Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 9 (2002)
Mapping Gender and Cultural Politics in Neoliberal Nicaragua , by
Florence E. Babb. (2000), Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.
Reviewed by Lorraine Bayard de Volo, University of Kansas
International attention to Nicaragua has waned considerably since the Contra War ended and the Sandinistas lost the elections in 1990. Yet in demonstrating how the long struggle for democracy and economic justice is being waged after the revolution, Babb demonstrates why this country deserves our continued attention. Through narratives that supply multiple windows into the lives of Nicaraguaís urban poor and working class, we witness both the despair wrought by neoliberalism and political corruption and the seeds of hope that continue to be sown through an emerging civil society and network of social movements.
Four facets of this book give us valuable insights into both the political economy and cultural politics of contemporary urban Nicaragua: gender, cooperatives, urban studies (Managua), and post-revolutionary capitalist culture. By following the lives of women and men in a Managua barrio and in several cooperatives during her fieldwork in Nicaragua between 1989 and 2000, Babb noted a connection that she had not initially expected: the relation between changes in the political economy and developments in social activism (especially feminist groups) (26). The post-1990 expansion of social movements, she argues, is not simply the result of democratization or a continuation of FSLN politics, though these play a role. Specifically, she contends that expanding social activism is due to challenges to hierarchical Sandinista party politics, opposition to neoliberalism, and the continued cultural politics of activism under regimes that tolerate a degree of dissent (27, 173).
Much to her credit, Babb frames her research in terms of urban studies. Unlike some commentators on Nicaraguan culture and politics, she purposefully centers her research in Managua rather than doing her research primarily in Managua and yet making claims that broadly encompass Nicaragua as a whole. More specifically, she embraces the city itself as a central subject of her research, discussing ìhow neoliberalism has altered the urban landscape in ways that are inflected by genderî (49).
Throughout the book, Babb ìmapsî gender, asking, for example, ìWhat has neoliberalism meant for Managua, and how are gender and class differences manifest in the present urban context?î (57). She notes that with the post-1990 budget cuts, along with a reinvigorated conservative political culture, women were pressured to leave formal sector jobs to return home, even when they still somehow had to provide for their families (57). ìErasures of womenís spaces in the city were increasingly common as opportunities to participate in the wider economy began to shrinkî (58). In the meantime, ìtheir presence in informal trades (often hidden from view) and even begging (in public) was greaterî (58). Particularly disturbing is womenís and girlsí increased involvement in prostitution since 1990.
Although she examines womenís household and unpaid work, she also insists that womenís paid and unpaid work are interconnected in important ways (108). Thus, while the research done on womenís unpaid labor has advanced our thinking about economic development, such research should not come at the expense of our understanding of womenís experiences of neoliberalism in terms of their paid work. Much of her ethnographic research, accordingly, was devoted to producing in-depth, micro-level studies of working women and how their experiences changed over time in relation to changes in the political economy (117). In particular, Babb charts womenís work in urban cooperatives, noting also the neoliberal conversion of many cooperatives into microenterprises. She provides four rich case studies that reveal both the variety of womenís experiences in cooperatives as well as the crushing affect of economic crisis. As production and sales have slowed, women generally increased their efforts, working longer hours in search of less expensive materials, acquiring new skills, and finding new markets for their products (148). Yet the strain produced by economic crisis, increased competition, and the disappearance of state supports has driven many cooperatives and small businesses out of business and has also seriously impacted womenís abilities to carry out family responsibilities. Since roughly half of urban Nicaraguan households are headed by women and women make up 44 percent of the economically active population, economic policies which do not take gender into account will have particularly dire effects on these women and their children (148-9). In this gloomy scenario, Babb offers a ray of hope. Nicaraguaís most vulnerable social groups, according to Babb, are uniquely qualified to confront neoliberalism due to the Sandinista emphasis on social mobilization in the prior decade: ìThe decade of broad participation left a legacy of expectations that has been challenged but not eliminated since 1990î (148).
Still, many cooperatives have disbanded since 1990. In other cases, family pressures (child care problems and husbandís attitudes) as well as NGO encouragement for cooperatives to refashion themselves as microenterprises have promoted individualism in place of a Sandinista model of cooperation (162, 165). This transition from cooperatives to microenterprises is a rich site of study that can mined more deeply by future research. Babbís work is unique, and thus the literature has just scratched the surface of this transition.
There is also an interesting chapter comparing narratives of development, in which Babb explores the discourse of neo-liberal and Sandinista policymakers. In addition to the common tropes of neoliberals, she also found a disturbing conservative sub-theme regarding womenófor example, the notion that female state employees leaving public sector jobs as a result of structural adjustment were mainly ìhousewivesî who now could return to their families (185). Interestingly, despite certain differences, the neoliberal and Sandinista discourses agree that the economic solution requires some measure of structural adjustment and that ìthe workers themselves embody the potential of the nation to forge ahead and ëdevelopíî (187). Elite critics of neoliberalism in Nicaragua have not proposed alternatives so much as proposed more gradual measures. A starker contrast to neoliberal discourse is to be found in the urban workers interviewed by Babb. Through these interactions, Babb noted a persistent appeal to the body and personhood with regards to economic shifts, revealing a resistant and potentially revolutionary consciousness (190-1). Babb eloquently sums up these contrasting discourses: ìWhat appears to be notably different is the eliteís notion of the harsh medicine that is needed to heal the nation and working-class and poor peopleís imagery of the bodily consequences of both the economic crisis and the medicine that is being administered to deal with itî (196-7).
Also impressive is the manner in which Babb has developed new footholds for our understanding of the sometimes frightening pace of capitalist development in Managua and its visible cultural markers. She does this with great attention to detail, including treatments of such ìeventsî as the building of the new cathedral, the opening of a new McDonalds, and the ìmallificationî of Managua (complete with food courts and escalators!), framing many of these changes in terms of the emerging national identity centered on consumption (243). Through these examples, we come to see how ìAs Managua is remade, it is increasingly the space of an eliteî (67).
Babb concludes that womenís strategies in confronting the economic crisis may not be sufficient to withstand the impact of structural adjustment, suggesting that ìmore thorough-going structural transformation may be needed once again in Nicaraguaî (108). But the tone of this book is ultimately hopeful. Babb documents the grim results of neoliberal economic policies, but she also highlights the new autonomous forms of activism that challenge both this neoliberalism and the undemocratic trends within Sandinismo. Never denying the policy mistakes, undemocratic tendencies, and instances of corruption of the Sandinista revolution, she insists that it also ìmade social subjects of those who before had little voice or political influenceî (210). Fortunately, Babb carried out her research despite the ebbing international interest and was able to note sites of resistance not only in relation to economic policy but also to gender power relations, lesbian and gay issues, and peace.
After Revolution is essential reading for those interested in women and work, the local effects of neoliberalism, urban studies in lesser developed countries, Latin American cultural politics, and collective action. For those unfamiliar with post-1990 Nicaragua, this book will provide an excellent overview of the vast, rapid changes the country has gone through while also making important connections to the Sandinista past. For those studying womenís work, Babb makes an important case for the interconnectedness of womenís paid and unpaid work. For those interested in economic policy, this book shares insights into poor urban womenís local-level experiences of large economic shiftsóinsights that can only be originally derived from the long-term, careful ethnographic work of a committed scholar.