed, over the years, an extremely close working relationship with the Nicaraguan Conservative leader Emiliano Chamorro. As Harrison points out, however, Anderson, in promoting the interests of both U. S. investors and Chamorro, made the assumption that “those interests were one and the same” (p. 124). Anderson thereupon erroneously concluded that the U. S. government “would keep Conservatives in power forever” (p. 124). Despite his best efforts the Republican administration in Washington refused to acknowledge Chamorro’s de jure pretensions and pursued instead a policy that ultimately led in 1928 to the assumption of power by a Liberal party “that was less than sympathetic to American businessmen” (p. 125).

Anderson’s diary and material from the Department of State decimal file serve as the author’s most important primary sources. The secondary studies cited are representative of the literature in the field and include a number of relevant Spanish-language sources. Although occasionally marred by repetitive prose and a number of minor factual errors, Harrison’s study nonetheless makes a solid contribution. It is a worthy complement, for example, to Thomas L. Karnes’s study, based on corporate records, of the Standard Fruit Company’s isthmian operations. Such scholarship effectively calls into question the universal applicability of revisionist theory to U. S.-Latin American relations.

The long-term conflict between the Atlantic and Pacific regions of Nicaragua invites comparison with Sicily, for much like that island in relation to mainland Italy the Atlantic zone of Nicaragua has been isolated geographically and alienated ethnically and culturally from the rest of the polity. As if the fundamental cleavage between the mestizo Pacific and the Indian/creole Atlantic were not enough to create problems, the Atlantic Coast itself is riven by a multiplicity of ethnic and cultural groups. The task of creating some degree of economic and political cohesion within this incredibly diverse Nicaraguan landscape has tested the abilities and resolve of administrators from the colonial period to the present. It is this process, with special emphasis placed on Somocista and Sandinista regional agendas, that Carlos M. Vilas ably analyzes in State, Class and Ethnicity in Nicaragua.

Vilas is an Argentine political scientist with a number of publications relating to the recent Nicaraguan experience to his credit. His lengthy residence in Nicaragua included almost four years of association with the Center for Research and Documentation on the Atlantic Coast, an association that allowed him to focus on a region that was, up to that time, unfamiliar to him. Vilas points out that the Sandinista government’s goal to bring development to the Atlantic Coast was marred by its being “a development strategy for the Coast, but not with the Coast” (p. 113). That “revolutionary political power. . . showed a mestizo face” simply served to exacerbate tensions within the multiethnic coastal societies, tensions that the U. S. government and its counterrevolutionary surrogates were quick to exploit (p. 117). Vilas concludes that the difficulties the Sandinistas encountered in their efforts “to revolutionize the region from above” (p. 192) eventually led to the establishment of “a strategy of negotiation, dialogue, and. . . integration” (p. 196). The fruits of this strategy would surface in September 1987 when the National Assembly passed an Autonomy Statute for the Atlantic Coast.

While all of the remaining studies deal with religion as a force in contemporary Nicaraguan society, two of these works, Nicaragua’s Other Revolution and The Catholic Church and Social Change in Nicaragua, provide an exclusive rather than a supplemental focus on the subject. Michael Dodson and Laura Nuzzi O’Shaughnessy, the co-authors of the former volume, are political scientists with extensive field experience in Nicaragua. Challenging the Reagan administration’s claim that the Nicaraguan Revolution was “a facsimile of Cuba” and Daniel Ortega’s likening of the Sandinista movement to the Mexican revolutionary process, Dodson and O’Shaughnessy point out that, unlike the Cuban and Mexican revolutionary experiences, “there was striking support for revolution within Nicaragua’s religious communities” (p. 5). The authors also indicate that “the fusion of Christian motives with political struggle in the Nicaraguan Revolution reveals striking similarities to the English and American Revolutions” (p. 7). Thematic continuities that the authors discern in these distant revolutionary processes include the impact of prophetic renewal, an impulse for democratization, and a challenge to political authoritarianism that “had implications for the church” (p. 242). As the authors effectively point out, the hierarchical authority of the traditional church received a major challenge from those members of the laity who sought “a broadening of the locus of authority” (p. 155). They conclude that a major point of division in the Nicaraguan Revolution “has been the struggle to realize, or to contain, this new conception of the church” (p. 243).

This fundamental division within the Nicaraguan Catholic church also serves as the major theme of Manzar Foroohar’s study, The Catholic Church and Social Change in Nicaragua. The work is based on a wide variety of Spanish-and English-language sources as well as on interviews that the author conducted in Nicaragua. Foroohar, a historian, provides a general overview of the church’s role in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Nicaragua and then concentrates in particular on the period from the 1968 Medellín conference of bishops to the 1979 Sandinista triumph. In a brief epilogue the author discusses the dynamics of church-state relations in Nicaragua up to the mid-1980s. Foroohar concludes that while the division in the Nicaraguan Catholic church that developed during the 1970s “intensified tremendously” after 1979, “organizational separation” of “the hierarchy and the progressive clergy” has not yet taken place (p. 211).

