The Americas 59.1 (2002) 140-141
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Gary Prevost and Harry Vanden have done a service to the study of politics in Latin America with this volume on the 1990 Nicaraguan election and the first years thereafter. After the 1990 Sandinista electoral defeat, considerably less scholarly attention has been devoted to Nicaragua; this book begins to provide important information on a nation that is still politically vibrant and fascinating. In addition to lead essays by Prevost and Vanden respectively on the status of Sandinismo and the election itself, the volume includes three other essays on political economy under Violeta Chamorro, on women's status before and during the Chamorro years, and an update on the status of the popular organizations during Chamorro's presidency.
Prevost and Vanden consider the 1990 election to have been a significant step backward in the empowerment of Nicaragua's citizens and an important move toward the defeat of democracy in Nicaragua. Yet their own essays and others in the volume describe at length the extent of ongoing popular participation in Nicaragua after 1990, the continued struggle by women and popular groups, and the partially successful efforts of organized labor to restrain the austerity measures Chamorro initially planned. The essays make clear that the 1990 electoral outcome was a disappointment to scholars of Nicaragua who supported Sandinismo. Yet the combined report they make also portrays a nation where political participation is still vibrant, engaged, and prepared to disagree with official government policy. The conclusion that Nicaraguan democracy is on the decline seems somewhat premature. Certainly the editors of the volume are correct that the nature of popular participation has changed in Nicaragua since 1990 and its current configuration warrants study and understanding, an effort toward which these essays take an initial step. Yet greater clarity could be gained were the authors to address more directly what they see as the defining characteristics of democracy, particularly whether they consider civil liberties, regularized competitive elections, balanced state powers, and internally democratic parties essential components of democracy. Additionally, comparison of the Nicaraguan experience with other contemporary democracies would help the reader visualize more clearly the standards for democracy used by the authors and help readers assess Nicaraguan progress toward democratization against real-world examples.
Grounded in considerable field research which he describes in the notes, the essay by Richard Stahler-Sholk is a particularly thoughtful contribution to the book. While Stahler-Sholk laments the fragmentation of organized labor as a result of Chamorro's neoliberal policies, his research nonetheless illustrates that there was much that organized labor could and can do to protect itself from the more onerous aspects of structural adjustment that Chamorro undertook. He also discusses the complex and largely successful role the Sandinista party played in mediating between labor and the Chamorro government. The compromises achieved with the help of the party illustrate the continuing political centrality of the Sandinista party as well as the [End Page 140] vibrancy of popular politics after 1990. While the participatory democracy of the Sandinista years has suffered something of a setback with the Sandinista electoral defeat, Stahler-Sholk shows that much remains of the popular empowerment that Sandinismo engendered and the party itself is assuming a more institutionalized and accepted role in Nicaraguan politics. Moreover, insofar as democracy entails multiple centers of power and meaningful constraints on state authority, Stahler-Sholk points toward some degree of democratic maturation in Nicaragua.
Similarly, Cynthia Chávez Mentoyer's essay, also based on considerable fieldwork, reveals a complex relationship between women's advancement and the Sandinista and Chamorro governments. Chávez Mentoyer underscores the support women received under Sandinismo and the deterioration of women's position under Chamorro. Yet the relationship between women and the Chamorro government is more complex than Chávez Mentoyer admits. While official support for women was visible during the Sandinista years, women's advancement during the revolution...