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Latin american contemporary history: problems and tendencies.
An interview of John H. Coatsworth.

Daniel Rojas Castro

Texte intégral

1Prof. John H. Coatsworth is a specialist of Latin American history and the actual Provost of Columbia University. He is the author or editor of eight books and many scholarly articles on Latin American economic and international history. He has served on the editorial boards of numerous scholarly journals including the American Historical Review, the Journal of Economic History, and the Hispanic American Historical Review and as well as social science and history journals published in Britain, Chile, Germany, Mexico, Peru, and Spain. He is a former president of the American Historical Association and Latin American Studies Association. His academics posts have included visiting professorships at El Colegio de México, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the National University of Buenos Aires, the Instituto Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires, and the Instituto Ortega y Gassett in Madrid.

2This interview was done in New York City in November 2013. The first part concerns the period of revolutions of independences in the early 19th century. The second deals with the Latin-American history of the 19th century while the third tackles the 20th century. In each part Prof. Coatsworth was asked questions which would either concern the problems, the tendencies and the new steps regarding contemporary Latin American history.

3Latin America — 19th Century — 20 Century — International relations —Economy—Politics

First part: the revolutions of independence

4Where does your interest for Latin American History come from?
Back in the Middle Ages, when I was a student in College, it was hard not to follow the Cuban revolution, the October 1962 missile crisis, the Alliance for Progress, the emergence of guerrilla movements in Latin America, the debates about Latin American economic development. I was a victim of my times. I became a Latin Americanist just at a moment in when Latin America was particularly interesting.

5How could you explain the beginning of the independentist movements in Latin America?
There are two sets of factors that were quite important. The first was an accumulation of internal grievances both on the part of the elites, and on the part of non-elites in Latin-American societies; there were quite different grievances and complaints, but they were nonetheless destabilizing. The second and perhaps more important causal factor was Napoleon’s destruction which I would call the imperial deterrent. The stability of the Latin American colonies in the new world rested really on two pillars: one was the capacity of the Spanish colonial regime and of its Portuguese counterpart to punish any rebellious individual or group. The punishment was not always efficiently available, it could take time to organize, perhaps even years, but no one in Spanish America or in Brazil was in doubt that should a revolt take place eventually the empire would have sufficient resources to crush it.

6Certainly, that was the case after the Tupac Amaru Rebellion in the Andes. It took nearly four years to defeat, but the imperial victory left no doubt about Spain’s capacity to impose high costs in blood and treasure on the rebels. But when the Napoleonic invasions of Spain and Portugal, created circumstances that called into question the empires’ capacity to defeat defectors, one of the pillars of the colonial regime collapsed. Fernando VII’s efforts to restore the imperial deterrent to revolt almost worked, but the defection of his own military ended Spanish rule in most of the Americas. Portugal did not even make a credible effort to forestall Brazil’s independence.

7The second pillar of the colonial regime was the relationship between Spanish authority and the colonial elites. The colonial compact between Spain and the elites in each colonial was a crucial part of the imperial deterrent. In exchange for a considerable degree of relative autonomy and a certain amount of tax revenue, Spain extended its protection to colonial elites who feared revolt from the populations of slave and indigenous people below them. After 1808, both parts of the deterrent began to collapse at the same time. If Spain could not punish those who wanted autonomy or even independence, then it certainly lacked the power to protect elites from the underlying population, When Spain and Portugal lost the capacity to punish defectors or to protect colonial elites, as they did after 1808, independence became a possibility for the first time.

