The best books on Central American history and politics

James Dunkerley Author Of Power in the Isthmus
By James Dunkerley

The Books I Picked & Why

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.


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Miguel Marmol

By Roque Dalton, Richard Schaaf, Kathleen Ross

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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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