- Understanding Central America by John A. Booth, Christine J. Wade, Thomas W. Walker
In 1990, as a graduate student at Ohio University, I was introduced to the first edition of Understanding Central America by coauthor Thomas W. Walker. New to Latin American Studies, I was grateful for Understanding Central America’s survey of the five Latin American isthmian countries. The book’s historical, political, and economic overview of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica was a useful introduction. The utility of Understanding Central America as an introductory text continues in the recently released sixth edition coauthored by John A. Booth, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of North Texas; Christine J. Wade, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Washington College; and Thomas W. Walker, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Ohio University.
This latest edition retains its orientation toward the newcomer to Central American studies, combining updated country-specific and thematic chapters into a integrated narrative on the development of Central America. The dependency, regime-change, and world-system theories the authors use to explain Central America’s development represent, collectively, a view of third-world development in opposition to the neoliberal capitalist model that has dominated development in the western world over the past century. Understanding that these theories reside on the left-hand side of the ideological spectrum, they are useful for studying [End Page 241] the developing world generally and Latin America in particular.
Understanding Central America is effectively organized for an introductory study of the topic. The first three chapters frame the authors’ arguments for explaining the poverty, inequality, and political turmoil that has existed in Central America since the period of Spanish conquest and colonization. Chapters 1 and 2 provide geopolitical and global economic context, while Chapter 3 lays the historical groundwork for the subsequent country-specific chapters. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, respectively, receive individual treatment in chapters 4 through 8. The authors apply their analytical framework to each country’s particular historical, political, and economic context. Each country is given thorough and thoughtful treatment. It is clear, however, that the authors have much of their expertise in certain countries. For instance, all three have considerable experience with Nicaragua, and it shows. The Nicaragua chapter should be the first stop for the history or political science student looking for an introduction to that country’s development. On the other hand, one leaves the chapter on Honduras less satisfied. The authors mention, for example, that in the 1970s and early 1980s leftist guerillas “appeared” in Honduras (p. 216). No explanation is given where they came from or why they made this appearance. One can not help but feel that the authors may have a slightly less scholarly connection to Honduras than to the other four countries.
In the final three chapters, the authors put their analytical shoulders to the wheel and drive forward their arguments around the roles that dependency, regime change, and [End Page 242] geopolitics have played in Central American development. Chapter 9 looks at the state of democratic development in each of the countries, applying statistical analyses to survey data, political participation indicators, and economic data to attempt to understand what variables most impact the state of democracy in a country. The role of the United States in Central American development is the focus of Chapter 10, where the authors conclude that the United States, overall, has had a negative impact on the development of democracy in Central America. The final chapter, while titled “Reflections and Projections,” is mostly the authors’ look back on how US interference, local elites, and global economics have hindered progress in each of the five countries.
What shines through across the entire work is the coherence with which the authors’ analytic framework is developed and applied. It all holds together well. One area that could be strengthened is the treatment of local elites. Given the prominent roles that elites play in the authors’ analyses, their portrayal in the book is superficial and...