[Marxism] Review of book on Nicaraguan history

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Aug 11 12:42:27 MDT 2006


(The review faults Thomas W. Walker's book for its "uncritical use of an 
outdated version of dependency theory." One can only be grateful that 
Walker did not follow Daitsman's approach, which bends the stick in the 
opposite direction. Daitsman has put forward a rather novel interpretation 
of Chilean history informed by the Brenner thesis. His conclusion? That 
Pinochet was carrying out a bourgeois revolution that implicitly was 
necessary to complete before struggling for socialism. Totally fucking nuts.)

H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-LatAm at h-net.msu.edu (October, 2005)

Thomas W. Walker. _Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle_. Fourth 
edition. Boulder: Westview Press, 2003. xvi + 238 pp. Illustrations, map, 
graph, notes, annotated bibliography, index. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 
0-8133-4033-0; $25.00 (paper), ISBN 0-8133-3882-4.

Reviewed for H-LatAm by Andy Daitsman, Department of Social Studies, Millis 
High School.

A Bonsai State? Nicaragua and the United States in the Late Twentieth Century

For this fourth edition of his popular introductory textbook on Nicaraguan 
history, society, and politics, Thomas W. Walker changed the subtitle from 
_Land of Sandino_, as it had been in previous editions, to _Living in the 
Shadow of the Eagle_. While concerned the new title did not "stress some 
outstanding characteristic inherent in Nicaragua," he decided, through 
recourse to the analogy of the bonsai tree, it was "better to emphasize the 
external factors affecting the morphology of [an] organism--indeed, that 
affect the nature of all bonsai trees regardless of species" (p. vii).

In effect, Nicaragua's relationship with the United States is the 
overriding theme of this book. And, although Walker plays the theme well in 
places--for example doing an excellent job illuminating specific ways U.S. 
interference in Nicaragua distorted and deformed the country's social 
revolution of the 1980s--his insistence that the United States was solely 
and completely responsible for the Sandinista fall from power leads him to 
underplay more domestic processes of political development.

The most disturbing aspect of the book is Walker's uncritical--at times 
bordering on hagiographic--treatment of the FSLN governments of the 1980s. 
On at least two occasions, he conflates the Sandinistas with "the people" 
(pp. 7, 39), and, in his telling, the FSLN committed very few mistakes 
throughout their eleven years in power. Rather, they governed in a 
"pragmatic and, indeed, moderate fashion [and] succeeded in carrying out 
innovative and highly successful social programs without inordinately 
straining the national budget" (p. 43). The severe political and economic 
crises of the late 1980s, which led directly to the Sandinista defeat at 
the polls in 1990, were "brought on primarily by the Contra War and other 
U.S.-orchestrated programs of destabilization" (pp. 45, 55-56).

This kind of argument, a faithful echo of the solidarity movement's defense 
of Nicaragua against Reagan administration aggression and disinformation, 
we now know to be only partially true. Since the 1990 electoral defeat, 
several accounts (such as those by Vilas and Colburn) have managed both to 
maintain sympathy towards the revolution and its leadership while at the 
same time criticizing specific economic policies and methods of political 
organization during the revolutionary period.[1] As was apparent to those 
of us who spent time in the country during the mid-1980s, the Sandinista 
regime was characterized by high degrees of bureaucratic inefficiency, and 
its mass organizations (in particular the CDS, JS-19, and AMNLAE) often 
functioned more as top-down transmission belts for a centralized Leninist 
party than as an experiment in new-style democracy. Would a more efficient, 
more democratic Sandinista government have been able to withstand U.S. 
military and economic aggression? While the question is clearly 
relevant--especially in terms of understanding what happened to 
revolutionary institutions after the FSLN's defeat at the polls--Walker's 
formulation of the issue makes it a hard one even to pose.

Although Walker does cover much of the development of the Sandinista 
movement, including its ideology, internal divisions, and devolution into a 
corrupt clique after the fall from power in 1990, he does not assign these 
developments much analytic weight in explaining Nicaraguan history. For 
example, Sergio Ramirez, the former Sandinista vice-president whose 
defection (over corruption and autocracy within the FSLN) undoubtedly 
contributed to the right-wing Liberal Party victory in the 1996 elections 
is identified merely as "the presidential candidate who finished third" (p. 
62). Not until a subsequent section of the chapter does Walker acknowledge 
that Sandinista corruption and the departure of Ramirez's Renovating 
Sandinista Movement "facilitated" the 1996 Liberal victory. Even worse, at 
no point does Walker delve seriously into the political issues that 
underlay the 1995 schism.

The underlying problem is Walker's uncritical use of an outdated version of 
dependency theory to frame his discussion of the relationship between 
Nicaragua and the United States. Basing himself on Chilcote and Edelstein's 
1974 edited volume, Walker defines dependency as "a specific situation in 
which the economy of a weak country is externally oriented and the 
government is controlled by national and/or international elites or classes 
that benefit from this economic relationship" (p. 3).[2] This 
interpretation fits within what Thomas Holloway has identified as a 
"neo-Leninist critique of imperialisms both formal and informal," one whose 
"policy prescriptions ... 'pointed toward' a transition to [socialism]" as 
the only way out of the dependency trap.[3] In Walker's version of 
dependency, agency appears to exist only for the hegemon--except for those 
exceptional circumstances when "a revolutionary government representing the 
aspirations of countless generations of Nicaraguans ... finally [comes] to 
power" (p. 7).