8What kind of relations could you establish between the 18th century and the revolutions of Independence?
It’s clear that at the level of elites in Latin America many of the ideas of the French enlightenment and of the scientific revolution that preceded it were circulating in Latin America among elites long before the independence movements broke out. This is one link between the 18th century and the independence revolutions, that affected the willingness of well-schooled elites to participate, and it was quite important. A second link to the eighteenth century was the impact of a series of reforms in the administration of the Spanish American empire that put pressure on both elites and on popular classes. This is evident in the Andes, for example, where the Bourbon reforms played a key role in provoking the Tupac Amaru revolt, but it is also evident in Mesoamerica as well, in Mexico and Central America. If you look at the number of small and large scale indigenous riots and rebellions, which I counted using the rich historiography of the period, what you find is that over the course of the 18th century, such incidents increased in number. Throughout the Americas, by the 1780’s and the 1790’s, slave revolts and indigenous rebellions of one kind or another were reaching unprecedented scale. In Peru, these local rebellions stopped with the repression after the Tupac Amaru revolt, but in Mexico they continued to increase. Increasing discontent is also evident in all those areas of the Spanish and Portuguese empires where there were slave populations. The number of small-scale revolts increased dramatically as did larger scale slave insurrections. Thus, a third clear connection between the 18th century and the independence revolutions is the accumulating evidence of considerable discontent among the most exploited classes in the region, some precipitated by the tax and administrative burden of the Bourbon reforms on indigenous communities, and others provoked by the impact on war and other uncertainties on the stability of slave systems in the Americas.

9What was the economic impact of the revolutions of independence?
The short-term impact of independence was quite disastrous. Most of the Latin American countries that emerged from the independence wars emerged impoverished, t least in comparison to what had been their situation before the outbreak of the war. On the other hand, if you take into account the institutional constraints that made economic growth so much more difficult in the Spanish-American and Portuguese empires that in the British empire, or even in the French empire, for example, then, I think in the longer run, the economic impact of the independence wars was quite positive, because what they did was to destroy or undermine a set of institutions that were impeding economic growth. These institutions included an inefficient judicial system that did not enforce property rights that were clearly defined in a sensible way, all kind of taxes and imposts that discouraged enterprise and that were especially biased against urban and manufacturing enterprises, and requirements that much of the international trade of the colonies passed through Spain or Portugal when the colonies natural trading partners were elsewhere in Europe and even in Asia. Some of these constraints on economic growth were destroyed in the independence era because Spanish sovereignty disappeared. For the rest, independence opened the possibility of creating new institutions better suited to economic growth.

10The Franco Spanish historian François-Xavier Guerra argues that the Latin American independences were not the result of former nationalist movements, but that they were their point of departure. Guerra mentioned that the independences were the results of chance and of the crisis of the Hispanic empire after the arrival of the armies of Bonaparte in the Iberian Peninsula. What do you think of those statements?
On the one hand, I think, this is absolutely right. Without the Napoleonic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula one cannot imagine the rebellions that took place in its aftermath, not only because there would have been no cause to provoke them, but because the imperial deterrent to rebellion would have remained in place and was still powerful. If you ask the broader question, that is, how long would Latin America have remained within the Spanish and Portuguese Empires given the stresses and strains —both structural and more contingent -- that were evident by the end of the 18th century, the answer is probably not very long. The structural pressures toward greater independence, or greater autonomy at least, were already present. And any trigger —the Napoleonic invasion was a good one—, but any kind of trigger that one could imagine exploding within Spain or within Europe, would have set off the same kind of processes in the American colonies. I think independence was a contingent event, but it was a contingent event that for structural reasons was waiting to happen.

Second part: the 19th century

11When does the 19th century in Latin America begin and when does it end?
In essence the 19th century doesn’t really begin until each of the Latin American countries has achieved independence, from the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. And in essence it ends sometime in the 1860’s or 1870’s, when one after the other, in a process that continues into the early 20th century, the Latin American countries accomplished two critical tasks. One was to overcome the political instability that had opened the door to popular participation in politics. Sometime between the 1860’s and the first decade of the 20th century in every Latin American country, the popular classes were excluded from governments both by constitutional revision, which took away their right to vote, and by the establishment of a regime solid enough to suppress rebellion from below. The second occurred when elites managed to secure effective control of the state apparatus in order and created constitutional regimes guaranteeing property rights that were sufficiently stable and credible as to provide the bases for economic growth at just the moment when the European industrial revolution was creating unprecedented demand for the agricultural and mineral commodities of all kinds. So these were the two accomplishments: one was the political stability achieved by excluding most of the population for political participation; the second was to create constitutional regimes that protected property rights and were relatively open and encouraging to economic growth. It was a short 19th century.

12To which event could you associate the end of the 19th century in Latin America?
The time differs from country to country, but I would say that the event which represented the end of the 19th century was the onset of economic growth, based largely on the export of raw materials to the industrialized countries of Western Europe and to North America.

