The best books on Central American history and politics

James Dunkerley Author Of Power in the Isthmus
By James Dunkerley

Who am I?

My passion for Central American politics and history derived quite directly from the conflicts in the region from the late 1970s onwards. Previously I had worked in Bolivia, where I had studied as a doctoral student, and although many people still view Latin American countries as pretty homogenous, I quickly discovered that they are very far from being so. I had to unlearn quite a bit and acquire new skills, although luckily, indigenous languages are really only dominant in Guatemala. Now we can be rather less partisan although many injustices remain.


I wrote...

Power in the Isthmus

By James Dunkerley,

Book cover of Power in the Isthmus

What is my book about?

The political history covered here opens in 1820 when the Spanish forces had either left or were about to retreat from the region, and the republics of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica were forming. Panama, which became independent in 1903 with secession from Colombia, is often considered part of Central America. The book treats the region as a unit in the first five chapters and then considers each state individually in the next six, paying particular attention to the Nicaraguan Revolution. It doesn’t cover the last thirty years, some of which are considered in my shorter follow-up, The Pacification of Central America, Verso 1994.

The books I picked & why

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The Political Economy of Central America Since 1920

By Victor Bulmer-Thomas,

Book cover of The Political Economy of Central America Since 1920

Why this book?

It is very rare for economists to write clearly and intelligibly for lay readers. It is even rarer that the complexities of the Central American economies are lucidly explained at both macro- and micro-levels, with a critique that is profound and alternatives that are viable. Although some things have changed in the last thirty years, it is simply not possible to understand contemporary Central America without knowledge of its previous political economy.

The Political Economy of Central America Since 1920

By Victor Bulmer-Thomas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Political Economy of Central America Since 1920 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this book Victor Bulmer-Thomas uses his previously unpublished estimates of the national accounts to explore economic and social development in the five Central American republics from 1920. He examines in detail variations in economic policy between countries which help to account for differences in performance. The major political developments are woven into the analysis and linked to changes in internal and external conditions. Growth under liberal oligarchic rule in the 1920s, heavily dependent on exports of coffee and bananas, was accompanied by modest reform programmes. The 1929 depression, which hit the region hard, undermined most of the reforms and…


Miguel Marmol

By Roque Dalton, Richard Schaaf (translator), Kathleen Ross (translator)

Book cover of Miguel Marmol

Why this book?

Dalton was a wonderful poet and radical activist tragically executed by his Salvadorean comrades in 1975 when they erroneously believed him to be working for the CIA. The Salvadorean left has a poor record in devouring its own in bouts of paranoia that attended the civil war of the 1980s. Marmol, who survived deep into old age, was a ringleader of an uprising in 1932 that briefly promised a peasant overthrow of a state controlled by an oligarchy of a dozen families. The uprising was repressed with such force that the military was able to retain political power for the next four decades. This book is beautifully written and translated wonderfully well by Richard Schaaf and Kathleen Ross.

Miguel Marmol

By Roque Dalton, Richard Schaaf (translator), Kathleen Ross (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Miguel Marmol as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Miguel Mármol is the testimony of a revolutionary, as recorded by Salvadoran writer, Roque Dalton, which documents the historical and political events of El Salvador through the first decades of the 20th century. This Latin American classic describes the growth and development of the workers' movement and the communist party in El Salvador and Guatemala, and contains Mármol's impressions of post-revolutionary Russia in the twenties, describing in vivid detail the brutality and repression of the Martínez dictatorship and the reemergence of the workers' movement after Martínez was ousted. It also gives a broad and clear picture of the lives of…


Repression And Resistance: The Struggle For Democracy In Central America

By Edelberto Torres Rivas,

Book cover of Repression And Resistance: The Struggle For Democracy In Central America

Why this book?

These days you can’t move for all the travel guides published on Central America, very few of which provide the contemporary tourist with much sense of the political conflicts in the region in the late 20th century. Today, it is important to hold at least a sense of that as one marvels at Maya ruins and enjoys the mountain trails and beaches that draw in visitors from around the world. But neither they nor coffee and bananas provide the principal source of revenue for most countries. That comes through remittances from family members who have emigrated to the USA for work. Torres Rivas, one of the region’s most distinguished scholars, makes a sober review in modulated language that has important things to say across the political spectrum although the author is firmly on the left.

Repression And Resistance: The Struggle For Democracy In Central America

By Edelberto Torres Rivas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Repression And Resistance as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book summarizes the multiple origins of the crisis that Central Americans are suffering today. It focuses on an analysis of the revolutionary popular movements as a form of social movement capable of joining together a diversity of class-based groups.


I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

By Rigoberta Menchú,

Book cover of I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

Why this book?

When this title first appeared in English shortly after the original Spanish edition it caused a real furor. One US anthropologist, David Stoll, raised doubts about the factual aspects of this biography of a poor Guatemalan peasant woman, and he was even more energetic in casting aspersions on its ‘editor’ Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, a Venezuelan writer of high profile because of her marriage to the radical thinker Regis Debray. Stoll’s motives were widely discussed and often decried, but some of his points proved to be factually accurate, and he certainly raised the profile of Menchú, who became a Nobel Laureate. There are always issues of ‘authority’ about autobiography, especially that which has been developed with an editor, but it seemed strange to home on this one with quite so much vigor. The ensuing debate had its own volume.

I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

By Rigoberta Menchú,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked I, Rigoberta Menchú as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Now a global bestseller, the remarkable life of Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan peasant woman, reflects on the experiences common to many Indian communities in Latin America. Menchu suffered gross injustice and hardship in her early life: her brother, father and mother were murdered by the Guatemalan military. She learned Spanish and turned to catechistic work as an expression of political revolt as well as religious commitment. Menchu vividly conveys the traditional beliefs of her community and her personal response to feminist and socialist ideas. Above all, these pages are illuminated by the enduring courage and passionate sense of justice of…


Rural Guatemala, 1760-1940

By David McCreery,

Book cover of Rural Guatemala, 1760-1940

Why this book?

When McCreery’s book was published the literature on the region was overwhelmingly dominated by books on politics, with the great majority written from a left-wing perspective. Even long after the fighting has ceased, many in the global North had an unnuanced vision of rural society in which oligarchic landlords exercised feudal control over an undifferentiated ‘peasantry.’ This book shows that for decades an element of that vision was borne out in everyday life, but the volume also shows on the basis of outstanding research that rural Guatemala was dynamic, riven with class competition and negotiation, far from binary in its social structure, and possessed of a rich cultural life.

Rural Guatemala, 1760-1940

By David McCreery,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rural Guatemala, 1760-1940 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This comprehensive study of rural development in Guatemala extends from the late colonial period through the transformation of the economy by the introduction of larger-scale coffee production.


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