In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Democratization in Central America

  • Introduction
  • US Policy and Democratization

Political Science Democratization in Central America
Fabrice Lehoucq
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0017


Even as late as the 1980s, no one would have thought of writing about democratization in Central America. With the exception of Costa Rica, all countries had dictatorships. In Nicaragua, the family dynasty of the Somozas had ruled since 1933. Military regimes dominated the political systems of the rest of the countries on the isthmus. By the late 1970s, insurgents battled dictatorships in three of the countries of the isthmus. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and a multiclass coalition overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1978. In El Salvador, a military coup in 1979 became an ill-fated attempt to find a centrist compromise to civil war. After more than a decade of fighting, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) forced the government to sign a peace accord in 1994 that led to the dismantling of the country’s notorious armed forces. In Guatemala, a brutal counterinsurgency defeated a guerrilla movement by 1982, though the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) would continue fighting until 1996, when it signed a peace accord with President Alvaro Arzú. Political systems began to liberalize unexpectedly during the 1980s. No one argued, in the early 1980s, that the outcome of violence would be democracy. Parties in El Salvador began to compete for seats in a Constituent Assembly in 1982, even as the Left remained in exile or was fighting a US-supported government. Generals in Guatemala permitted elections to be held for the 1984 Constituent Assembly, which wrote a new constitution a year later, when elections were also held for the presidency and the congress. After centralizing power in the hands of their party, the FLSN held presidential elections in 1985 that the opposition, with the support of the United States, boycotted. It was not until 1990 that new presidential elections were held, which the Sandinistas lost. It was not until the 1989 US invasion of Panama that democracy replaced the Noriega dictatorship. This bibliography contains articles and books on the transitions to democracy in Central America and how a host of institutions have adapted to electoral competition. Works on the civil wars and revolutions of the 1980s are included because violent conflict was the spur to the dramatic political changes experienced on the isthmus. Panama is included in this discussion of Central America; before the 1980s, Panama was typically excluded from discussions of the isthmus because it was not part of Spanish colonial jurisdiction of Central America (Panama belonged to Colombia until 1904, when the United States helped it become independent). It is now included because it is another microstate on an isthmus containing other small states.

Canonical Works

Minimal research was done on the political systems of the region before the 1990s. The canonical texts about the region neglected the study of politics, in part because dictatorship and open-economy policies did lead to rather primitive states (see Bulmer-Thomas 1987 and Pérez Brignoli 1994). The Marxist or materialist social science that inspired so many of these accounts also led analysts to see states as little more than instruments of local elites, foreign companies, and the US government (see Torres-Rivas 1993 and Vilas 1995). Most of these studies thus focused on the economic and social constraints on political as well as economic development (see Mahoney 2001 and Reynolds 1978). These works nevertheless offer insights about how politics operated in the region well into the 1980s, which is indispensable to understanding the origins and significance of the democratization of the region’s politics. Bowman, et al. 2005 offers a classification of regime types. Munro 1918, which was not available in Spanish until 2003, is an exception. It offers a portrait of the region at the beginning of the 20th century, one emphasizing the impact of political instability on developments. Lindenberg 1990 is an early and insightful study of the impact of economic conditions on instability on the isthmus.

  • Bowman, Kirk, Fabrice Lehoucq, and James Mahoney. “Measuring Political Democracy: Case Expertise, Data Adequacy, and Central America.” Comparative Political Studies 38.8 (2005): 939–970.

    DOI: 10.1177/0010414005277083

    This article reviews existing classifications of regimes of Central America, before offering a new taxonomy of regime types on the isthmus. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Bulmer-Thomas, Victor. The Political Economy of Central America since 1920. Cambridge Latin American Studies 63. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511572029

    This indispensable work discusses policymaking and its consequences on economic development. It cites an abundance of material and contains numerous tables of hard-to-find information. Of lasting value is the appendix, which calculates GDP rates and other macroeconomic indicators for all countries between 1920 and 1984.

  • Lindenberg, Marc. “World Economic Cycles and Central American Political Instability.” World Politics 42.3 (1990): 397–421.

    DOI: 10.2307/2010417

    This article demonstrates that military governments on the isthmus were more likely to fall during periods of economic decline than were their civilian counterparts.

  • Mahoney, James. The Legacies of Liberalism: Path Dependence and Political Regimes in Central America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

    Mahoney traces the origins of 20th-century regimes to 19th-century political economic patterns.

  • Munro, Dana G. The Five Republics of Central America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1918.

    Munro argues that dictatorship and the often-violent exchange of state power retarded development in Central America. Central Americanists largely ignored Munro’s pioneering analysis, even as it anticipated contemporary political economic discussions about the origins of civil conflict, regime types, and the lack of economic growth.

  • Pérez Brignoli, Héctor. “Crecimiento agroexportador y regímenes políticos en Centroamérica: Un ensayo de historia comparada.” In Tierra, café y sociedad: Ensayos sobre la historia agraria centroamericana. Edited by Héctor Pérez-Brignoli and Mario Samper, 25–54. San José, Costa Rica: FLACSO, 1994.

    This article argues that dictatorship and democracy were a product of labor–land ratios. Countries such as Costa Rica, with a scarcity of labor, led property owners to negotiate wages with workers. Owners of large agricultural estates in countries such as El Salvador used the state to create an abundance of labor and thus low wage rates. Democratic and authoritarian regimes were an outcome, respectively, of these interactions.

  • Reynolds, Clark. “Employment Problems of Export Economies in a Common Market: The Case of Central America.” In Economic Integration in Central America: A Study. Edited by William R. Cline and Enrique Delgado, 181–266. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1978.

    On the eve of the revolutionary decade, Stanford economist Reynolds calculated that the limited industrialization on the isthmus, as a product of the Central American Common Market, benefited capital and not labor in every country except Costa Rica and Panama. The prescient implication of his analysis was that declining incomes would lead to a class conflict.

  • Torres-Rivas, Edelberto. History and Society in Central America. Translated by Douglas Sullivan-González. Translations from Latin American Series. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.

    Originally published in 1973 in Spanish, this book shows how the profits of export-led growth largely benefited owners of coffee and bananas, the region’s principal exports until well into the late 1990s. It also documents how this version of export-led development led to the impoverishment of the peasantry. Industrialization did little to alter these trends.

  • Vilas, Carlos M. Between Earthquakes and Volcanoes: Market, State, and the Revolutions in Central America. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995.

    This book is a sophisticated treatment of the structural conditions and material (and political) bases of revolt in the isthmus. It shows how the small, open economies of Central America led to revolutionary conditions. It also contains a final chapter on the achievements and limits of the civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.