James Dunkerley’s earlier volume Power in the Isthmus (1988) has become a favorite among college teachers offering courses on Central America. The present work is likely to have the same fate, as it is intellectually sophisticated, reasonably well-founded, pithy, and accessible. The author’s own evaluation is relatively modest, describing it as “not a work of closely considered and integrated scholarship. However, because much of the information reproduced here has only been available either in specialist publications or—more frequently—in piecemeal fashion, even a very synthetic and artisanal assessment would seem to be justified” (p. xii). What allows Dunkerley to transcend his modest intentions is a first-rate analytical capacity that permits him to evaluate critically not only hard data but also conflicting theoretical interpretations. In referring to one such debate, he slyly remarks that “if one sits down with a nice cup of tea, it is possible to distill some sense from both” (p. 91).
The book is composed of an 88-page essay that reviews the major Central American political, economic, military, and diplomatic developments of the 1980s and early 1990s. It pays less attention to social questions, although it does not ignore them, including sections dealing with women, refugees, drugs, and corruption. Statistics are used judiciously, and chronologies are interspersed throughout the text. The essay concludes with analyses of the Nicaraguan, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan peace processes and efforts to rebuild those countries materially and politically. The author is largely critical of the U.S. role in the region without being blind to the region’s complexities.
The volume concludes with 11 useful appendixes providing a general political chronology; individual country profiles; summaries of U.S. economic and military aid to Central America from 1980 to 1993; and basic statistics on the region’s militaries and elections.
Where the author disappoints is in his analysis of some recent developments, including the May 1993 autogolpe in Guatemala. Dunkerley fails to perceive the importance of the internal struggle then under way among various national economic interests, the repositioning of sectors of the military and business community, or the mobilization of nongovernmental organizations. As a result, he tends to overemphasize international factors in both precipitating and resolving the crisis. In addition, Dunkerley’s judgment that the human rights ombudsman was a core catalyst for change is an overstatement; it does little to explain the failure of Ramiro de León Carpio’s administration to contribute more to Guatemala’s democratization.
In this case, as well as those of El Salvador and Nicaragua, the author tends to exaggerate the roles of the United Nations and the Organization of American States in conflict resolution and peacemaking. Finally, to describe former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias (1986-90) as “emphatically a U.S. friend” ignores the difficulties Arias had with the Reagan and Bush administrations, including his struggles to persuade them to support the Esquipulas process.
Such defects do not, however, gainsay that this brief survey is better founded, more savvy, and more felicitously written than most of its type.