The Americas 57.2 (2000) 302-303
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Violeta Chamorro was a Reaganesque president, not totally clued in but teflon-coated, a lightning rod for those who felt passionately about their politics, but appealing to that sector of the population that yearned for a return to an imaginary conflict-free past. David Close has carefully recaptured the 1990-96 period in Nicaragua, when the clutch was in but the gears had not shifted after the Sandinista decade. This sequel to his 1988 Nicaragua: Politics, Economics and Society (in Pinter Publisher's quaintly named "Marxist Regimes" series) is a valuable resource for country specialists and students of regime transition.
As Close notes, Chamorro's election marked not just a new government but a change of regime. He frames the transition not in terms of a "vanguardist, orthodox Marxist" past, but rather a hybrid Sandinista project of socialism with "important liberal, constitutional characteristics" (pp. 52-3), recognizing that democratization began not with Chamorro, but with the 1979 revolutionary overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship. His clear and sensible application of political science standbys, such as [End Page 302] government vs. regime change (ch. 2) and the function of constitutions (ch. 6), should earn this book a place in comparative/Latin American politics classrooms.
The author's breezy style presents the often complex dilemmas of this transitional period in a readily understandable form. Thus, after recounting the succession of rearmed groups that continually held up the government for concessions, he concludes with the pithy summary, "There was always someone ready to turn to arms to get the same treatment as their old adversaries" (p. 98). Sometimes, though, the devil is in the details. The discussion of the "piñata" or transfer of properties during the lame-duck Sandinista months in 1990 could distinguish more clearly between belated legalization of redistributive revolutionary policy, and corrupt "spontaneous privatization" to departing functionaries. This confusion not only complicated the property issue (which Chamorro exacerbated by implicitly promising the same finite resources to ex-property owners and ex-combatants from both sides), but also foreshadowed the reemergence of intra-Sandinista class divisions. Another important detail is the well-documented U.S. role in cobbling together the 1990 UNO electoral coalition, not conveyed by mention that "there was a sense" that the U.S. embassy was promoting Chamorro's candidacy (p. 39) or had "intimated" its preference (p. 212). There is also no discussion of the quasi-insurrectionary "mayors' movement" launched by the right-wing Political Council of UNO, perhaps because the book emphasizes national-level politics and the governing nucleus around Chamorro and "First Son-in-Law" Antonio Lacayo.
The analysis here focuses heavily on political institutions. The book's strength is in its excellent discussion of the precariously negotiated reformulation of the state (electoral system, constitution, legislature, armed forces) and political parties. However, in contrasting the Chamorro model--frankly described as "orthodox liberal democracy" and "the night-watchman state"--to the "class-based Sandinista version" of democracy (p. 206), there is danger of losing sight of the class content of the post-1990 capitalist restoration. While the Sandinista leadership may not resist neoliberal structural adjustment any more effectively than the Chamorro team, this could be because those policies benefit a faction of capital and technocrats arrayed across both camps. Defending "co-government" between the Chamorro and Sandinista leadership seems to let both off the hook too easily, prioritizing institutional stability over the substantive gains that the Sandinista social base struggled to defend by continued mobilization.
The scandal-ridden successor administration of right-wing populist Arnoldo Alemán made the modest accomplishments of Violeta Chamorro's government look good, which may explain the nostalgic poll ratings cited in the final paragraph of the book. The Sandinista leadership's eagerness to forge a pact with Alemán's Liberal Alliance suggests that Close's optimism regarding the emergence of a stable, two-party system may be premature. The Nicaraguan case will continue to be a...