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Volume 65 / Social Sciences

GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS: CENTRAL AMERICA


CHARLES D. BROCKETT, Professor of Political Science, Sewanee: The University of the South

AS A SURE SIGN of continuing democratic consolidation in Central America, much of the literature surveyed here assesses the normal themes associated with relatively stable political systems, such as the functioning of political institutions and electoral processes and results. A good number of others analyze political culture and attitudes, again with much of the analytic focus and findings befitting consolidating democracies. A happy number of these are impressive works in their combination of theoretical ambition and empirical rigor, some from scholars within the region, others from outside either in Europe or the US. At the same time, the region's troubled past is also represented in a set of works providing a mix of perspectives and sophistication.

Institutional relations—and conflict—are front and center in two very good studies that also highlight the conditioning role of party systems. Vargas (item #bi2009001514#) examines the consequences of party fragmentation for executive-legislative relations in Costa Rica, while Miranda (item #bi2008001453#) analyzes the impact of party-based legislative coalitions on presidential power in El Salvador. More broadly, a team of European scholars (item #bi2009001504#) provides perhaps the best account of the contemporary Guatemalan political system, synthesizing across a broad swath of scholarship. Pursuing a narrower focus but equally outstanding, a mixed Nicaraguan-European team (item #bi2009001522#) portrays the course of the move toward regional autonomy for the Atlantic half of Nicaragua. Finally, the increasing subordination of security forces to civilian authority is well traced for the four countries from Nicaragua north by Millett and Pérez (item #bi2007004087#), and by Caumartin for Panama (item #bi2008002632#).

With democracy comes regular elections, followed by just as regular analyses by journalists and scholars. Standing out among the many electoral studies surveyed for this volume is the one byVorst (item #bi2009001511#). Analyzing the growth of voter abstentionism in Costa Rica, the volume provides a plethora of great graphics elucidating the differing types of abstainers identified. An excellent examination of the broader context for understanding such trends is offered by Booth and Seligson (item #bi2007003012#) in their empirical examination of the relationship in Costa Rica between political participation and legitimacy. Seligson is also associated with two other outstanding works on political culture produced as part of the ongoing series of studies from the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University, one on Honduras (item #bi2009000701#) and the other on Nicaragua (item #bi2007005296#). Both examine a wide array of political attitudes from recent national surveys, interpreted in light of both similar surveys throughout Latin America and related social science theory. The implications for democratic consolidation is a concern of all of these works, as it is for two other good studies that also standout for their comparative nature, Pérez's (item #bi2006000739#) on public attitudes toward crime in El Salvador and Guatemala and Martí i Puig and Santiuste's (item #bi2007000465#) on congressional deputies in these two as well as Nicaragua.

Numerous works continue to be produced on the region's political violence, especially the past years of most intense conflict, a good number by political participants themselves. Perhaps the most important study, though, is by a novelist and about a more contemporary crime. The 1998 murder of Guatemalan Catholic Bishop Juan José Gerardi and its aftermath is closely and artfully portrayed by Goldman (item #bi2009004649#). The Guatemalan state terrorism that Bishop Gerardi was so instrumental in documenting is also examined by Brockett (item #bi2009001524#) along with the parallel violence in El Salvador. Both this work and Almeida's (item #bi2009004603#) on El Salvador create extensive protest events databases to examine the relationship between popular protest and regime violence, contributing to the scholarship on social movements.

Looking at this literature as a whole, the extensive interdisciplinary and sometimes interregional collaborations stand out as positive elements. In addition, many scholars continue to make good use of the great advantages provided by Central America for comparative work. Of this, we can hope for more. It would also be beneficial to see more comprehensive, sophisticated social science work on individual countries, meaning solid empirical studies that are meaningfully informed by appropriate theory. At this point the political system best studied is that of Costa Rica, followed by El Salvador, with Honduras as the least studied.


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