Written by three political scientists, these two works complement more than compete with each other. They have little in common beyond their concern with Central America in the 1980s.
Dario Moreno’s book is a chronicle of the Carter and Reagan policies toward Central America and has little to say about internal Central American development. It pays virtually no attention to the region’s history before 1978. Its principal sources are New York, Washington, and Miami newspapers and other contemporary published sources. The bibliography reveals not a single item in Spanish, although it does list a few publications by Central Americans in the United States, and the author interviewed several Central Americans. As a chronicle, it is useful for its straightforward account of U.S. policy in the 1980s in clear and mostly jargon-free terms. Moreno does a good job of explaining the shift in Carter’s policy from one of “liberal internationalism” at the beginning, in which ratification of the Panama Canal treaties was the centerpiece, to one of cold war containment of perceived Soviet expansionism in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Moreno blames this shift primarily on Zbigniew Brzezinski, but also on Robert Pastor and various “cold warriors” in the State Department, as well as on the pressures of domestic politics in the United States that threatened Carter’s reelection. Reagan’s policy, in contrast to the confusion and vacillation of Carter’s, possessed ideological consistency but was plagued by lack of congressional support. Moreno precedes his chronicle with a discussion of the “foreign policy process,” which provides a context for his explanation of both the Carter and Reagan policies largely in terms of the personalities around the respective presidents.
Moreno concludes with some comments on George Bush’s policy of disengagement, but, written in early 1989 before the election of Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua, these now appear largely irrelevant. The work thus is a useful chronicle of U.S. policy toward Central America—especially Nicaragua and El Salvador—during the 1980s.
In Understanding Central America, John Booth and Thomas Walker, unlike Moreno, are primarily concerned with the internal development of Central America, although they include an excellent chapter on U.S. policy, which they acknowledge is a major determinant of Central American history. Based on extensive research in Central American sources, they are most impressive when writing about Nicaragua, but they give substantial attention to all five of the states and make comparative analyses among them. They offer a theory as to why Honduras and Costa Rica have been more peaceful than the other three states, emphasizing the importance of ameliorative government action in response to popular grievances in Honduras and Costa Rica in contrast to repression in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Booth and Walker place considerable emphasis on the historical roots of the conflicts on the isthmus and their work differs greatly from Moreno’s in this respect. Indeed, the first four chapters are devoted to Central American history, and there are repeated references to historical precedent and influence throughout the work. Comparisons of income patterns, popular mobilization, government policies, and labor relations add measurably to the work’s value.
Moreno maintains a fairly detached objectivity throughout his work, emphasizing the failure of both Carter’s and Reagan’s approaches to Central America while holding out some optimism for Bush’s efforts to disengage from the conflict there. Booth and Walker are much more obviously committed. They make clear that they place far more importance on internal causes of violence than on outside subversion, and their criticism of the U.S. role on the isthmus is uncompromising, concluding with a call for the United States to pursue “a very different policy—one that actively supports and promotes free and open grass-roots economic, social, and political participation” (p. 144). Throughout the work they emphasize that the unequal distribution of wealth in Central America has left a legacy of class division and concentrated power in the hands of small upper and middle classes. They argue that long-term peace on the isthmus must come from a better division of resources and from better conditions and opportunities for labor.