Central America in the New Millennium: Living Transition and Reimagining Democracy. Jennifer Burrell and Ellen Moodie, eds. New York: Berghahn, 2013. xi + 333 pp.
Article first published online: 16 FEB 2014
© 2014 by the American Anthropological Association
Volume 41, Issue 1, page 207, February 2014
How to Cite
WESTON, G. (2014), Central America in the New Millennium: Living Transition and Reimagining Democracy. Jennifer Burrell and Ellen Moodie, eds. New York: Berghahn, 2013. xi + 333 pp. American Ethnologist, 41: 207. doi: 10.1111/amet.12070_12
- Issue published online: 16 FEB 2014
- Article first published online: 16 FEB 2014
From the millennial focus of the title, one might expect this collection to break with the past. Instead, what is emphasized is how the current state of democratic transitions in Central American countries is restricted by historical specificities and transnational processes largely beyond their control. Central America in the New Millennium: Living Transition and Reimagining Democracy is broken into four distinct but overlapping parts: “Imagining Democracy after the Cold War”; “Indigeneity, Race and Human Rights in the (Post) Multicultural Movement”; “Dominant, Residual, and Emergent Economic Strategies”; and “A Place on the Map Surviving on Pasts, Presents, and Futures.” Cutting across these four sections are themes of security, multiculturalism, and, at the book's core, democratization and neoliberalism.
It is in this nexus of democratization and neoliberalism that this book makes its strongest contribution to our understanding of the region. The fundamental intertwining of these two ideologies is well set out from the beginning but gains weight throughout the volume as ethnographically oriented chapters express the subtleties of interplay between the deregulation of markets and the flailing utopia of democratic transitions in the wake of wars and dictatorships. How these transnational ideologies are felt across campesinos in Honduras and Guatemala (Tucker; Lyon), Maya handicraft sellers (Little), Nicaraguan sex workers (Babb), and economic migrants (Binford; Anderson; Bickham Mendez) leads to a grounded articulation of the weight of these tectonic shifts. Idealized spin-doctored representations of democratization and economic liberalization make claims that these programs act to address inequalities within and between nations, yet this book demonstrates the frustrating lived experiences of these processes and their rearticulation of existing disparities. Centuries-old inequities based on race, class, and indigeneity are somewhat inevitably enfolded into neoliberal democratization with old patterns of inclusion and exclusion replayed. But as was the case before the turn of the century, human rights and labor movements offer potential for redress, but in spaces where effects will be limited: a point made excellently in Pineda's discussion of the three minutes given to indigenous peoples’ groups to present their plights to the United Nations.
While democracy may be a worthy aim, the distinctly neoliberal shape of Central American post–Cold War democratization is not the suffrage most citizens were hoping for. Between Anhoa Montoya's and Ellen Moodie's Salvadoran chapters, on the warlike nature of new democracy and democratic disenchantment, respectively, a bleak portrait is painted. These chapters see the book at its most engaging, emphasizing the dominance of old mindsets in contemporary electoral processes and highlighting the inevitable disillusionment in the electorate. Beyond Westphalian borders the importance to Honduras of revenue from remittances and tourism is stated by Anderson in the final chapter highlighting the economic reliance of Central American countries on the movement of people. With two chapters where field sites are within the United States (Pineda's chapter on the UN Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York and Bickham Mendez's on labor migrants in Williamsburg, Virginia) the blurred boundary of Central America is made apparent.
Latin American politics being in a constant state of flux makes it almost impossible to write something absolutely current. Burrell's chapter aside, the spread of maras and the region's problematic role as a narcotrafficking corridor go largely unaddressed despite the parallels between these issues and those discussed in the volume and the prominent role trafficking is currently playing in interstate politics. The intimate ethnographic tone of much of this collection perhaps precludes this type of engagement. Instead this book strives amiably to elucidate a particular confluence of historical flows that are affecting all those countries covered (Panama and Belize are notable absentees from this collection) that will doubtlessly be the source of attention for regional scholars for years to come. The democratic transition in the isthmus is a work in progress. Central America in the New Millennium offers a praiseworthy snapshot of the current state of the transition.