While the methodology of oral history is certainly evident in the works of Vilas, Dodson and O’Shaughnessy, and Foroohar, it dominates Denis Lynn Daly Heyck’s Life Stories of the Nicaraguan Revolution and Patricia Taylor Edmisten’s Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa and the Chamorro Legacy. Heyck, a professor of Spanish, provides the reader with a preface and an informed introduction and afterword, and then lets “as many people as possible. . . tell their own story in their own words” (x). Edmisten, though also using more traditional documentation, nonetheless presents the reader with a study that relies extensively on oral sources.

A standard criticism of oral history has been that the authors/editors sometimes succumb to the temptation of selecting only those informants who reflect a particular point of view. While Heyck is obviously sympathetic to the revolution, the autobiographical stories presented in the volume represent a wide range of topical and personal perspectives. The work is broken into three sections: “Political Lives,” “Religious Lives,” and “Survivors’ Lives.” The first two sections expressively chronicle the deep political and religious divisions that the revolutionary process generated. The third section depicts the ambivalence of those Nicaraguans who found themselves “caught between two worlds.” The themes of political and religious militancy, family divisions, generational gaps, and geographical dislocation are all present in these diverse histories of Nicaraguans trying to cope with the challenges and demands of the revolutionary process.

Patricia Edmisten presents in her work a view of the Nicaraguan Revolution as seen through the prism of the Chamorro family. Edmisten, a professor of education and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Peru, visited Nicaragua in 1981 and again in 1985 to collect material by and about Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and to conduct interviews with “family members, friends, and employees of La Prensa” (x). At first glance one might assume that such a study would be hagiographie and by extension anti-Sandinista. Such, however, is not the case. Edmisten, while sharply critical of U. S. intervention, is remarkably evenhanded in her description of the Nicaraguan revolutionary experience. It should come, of course, as no surprise that the author views the Chamorro family, divided within itself, as representative of the Nicaraguan Revolution in microcosm. Edmisten is particularly adept in portraying the personal dynamics of this family as it, like Nicaragua, endeavored to endure the strains of a revolutionary society in transition.

By titling his final chapter “An Incomplete Revolution, In Only One Country,” Alan Benjamin succinctly summarizes his perspective on the Nicaraguan revolutionary process. Benjamin is a member of Socialist Action, a revolutionary socialist party in the United States that is affiliated with the Fourth International. He is also the editor of the party newspaper. As an advocate of proletarian internationalism and permanent revolution, Benjamin weighs the Nicaraguan Revolution and finds it wanting. On the international front the Sandinistas embraced a Stalinist mentality and in so doing, in Benjamin’s words, “placed themselves on the wrong side of the barricades” (p. 165). Domestically the revolutionary leadership betrayed the aspirations of the masses through continued support for a mixed economy and a marked reluctance to allow “the working class and rural toilers to wield power” (p. 167). Writing in 1989, Benjamin viewed the Nicaraguan Revolution as obviously unfinished. Fulfillment of the revolutionary process could occur, however, once the workers are truly in control and when the revolution triumphs in the neighboring states of Central America.

In a way it is fitting to conclude this review essay with Benjamin’s study. With the exception of the pre-1779-oriented Harrison and Foroohar monographs, the other works under review describe from their different perspectives what was in essence an unfinished revolution or, as Dodson and O’Shaughnessy pointed out in their study, a revolution that “is still in its early stages” (p. 16). One is thus tempted to ask just where the Nicaraguan Revolution finds itself in the wake of the events of February 25, 1990. Did that expression of Nicaraguan sentiment represent an electoral Thermidor? And if so, what implications does that phenomenon present to those who wrote contemporary accounts of the Nicaraguan revolutionary process?

There are those unrepentant traditionalists who consider the term contemporary history to be an oxymoron. Yet it is unfortunate that several of these studies were unable to come even closer to the present. An analysis of the 1990 election returns, for example, would have provided Carlos M. Vilas with an excellent opportunity to gauge the Atlantic Coast’s response to, among other things, the 1.987 Autonomy Statute. By the same token, Patricia Edmisten’s account of the Chamorro family would have benefitted from the inclusion of doña Violeta’s electoral triumph. Consideration of the role that the church, both traditional and popular, played, or did not play, in the 1989-90 electoral process would have lent additional substance to the studies by Dodson and O’Shaughnessy and Heyck. For Alan Benjamin, the events of February 25, 1990, and thereafter would have provided additional exclamation points for many of his conclusions.

One final observation is in order. Those studies that focused on contemporary events tended, either explicitly or implicitly, to overestimate the support that the Sandinistas enjoyed. Such a tendency, of course, simply reflects the conventional wisdom to which most observers of the Nicaraguan scene, this writer included, subscribed during the 1980s. This phenomenon suggests that when dealing with a revolutionary process one should be wary of the rush-to-judgment syndrome. Despite this generic criticism, these studies are, nonetheless, useful. They serve in different ways to enlighten us regarding the Nicaraguan experience and deserve a wide audience.