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La Educación
Número: (116) III
Año: 1993


Thomas E. SKIDMORE, and Peter H. SMITH. Modern Latin America. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Contents, index, statistical appendix, suggested further readings, 449 pp.

This third edition of Modern Latin America is presented as the “leading survey...[a] lively interpretive history, especially in its treatment of recent developments in this vastly important region.” Neither author lacks expertise, judging from previous books on Latin America—Politics in Brazil, 1930/1964 (1967) and The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964/1985 (1988) by Thomas Skidmore; and Politics and Beef in Argentina (1969), Argentina and the Failure of Democracy (1974), Labyrinths of Power: Political Recruitment in Twentieth Century Mexico (1979) by Peter H. Smith. Both authors purportedly have knowledge of the region as a whole; Skidmore being the editor of The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Latin America (1985) and Smith being the editor of the recent Drug Policy in the Americas (1992).

Eleven chapters, a Prologue and an Epilogue guide the reader from the Colonial Foundation through the transformation of the 1880s/1990s. Specialized chapters are included on Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru, Mexico and Cuba, with collective appreciations of the Caribbean and Central America. A very attractive anticipation about Latin America, the United States, and the world, as well as some reflection on: “What future for Latin America?” complete the work.

The authors correctly recognized in the book’s prologue, that “our nation’s economic interests are deeply involved in the region [which] is one of our major trading partners... a source for oil and other critical raw materials,” but somewhat patronizingly they write that there are “revolutionary upheavals and repressive responses in Latin America directly challeng[ing] U.S. foreign policy and rais[ing] difficult questions about how to protect and promote U.S. national interests (defined as not simply economic or strategic interests)” (3). Also, they recognized that “large sections of our country [U.S.] have become Hispanized by the influence of migrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central America, and the Caribbean [and] major U.S. cities now have more children from Spanish-speaking families than from any other group.” Hence, “bilingualism has become a political issue forcing us to rethink the meaning of Spanish-speaking America, both within our borders and beyond” (3-4).

It is perhaps progress that the authors recognize themselves as North Americans, and that “most U.S. citizens know little about our neighboring societies to the south. [While] many believe that the U.S. can impose its will on the region through big stick diplomacy or military might, others do not even care....” Several other statements are very encouraging, especially when they recognize that it is wrong to assume that “everything associated with speaking Spanish must be easy. Such ignorance can be dangerous.” Therefore, “one purpose of this book is to help reduce misinformation,” and that is truly commendable.

But how do the authors try to lessen misinformation? They begin with the results of a public opinion survey conducted nationwide that shows that the most significant characteristic to best describe the people of Central and South America (they forgot Mexico, who happens to be part of North America) is that they are dark-skinned (80%)! Fewer than 50% believe they are quick-tempered, emotional, religious, backward and lazy (49% to 41%), and one-third or less recognize their neighbors to the south as ignorant, suspicious, friendly and dirty (34% to 28%). A surprising minority attribute to Latin-Americans qualities such as proud, imaginative, shrewd, intelligent, honest, brave, generous, progressive and efficient (26% to 5%). Obviously, there is room for improvement. There is no need to despair, because “skin-color” is a description that is not unique to Latin-America, but also applies to some Europeans, Africans, Orientals—almost everywhere  you travel, even in the U.S.

Unfortunately, at the same time the authors recognize that Latin American society displays “startling contrast between rich and poor, between city and country, between learned and illiterate, between the powerful lord of the hacienda and the deferential peasant, between wealthy entrepreneurs and desperate street urchins.” However, they don’t recall that specifications as such are applicable almost worldwide, including the United States, putting aside the qualifying lord of the hacienda.

Fortunately, the authors are wise enough to state that “Latin America resists facile categorization. It is a region rich in paradox.” But they forget that this is also the case of Europe, where the most heinous crimes were committed (the Holocaust), but which is also the source of knowledge and art, music and architecture, elegance and philosophy and religion and which still educates the world, notwithstanding the eurocentrism criticized by marxist and fundamentalist activists.

Another question posed by the authors is puzzling. This region “has throughout its history been both tumultuous and stable. The Conquest began a tradition of political violence that has erupted in coups, assassinations, armed movements, military intervention, and (more rarely) social revolutions. Ideological encounters between liberalism, positivism, corporatism, anarchism, socialism, communism, fascism, and religious teachings of every doctrinal hue have sharpened the intensity of struggle.” While I was reading, I thought immediately that they were writing about Europe. But then I awoke to the fact that they were writing about Latin America!

There is more to mention. They omit that the Argentine Revolution of May 1810 was the only one that was never suppressed by the Spaniards, as they did in Nueva España, in Caracas, and in Santiago (Chile). When writing how independence came to Latin America, they omit that the decisive battle about Chile was not Chacabuco (1817), but the battle of Maipu, also won by the Argentinian José de San Martín (1818).

It is misleading as well to give exclusive priority to European events, to Napoleon and his insignificant brother Joseph, to the absolutist king Fernando VII, and to the expansionist House of Braganza, or to promote the ambiguous idea that only rich creoles, not a cross-section of the population, were revolting against Spanish rule.

Now, let’s go to the chapter about the transformation of modern Latin America (1880s-1990s). Here we have some objective sentences about Latin America:
... has undergone a series of far-reaching economic, social, and political changes since the late nineteenth century. National economies have become integrated into the global system centered in Europe and the United States, social groupings and relationships have changed, cities have burgeoned, politics have witnessed reform and upheaval and sometimes stagnation.
However, the idea of economic change permeates the chapters of this book (Initiation and expansion of export-import growth; Import-substituting industrialization; Stagnation in import-substituting growth; Crisis, debt, and democracy [SIC]), instead of the concept of transformation, which perhaps more properly could explain the interaction of social, political, economic, and cultural events experienced in different forms by many countries of the northern, central, and southern American continent.

The role of women in Latin American society is exemplified by Eva Perón (hers is one of the few photographs in the book), highlighting the inaccurate idea that she was “perhaps the most powerful woman in the history of the Western Hemisphere.” Maria Estela Martinez de Perón is heralded as the first woman-president, but the authors offer the incorrect explanation that she reached office only through the death of her husband, Juan Perón, when, in fact, she was freely elected vice president of the  country. In that capacity—not as an inheritance—she acceded to the presidency.

Let’s look at a few of the “case studies” inserted by the authors.