Returning to Walker's opening metaphor, a real bonsai tree is the product 
of much more than an overwhelming external force. In fact, if a bonsai 
artist were to attempt to shape a living tree into a miniature 
representation of an actual tree in nature (which is, after all, the real 
practice of the art of bonsai) based only on his ability to clip branches 
and roots, he would fail completely in the endeavor. Bonsai is a meditative 
art, in which the artist contemplates both the tree he seeks to represent 
and the tree through which he seeks to represent it. By attaining oneness 
with both trees--by understanding, that is, the internal and external 
processes that shape both of them--he is able to intervene in the bonsai 
tree, and coax it into taking on a form it would not otherwise have. 
Walker's heavy-handed treatment of U.S. domination over Nicaraguan society 
is about as far from such a quiet, reflective process as one could get.

Walker also does not seem to have assimilated post-revolutionary Nicaraguan 
historiography. His periodization of Nicaraguan economic development, for 
example, appears to follow a 1975 treatise by the Sandinista leader Jaime 
Wheelock Roman. And while his annotated bibliography calls Jeffrey Gould's 
_To Lead As Equals_ a "very solid piece of research into the history of the 
peasant movement" (p. 207), the analysis in the text of the Somoza Garcia 
period has no relationship whatsoever to one of Gould's principal findings, 
that "Somoza's consolidation of power can only be comprehended in the light 
of the support of broad sectors of the working classes." For Walker, Somoza 
achieved dictatorial control over Nicaragua by consolidating power over the 
National Guard, which he then used as a "Mafia in uniform" to clamp down on 
any possibility of dissent (p. 27). And while he acknowledges that part of 
Somoza's formula for control was "coopt[ing] domestic power contenders" (p. 
26), there is no hint anywhere in the book that such contenders could be 
labor leaders or even the radical _obreristas_ whose support for Somoza 
Gould documented extensively.[4]

This is all the more troubling because Walker is in fact a sensitive and 
observant student of Nicaraguan society. In a series of strong thematic 
chapters in the second half of the book, he demonstrates the profound 
changes the Sandinista Revolution had on social relations, and shows how 
the social leveling elements of the revolution sparked a reactionary 
defense of class privilege. He properly emphasizes, for example, the role 
of the National Literacy Crusade of 1980 in not just reducing illiteracy 
from 50 percent to 13 percent of the adult population, but also as a way of 
"liberat[ing] the largely middle-class volunteers ... from their prejudices 
and stereotypes about Nicaragua's impoverished majority" (pp. 125-128). He 
notes as well "the relatively privileged parents ... who ... demonstrated 
their willingness to cooperate with the revolution by giving their children 
the required permission to join the crusade," and contrasts this with "a 
lawyer friend" of his who asked for help getting "his teenaged children 
into an English language program in the United States so they ... would not 
'waste' the months that school would be out during the literacy campaign" 
(pp. 117-118). The discussion of relations between the revolutionary 
governments of the 1980s and the minority populations on the Miskito Coast 
is balanced and informative (pp. 113-114), and a chapter on political 
structures argues convincingly that the Sandinista Revolution appears to 
have led to the development of a two-party system in Nicaragua (see 
especially pp. 167-169).

Even the book's relative weaker first half has much of real value. His 
sections on the Luis and Anastasio Somoza Debayle regimes, for example, 
draw out the significant differences between the two brothers, and in a 
concise, economical fashion show how Anastasio's kleptocracy led almost 
immediately to an ongoing political crisis that eventually culminated in 
the Sandinista Revolution (pp. 29-34). Walker also usefully deploys the 
concept of neopopulism to explain Arnoldo Aleman's rise to power in the 
mid-1990s (pp. 63-65), and he has an effective, first-hand account of the 
stresses of hyperinflation (pp. 95-96).

The book is relatively short (less than two hundred pages of text), quite 
readable, and amply illustrated with photographs that do an excellent job 
of evoking Nicaraguan society and its people. It is also an excellent 
example of both the advantages and disadvantages of a "committed," or 
"activist," scholarship. Used in conjunction with an article like Vilas's 
or Colburn's short and humorous _My Car in Managua_, it could both provide 
a reasonable introduction to the last fifty years of Nicaraguan history and 
a useful starting point for a discussion of the theoretical boundaries of 
hegemony, of coercion and cooptation, and popular class agency in history. 
Its many weaknesses, however, require that some corrective text be employed 
alongside.

Notes

[1]. Carlos Vilas, "What Went Wrong," _NACLA Report on the Americas_ 24, 
no. 1 (June 1990), pp. 10-19; and Forrest Colburn, _My Car in Managua_ 
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991).

[2]. Ronald H. Chilcote and Joel C. Edelstein, _Latin America: The Struggle 
with Dependency and Beyond_ (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974).

[3]. Thomas Holloway, "The Persistence of 'Dependency' as a Useful 
Framework for Understanding Latin America," 
http://www.h-net.org/%7Elatam/essays/dependency.pdf, pp. 5 and 15, cited 
with the author's permission.

[4]. Jeffrey L. Gould, _To Lead As Equals: Rural Protest and Political 
Consciousness in Chinandega, Nicaragua, 1912-1979_ (Chapel Hill: University 
of North Carolina Press, 1990), quotation on p. 15. Somoza's complex 
relationship with the working-class movement in Chinandega is discussed in 
depth on pp. 21-82.

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