13Do you believe that the First World War is relevant to identify the end of 19th century?
If the 20th century begins with the onset of economic growth, the two world wars are not so interesting. They represent brief interruptions of a process that is already under way. Much more important, perhaps, was the onset of the Great Depression that called into question the economic strategy and the regimes of political exclusion that elites had worked so diligently to create at the end of the nineteenth century.

14What kind of characteristics had the State, the Economy and the Society of 19th century in Latin America?
It’s hard to speak of single or homogenous Latin America in the 19th century. But one can say that for most of the 19th century, most of the Latin American states were quite unstable and did not have an institutional framework that was sufficiently robust as to allow for economic growth to proceed unimpeded. Most of them suffered with an economic structure that had been inherited from the colonial period, and which could only change with massive investments in new productive capacity, which didn’t take place until European and US capital began arriving in the region toward the end of the century. In social terms, what one saw was a break with the colonial era rather less rapid in the Andes than in Mexico, as indigenous subjects claimed citizenship. The process of claiming citizenship also accelerated in some of the slaveholding regions of the Americas, though more stable regimes (like Brazil) moved much more slowly toward emancipation.

15What important changes happened in the economical structure of the Latin American countries in the 19th century? Could you say something about some countries that would represent a general trend in the region?
Most of the Latin American countries managed to create a form of liberal institutionalization by the end of the century. In most countries one sees a period during which old institutions are undermined, but new ones have yet to solidify. Periods of political instability prolong the difficulties. Then, one by one, beginning in the middle of the century or little later, most Latin American countries begin to adopt liberal reforms, liberal both in the economic and commercial sense. The institutional structure changes with the triumph of liberal principles, toward the middle or later part of 19th century. Coincident with the institutional changes, and spurring them on, is the growth of foreign trade and eventually the massive foreign investments that make it possible to build railroads and to produce the commodities, raw materials mainly, that were previously inaccessible.

16The term ‘liberal’, that you used, is at the heart of different historiographical debates. What do you refer to when you speak of ‘liberal reforms’?
What I am referring to are a set of reforms undertaken sometimes by liberal parties, sometimes by leaders who called themselves conservatives. These reforms created institutions indispensable for the protection of private property rights, for the development of sensible fiscal systems that could tax and spend efficiently, and sets of rules governing foreign trade and foreign investment, that provided incentives both for domestic elites and for foreign capitalists to make major investments in the region. This process is best represented in a series of new civil law codes and commercial law codes that were adopted by all the Latin American countries beginning about mid century. Usually civil codes come first. The Spanish commercial code of 1885 was used as a model for a number of countries in the region, when they wanted to reform their commercial laws to define property rights more freely and facilitate the formation of enterprises. The new civil codes mostly involved separation of church and state, but most also involved better definitions of individual property rights. The example that was used in most Latin America was the Codigo civil of Andrés Bello, which was first adopted in Chile. The model for commercial codes was the Spanish one of 1885, so it was the legal and institutional framework that I think was the most important.

17In your opinion, what issues and what chronologies would allow to study the international relations between Central America and the United States in the 19th century?
In the 19th century looking at Latin America from the perspective of the United States, there was a transition in American policy from a thrust to territorial aggrandizement at the expense of Mexico and possibly others, to a policy that was more directed towards economic expansion in the form of trade and investment overseas. The turning point comes after the acquisition of half of Mexico’s national territory in 1846-1848, but there were a number of efforts following that in which the United States contemplated seizing Cuba, the Dominican Republic, portions of the rest of Mexico and other territories in the region, but for one reason or another rejected these opportunities. By the 1880s, economic expansion rather than territorial expansion became much more important. So one transition occurs after 1865, when the United States at the end of the Civil war acquired Alaska from Russia. After that, American foreign policy focuses on economic growth rather than territorial expansion.

18Another way is to look at your question is by examining how the United States defined its strategic interests in the region. At the beginning of the 19th century United States was quite weak and relied principally on the British fleet to protect its commerce, though the United States competed with the British throughout Latin America for markets and influence. That British American competition ended towards the end of the 19th century, when the British for strategic reasons decided that Latin America was less important than Europe and that their partnership with the United States which was developing very rapidly could not be sacrificed for any Latin American interest as long as the United States left British colonies in the Caribbean alone.

