Susanne Jonas’ powerful book is a major contribution to the critique of modernization in Central America, the study of Latin American states, and the debate over “democratic transitions.” Drawing on newspaper reports, observations, and interviews, as well as everything that has been written in Spanish and English about Guatemala by scholars and political activists since the 1970s, Jonas uses a structuralist approach to analyze the transformations of the second half of the twentieth century in a country where social upheaval and state terror have been the rule in everyday life.

Jonas convincingly argues that the popular and revolutionary movements of the 1970s and early 1980s were the consequence of the modernization programs of the 1950s and 1960s. In the countryside, export-led agriculture generated what Jonas calls a “subsistence crisis” by destroying minifundia and undoing the peasantry without creating viable alternative means to earn a living. In Guatemala City, the country’s sole important city, the new, low-wage, capital-intensive factories of export-led industrial development were relatively few, and they provided only a small number of jobs for the growing stream of rural migrants.

The diversification of the productive structure and the social dislocation and discontent it produced reshaped the ruling coalition, which expanded to include the upper ranks of military officers. These men were part of an army that in turn was taking a larger role in a state apparatus that historically had relied on violence rather than a hegemonic culture to maintain the status quo. Unlike many of its counterparts elsewhere in Latin America, the Guatemalan bourgeoisie has relentlessly and successfully opposed reforms in the land tenure system, the development of pluralism in government, and the growth of any vibrant civil society. The profound economic changes following World War II only made Guatemalan elites more obsessed with their conservative class standing and race consciousness. When Maya Indians and poor ladinos contested the changes wrought by modernization and the failure to redistribute national wealth, the state, with help from the U.S. government, upgraded its apparatus of repression and dedicated itself to counterinsurgency.

Jonas avoids creating a false polarity between the military and civilian spheres by showing the close relationship between the army and the Guatemalan upper classes. By demonstrating that the political spaces of the 1970s and 1980s were created by popular protest and not by the state, she demystifies the state’s image of omnipotence. At the same time, her detailed discussion of how the “return to civilian rule” in 1985 formed part of the military counterinsurgency underscores the superficiality of equating the beginning of a transition to democracy with the presence of political parties and internationally monitored elections. Surely she is on target when she argues that political democracy cannot be born without profound changes in an economy that is still unable to provide the majority of its inhabitants with subsistence.

In her thoughtful discussion of ethnicity, Jonas calls attention to how the Maya have resisted “ladinoization” by creating “new ways to be Indian,” both in the city and the countryside, when they have lost their traditional ethnic ties. In her extensive critical analysis of the popular revolutionary movement, she highlights the multiple oppression of the Maya to explain their important membership role in guerrilla organizations. She does this without losing sight of the reality that most ladinos in Guatemala are poor people who also have protested—often side by side with the Maya—and also have suffered state terrorism, conditions that are sometimes overlooked. That the state has committed genocide against Indians does not mean it has not also massacred and “disappeared” ladinos by the thousands.

In line with this point and amid these accolades, I would take issue only with the utility of the concept of a “ladino state.” Certainly the Guatemalan state does not represent the majority of ladinos, nor does it portray itself in ethnic terms as ladino; many of its officials would no doubt prefer to be visualized as European. The notion of a ladino state tends to further the misrepresentations that ladinos are an undifferentiated mass, that Guatemala is polarized between ladinos and Mayas, and that ladinos oppress or kill Indians. Everything in Jonas’ sophisticated, lucid, and passionate book tells us otherwise.