[Marxism] Review of book on Nicaraguan history
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outdated version of dependency theory."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
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. 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). 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. 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.
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
. 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).
. Ronald H. Chilcote and Joel C. Edelstein, _Latin America: The Struggle
with Dependency and Beyond_ (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1974).
. 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.
. 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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