The changing face of Central America


The Pacification of Central America: Political Change in the Isthmus, 1987-1993
By James Dunkerley
Verso, 1994. $34.95
Reviewed by Neville Spencer

In Central America the 1980s were dominated by civil wars, with casualties numbering into hundreds of thousands. In the '90s, however, the violence has drastically diminished and constitutional civilian governments have returned to all the countries of the isthmus.

At the centre of the violence of the '80s was the US-backed attempt to remove the revolutionary FSLN government from power in Nicaragua primarily through the funding of the Contra army. After years of war had ground down the FSLN, the UNO coalition, sponsored by the US government, won the 1990 elections.

In El Salvador, the November 1989 offensive by the left-wing FMLN guerilla army frightened the military-dominated government into serious peace negotiations to end the war begun in 1980. The agreement projected the participation of the FMLN in elections and measures to curb human rights abuses by the army.

The war in Guatemala, which has continued since 1961, reached its horrific apogee in the early '80s when army counterinsurgency operations massacred scores of entire villages in an effort to defeat the URNG guerrillas. The URNG was weakened but not defeated, while popular pressure was able to bring an elected civilian government to power.

Civilian government was not enough to bring the Guatemalan army under control and the war and severe human rights abuses continued, though both were much abated.

Even in the less troubled nations of Honduras and Panama, processes of pacification have also taken place.

The Pacification of Central America looks at these trends in the region's politics and examines what depth there is to this apparent turnaround. Dunkerley's Power in the Isthmus: A Political History of Modern Central America is probably the most essential work available on the political history of the region since independence from Spain. His latest work updates the earlier and more extensive work.

Dunkerley combines a simple chronology of events with a very scholarly and insightful analysis of social, economic and political trends. Tables of useful statistical information are placed in the back of the book to support his analyses without interfering with the readability of the text.


As the US had played an important role in the conflicts in the region, examining US intervention in regional politics is also crucial to understanding events.

Dunkerley sees that the breaking of the Iran-Contra scandal in November 1986 marked a turn in US intervention. The Democrat-controlled Congress became less compliant in endorsing Reagan's bellicose policies after having had its authority illegally bypassed. Funds approved to the Contras diminished and funds to the Salvadoran military became subject to conditions.

Some of the role which the US had played began to be usurped by forces less wholly partisan, such as the UN, and by the diplomacy of Latin American states. The signing of the Esquipulas II accord in August 1987 by the presidents of the region's states was something of a watershed even though it was never seriously implemented.

Significant measures included in the accord were the promotion of pluralist democracies with freedom of expression and association, the ending of aid to rebel forces and an agreement that no country should allow its territory to be used by rebel forces attacking other countries. For the FMLN and URNG, who neither depended on aid to survive nor were based on foreign territory, this did not present a problem. For the Contras — who survived with US aid and were based in Costa Rica and Honduras — it would destroy their capacity to continue the war.

The US continued to supply aid to the Contras and engaged in some emergency diplomacy to see that Honduras did not comply with the accord. Nonetheless, it had been placed on the back foot in its support for the Contras and the Salvadoran government, and the period of pacification had begun.

In spite of the scaling down of hostilities in the region, the strength of the military overall has diminished relatively insignificantly. From 1985 to 1991 total troop numbers fell only from under 200,000 to 179,000, in spite of the drastic reduction of the Nicaraguan military (by over 30,000). The Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan military were expanded over the same period.

US aid money used to by Honduran compliance in the Contra war has made the Honduran military a more powerful force and something of an economic empire. It has gained quite large business assets, and in one notable incident it upset the country's traditional bourgeoisie by buying up the state-owned cement company when it was privatised.

In Guatemala, where the military has enjoyed several decades of political power, it has also gained the economic strength to carry on its counterinsurgency efforts even without US aid.

The end of the war in Nicaragua did not put an end to armed political violence. After the UNO government failed to fulfil its promise to grant land to demobilised combatants, ex-Contras as well as some ex-soldiers took up arms again in sporadic violence which has killed several hundred.


The scaling down or ending of wars which have cost billions of dollars of damage has not brought significant economic improvements. Large declines in world market prices for exports, most importantly coffee, and other factors have offset economic gains. In fact, comparing the period of most severe conflict, 1980-87, to the 1987-92 period, per capita growth actually fell by a small margin.

In comparison with other countries of the continent, Central American countries, except Costa Rica, are at the bottom of the list for most statistical indicators of social well-being: life expectancy, infant mortality, access to potable water, malnutrition and illiteracy.

The divergence between rich and poor has increased from already impressive levels. This trend is at its worst in Nicaragua. Eighteen months after the election of the UNO government, 50% of the labour force were un- or underemployed. 69% of the population were unable to meet basic food needs.

Given these contradictory trends, Dunkerley explains his use of the term pacification to characterise the recent period because the word carries a "feeling of temporality". The significance of the process ought not to be underestimated. At the same time Dunkerley demonstrates that many of Central America's past problems have not vanished. A new era of stable liberal democracies is still far from being established.

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