The Americas 59.1 (2002) 138-139
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Florence Babb has made a significant contribution to the study of Nicaragua and by extension to the field of Latin American studies. Her ethnography, based on ten years of field research on small producers in Managua, Nicaragua, shows the connections among neoliberalism, urban planning, social movements, and economic productivity with an emphasis on gender.
Babb arrived in Nicaragua in 1989 for the last days of the revolutionary Sandinista government and followed a Managuan neighborhood through the election of two right-wing governments. She analyzes how Sandinista-initiated cooperatives engaged in microproduction dominated by women slowly disintegrated under recent governments, despite their insistence that they were activating capitalism.
Using postmodernist and feminist frameworks, Babb criticizes the development agenda. Quoting from interviews with her colleagues at both the left-leaning Central [End Page 138] American University and the right-wing Harvard-affiliated business college, INCAE, she shows how these two different perspectives resulted in two different development objectives, bolstered by different facts, analyses, explanations for failures, and conclusions. Both the Sandinistas (while in power and now as an opposition party) and the right-wing governments embraced stabilization and structural adjustment policies differing only on the speed of implementation. She concludes that "neoliberalism appears to be the only game in town" (p. 201). As a result, the organizations set up to serve small producers, regardless of their political stripe, were similar. It is also apparent that until neoliberalism recognizes the fundamental reality of women's lives, there will be underproduction and economic inefficiency, twin problems that neoliberalism is supposed to resolve.
Furthermore, Babb charts how neoliberalism literally changed the face of Managua with new projects. She notes with sadness the loss of the city's revolutionary murals, which were painted over as new governments tried to obliterate Nicaragua's recent past. She shows how women's changing pattern of economic productivity affected the organization of micro-spaces. Encouraged to leave salaried employment, women of all educational backgrounds entered the informal sector. The result was the proliferation of small shops in the front of houses with women sitting literally and figuratively between the two worlds of public and private, physically restricted from moving much beyond.
Extending her mapping from Managua and small producers, Babb analyzes how neoliberalism affects the body itself. The harsh structural adjustment made physical survival an act of resistance. Thus, the body linked the political economy through resistance to the dominant discourse, creating new political organizations in the process. Thus, new meaning is given to the phrase, the body politic.
In her last chapter, Babb attempts an overview of Nicaraguan social movements as the fount of new cultural politics. She is impressed and hopeful about their diversity. She strongly suggests that these new cultural mappings will "transform" the wider political discourse (p. 258). This last chapter would have been strengthened if she had acknowledged the many well-researched more critical perspectives on social movements in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Latin America. This would take the glow off the last chapter without negating her thesis. Also, tighter definitions would have been appreciated of key words such as identity, social space, social movement, and feminism (which has a different connotation in Nicaragua than it does in the United States).
The numerous, and frequently delightful, quotations from Managuans and Babb's sometimes touching stories enliven and humanize this ambitious intellectual project. The book is organized into discrete chapters without an integrating argument carried from one chapter to the next. This will delight professors looking for readings for their undergraduates. Babb's nuanced and sophisticated arguments will delight the professors themselves.