This book shows both the usefulness and the limitations of a genealogical approach to Central American political and social history. Stone successfully demonstrates the interrelatedness of Central American political elites in terms of their lineage. The descendants of founding families, however, include many more people who are very distant from the ruling class. Stone also fails to account for other prominent families of the colonial period, and fails to consider that important sectors of the contemporary elites descend from nineteenth- and twentieth-century immigrants and, in some cases, from upwardly mobile local groups.
The book’s other major thesis pertains to the reasons why Central American societies differ so much from each other, despite the family ties between members of the political elites. The question is a most valid one, and the author provides valuable insights if not a fully convincing answer. The availability of resources and the different ways of using them are certainly relevant issues in this regard. However, the conclusion that scarcity bred democracy and abundance produced authoritarianism, which Stone states from the outset, would seem to minimize the agency of specific individual and collective sociopolitical actors.
The author contrasts “northern” and “southern” Central America, with Guatemala and Costa Rica as the social extremes, while the other countries “vary according to their geographic position between the two” (p. 28). In Stone’s subsequent analyses, it is unclear how his resource-based model helps explain the sociopolitical history of Honduras or Nicaragua. Guatemala and El Salvador are often discussed as very similar cases, yet they followed quite different paths toward authoritarianism, and they also differ in their land/labor ratios, ethnic relations, and the process and aftermath of the Liberal Reforms. Costa Rica, on the other hand, is idealized both in terms of its alleged “rural democracy” of colonial times and its subsequent social history.
The assertion that “class” or social position has little to do with wealth (p. 144) is challenging, and highlights the importance of kinship, friendship, and other noneconomic factors in the cohesion of political elites. It is also an overstatement, and a historically inaccurate one for Central America.
The detailed family trees in the appendixes reflect meticulous research and will be an extremely valuable resource for scholars. Certain bibliographic omissions relate to problems of historical interpretation: For Costa Rica, especially Lowell Gudmundson but also José Luis Vega and Iván Molina; for Guatemala, David McCreery, Julio Cambranes, and Carol Smith; for El Salvador, David Browning, Rafael Menjivar, and Bradford Bums; for Honduras, Mario Posas; and for Nicaragua, Jaime Wheelock and John A. Booth. More generally, Edelberto Torres-Rivas’ classical and recent work and that by Héctor Pérez and Yolanda Baires, among others.