In Modern Latin American Revolutions, Eric Selbin asks why some revolutions succeed while others fail. His answer: successful ones consolidate. The concept of consolidation as an analytical tool is Selbin’s contribution to the literature on social revolutions, and it is a provocative addition.
Selbin argues that people make revolutions, yet they are ignored in models focusing exclusively on structures or leaders. Consolidation brings the people back in. He carefully distinguishes consolidation from institutionalization, which focuses on the state. Consolidation refers to social transformation; people’s acceptance of revolutionary goals, a sea change in consciousness. Consolidation comprises trust in government, a new opportunity, a vision of a better future, a sense of empowerment. A successful revolution, Selbin argues, must institutionalize as well as consolidate.
Bolivia, Grenada, Cuba, and Nicaragua provide the analytical case studies with which Selbin tests his theory, concluding that Bolivia’s revolution was institutionalized but not consolidated, Cuba’s consolidated but not institutionalized, Grenada’s a failure on both counts, and Nicaragua’s a success on both. Selbin’s profiles of Bolivia, Cuba, and Grenada are sketchy, while his discussion of Cuba is contradictory, first contending that Cuba failed to create institutions, then arguing that since 1970, institutions have been created and strengthened. Selbin weights consolidation more heavily than institutionalization. He says Cuba has consolidated, and later contends that consolidation includes moving beyond the vanguard. Yet for Cuba he cannot separate the people from the vanguard; he sees Cuba’s greatest challenge in Castro’s death, while ignoring the challenge posed by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Selbin devotes most of his focus to Nicaragua, where he has surveyed popular attitudes toward the revolution. Using his determinants of consolidation, Selbin finds that the vast majority of Nicaraguans believe that the revolution brought opportunity, a better future, and empowerment, while 54 percent trust the state. The proof, Selbin says, is in the seeming contradiction of a consolidated and institutionalized revolution that hands the vanguard party electoral defeat. In Selbin’s view, the 1984 and 1990 elections clearly indicate institutionalization of the revolution’s democratic goals. The 1990 campaign showed consolidation because the UNO did not attack the revolution, arguing instead that it could better achieve the revolution’s goals. When the opponents must frame their position within the revolution, an important change has occurred. Consolidation can be seen further in the UNO’s limited ability to roll back Sandinista programs.
Modern Latin American Revolutions has weaknesses. Cuba, Bolivia, and Grenada get insufficient attention; the chapter on leadership offers no new insights; the few pages on El Salvador and Peru are ill considered; some terms are carefully defined, but not others. Even while it is most successful in analyzing Nicaragua, the use of a survey is questionable in light of the notoriously problematic pre-election polls. Nevertheless, consolidation applied to the 1990 Nicaraguan elections opens a new window, and that brings a breath of fresh air, making this book well worth reading.