19So every time that the United States pressed its competition with the British, in the Caribbean for example, the British ceded to US concerns in order to preserve a relationship which they saw as of some future strategic interest. The first change is the shift from territorial to economic expansion, and the second is from competition with the United Kingdom to collaboration, but collaboration based on the British recognition of the United States as the dominant power in the Caribbean.

20Do you think that the American foreign policy concerning Mexico and Central America have the same characteristics? I ask you this question, because one could believe that a passage trough Nicaragua and Panama, as it was considered at that time, could have changed the US Foreign policy towards Central America.
By the 1880’s the United States was, in strategic terms, thinking of the Caribbean as vital to its national security interests. And the consequence of that was a series of steps taken over the course for the next thirty years to secure American dominance or pre-dominance in the region. These steps included the reduction of a number of the central and Caribbean republics to protectorates or in effect client states. Mexico was a primary interest to American policy makers in the region, but without the same aims, since Mexico was too large a country to control so directly.

21Do you believe that both Mexican and American memories of the 19th century have currently some importance in the bilateral relations of these two nations?
I think that the consciousness of the historical relationship between Mexico and the United States is quite strong in Mexico and quite weak in the United States. Mexicans learn at a very early point of their primary school education that half of their national territory was lost to U.S. aggression in the war in 1846-1848, but I would say that the Mexican-American war occupies no more than two to four pages in textbooks of US history in primary school. Not very much attention is paid to it. If you ask most Americans to tell you when the Mexican-American war occurred and who lost how much territory to whom, a large percentage of our population would have only a vague idea of this. What we have is a typical situation in which the weaker country has a long memory and the larger superpower has scarcely any memory at all. On the US side, historical memory plays virtually no role, and on the Mexican side, it plays a huge role throughout the 20th century, although perhaps a diminishing one now.

22You used the term ‘Mexican-American war’, but there are a lot of papers in the US historiography that employs the term ‘Mexican war’. Do you believe that these two terms represent different conceptions of the war and of the responsibility of these countries in the beginning of the war?
No. It is just an accident of terminology. Some historians referred to the US-Mexican war and in most textbooks of US history it’s called Mexican war because the focus about the United States start with it. I don’t see any deeper significance there.

23How does WWI affect the Latin American history?
For most Latin American countries, at least in economic terms, the First World War was a bit of a disaster, although for countries that exported minerals and other raw materials, the war presented fewer difficulties. The principal significance of the war for Latin America was that it brought to an end a period in which the European powers, and particularly, Great Britain, could be used to balance against the growing influence of the United States in the region. Curiously enough, the United States was not ready or even willing to assume the kinds of political and institutional responsibilities that being the dominant economic power would normally, certainly in the case of the British, bring with it. So, what one finds is that while the United States displaces Britain and to a better extent Germany and France as the principal foreign economic partner of many Latin American countries, and as the principal supplier of capital, American diplomacy does not take notice of this change and American governments remain reluctant to assume any responsibility for the political complexion of governments in Latin America outside the Caribbean, which is still defined as a national security interest.

24What are the most significant tendencies and problems of the American historiography concerning Latin America in the 19th century?
There are many interesting tendencies in Latin American historiography. There’s been a rediscovery of culture, including political culture, in Latin American historiography over the past two decades. I think we see a rediscovery of the importance of cultural relationships between Latin America and the United States and between Latin America and the rest of the world. There is also a much greater sense of Latin America as a part of an emerging global economy and society than there used to be.

25One of the most interesting trends is the transformation of Latin American economic historiography in the last twenty years or so. When I first became an historian we knew very little about the 19th century in Latin American economic history. We had virtually no numbers. Now we have a great deal more empirical investigation that has filled out a picture of the region and the region’s economy over the course of the 19th century that is quite fundamentally different from what I was taught as a graduate student many years ago.

