The Americas 61.2 (2004) 265-267
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This book constitutes a critical contribution to the emerging revisionist literature on Central America social and economic history. Motivated in part by assumptions made about the region's history during the political upheavals of the late 1970s and 1980—that Nicaragua's small holding peasantry and family farms had been crushed by the expansion of latifundia and proletarianization during the late nineteenth century—Charlip offers a close study of the farmers of Carazo, a large department in Nicaragua's central Pacific Coastal area, and an important region of coffee production, as a basis for disputing these earlier assumptions.
There are many reasons to read this volume, starting with its unusually excellent writing style and clarity. Throughout, Charlip provides a balance between archival-based empirical discussions and broader generalizations. In many cases the richness of the case materials are valuable in their own right, considering the scarcity of Nicaragua studies. The opening chapter sets the stage by briefly considering the national history of Nicaragua's commercial economy before the 1880s and the conditions that allowed for the expansion of coffee at the end of the nineteenth century. Here we are reminded of how important coffee became to Nicaragua's economyand of the underlying consensus between Liberal and Conservative factions with regard to their support for the commercialization of agriculture. Chapter 2 discusses the privatization of land in Carazo. During much of the nineteenth century municipal ejidos allowed most "farmers" to produce enough for their subsistence, while helping to secure a stable labor force for nearby commercial farms and haciendas. Charlip provides extensive new data on the structure of landholding within Carazo's ejidos, showing that small and medium-sized properties predominated, especially the four-manzana farm. Through legal and land-tenure documents she also reconstructs some of the conflicts over landownership. However, the largest land transactions in the formation of commercial farms involved state-owned lands (baldíos) [End Page 265] and Charlip insists that municipal lands remained significantly under community control and were not torn away by speculators or commercial farmers.
Subsequent chapters examine the formation of commercial farms, emphasizing the coexistence between large and mid-sized properties without extensive concentration of ownership; compared to sugar production, coffee had greater profitability and thus was grown by all kinds of producers. Charlip finds a fluid and relatively abundant availability of credit, although not a level playing field, with higher profits going to wealthier creditors. Still, an impressive 550 creditors operated in Carazo, offering thousands of farmers loans and merchandising contracts. In a chapter surveying the question of labor, Charlip notes that coercive mechanisms rarely worked in securing a steady, cheap work force. Workers were able to manipulate debt by collecting advances from various employers, taking advantage of rivalries between municipalities and the weak application of debt and labor laws. Access to ejido land kept most peasants self-sufficient and avoided the creation of a large class of full-time workers. Chapter 8 examines family farms from the inside, considering labor, inheritance partitioning, and the expanding role of women in the commercial sphere. Charlip finds significant participation of spouses and widows in the management of larger commercial farms, but insists that the society remained fundamentally patriarchal. A final substantive chapter examines local politics and public works. The extension of voting rights by President Zelaya to all adult men in 1893 allowed for lower-class participation in local politics, and indigenous councils and local municipalities shared power and built alliances with national political parties and factions. Although generally used to facilitate commercial agriculture, an administrative-legal system supported by elites gave other classes the possibility of access to redress and protection.
Despite its important contributions and strengths, the book's limitations need to be pointed out. The book has a propensity to dehistoricize its arguments. By presenting the materials on the 1880s through 1930 as one...