26In your opinion, what would be the next issues to focus on regarding political, economic and international history in order to better know the Latin American 19th century?
Latin American historiography has become much more diverse than it used to be. The principal change in the last twenty years or so has been the emergence of historians of Latin America who are Latin Americans and who do work that is of a quality and insight as good as or better than the work done by North Americans and Europeans. There was a time when there were very few professionally trained historians in Latin America able to do archival research. Now we are finding that whereas Latin Americans used to have to rely on empirical research done by foreigners, foreigners are now relying mostly on Latin Americans for both empirical research and for interesting and original interpretations. That has been a huge change.

27I think the most important change that will occur over the next decade, will be the discovery of new records, of new archives, of new sources, which up until now have not been accessible or which have been imperfectly accessible. I am very impressed by the number of national archives that are becoming better organized, the amount of digitalized historical records that are now available even on line. One of the trends is going to be much greater access to primary source materials than has been the case in the past and to new materials that we haven’t had before. And even new kinds of evidence that we hadn’t been able to use or even to think about using in the past. I can give you one example: we’re learning a lot about living standards in Latin America from records that are becoming available that provide data on the average heights of Latin Americans, how tall they grew, and what we are learning comes both from records of colonial militias and national armies that recorded the height of their recruits and from the skeleton remains in the cemeteries and burial sites all over the region. Historians are discovering a great deal about variations in living standards with some quite surprising results. This is an example of a new kind of evidence that has just only become available and that is providing a whole set of insights into an area of research that we weren’t able to address adequately in the past.

The 20th century in Latin America

28When does the 20th century in Latin America begin and when does it end?
You can think of the 20th century in Latin America beginning at the end of the 19th century, as each country began to achieve relatively high rates of sustained economic growth. And that 20th century that begins in the late 19th century doesn’t end until 1982 with the economic and financial crisis that affects the entire region and calls into question much of what Latin America had done during the 20th century to organize itself for economic growth. I would say the 20th century in Latin America starts in the late 1890’s and perhaps ends with the crisis in the 1980’s.

29Do you believe the US participation in the Cuban independence transformed the perception that the Latin American governments had of the United States?
Latin American perceptions of the United States were affected very much by the US-Cuban Spanish war, although there had been earlier indications of what American policy was becoming. The fact that the United States could defeat the armies and fleet of Spain both in the Caribbean and in the Pacific, and that it could seize territory in the Caribbean, came as quite a shock. It suggested to many in Latin America that the time had come to worry about this new hegemonic power that had strategic and economic pretensions in the region and that could in time pose a threat to Latin American interests. And nothing the United States did after the Spanish-American war changed that perception. In fact, much of what the US did in the next thirty years tended to reinforce it.

30Do you believe, that one could argue that the US-Mexican war and the Spanish-Cuban war were more important in the Latin American governments’ perception of the US foreign policy than the message addressed by President Monroe to the American Congress in 1823?
The Monroe doctrine has never been particularly popular in Latin America. Even at the outset it was an assertion of American interest in a region where the United States had neither the military capacity nor economic resources to enforce it. So when Monroe issued the statement, it was a dead letter, but for the agreement of the British Foreign Office to pursue the same policy of discouraging European powers from reasserting territorial claims in the Americas against the new independent republics. So although it was a gesture that might have produced a certain amount of good will, the good will was certainly undermined by the seizure of Mexican territory and particularly by the Cuban invasion. Indeed, by expelling Spain from Cuba and Puerto Rico, the United States actually violated its own Monroe Doctrine. In the text of the doctrine itself, the United States made two statements. One was that European countries should not think of extending their system to the Americas, so that no new colonization should take place; the second was that the United States itself would respect the existing colonial territories of the European powers in the new world.

31In the years that followed, the behavior of the United States in the Caribbean and in Central America and especially the addition of what was called at the time the Roosevelt corollary stating that the United States reserved for itself right to intervene in the internal affairs of any country that got into difficulties with its external creditors, produced a negative reaction in Latin American countries that was so strong that during the 1962 October missiles crisis, the President of the United States ordered the diplomatic services of this country not to mention the Monroe Doctrine at all in any statements concerning the American policy towards Cuba, despite the fact that the Congress of the United States passed a resolution insisting that they do so.

32How could you describe the populist movements in Latin America and what is the legacy that they left in the politics of the region?
Populism is a word that has so many meanings that to respond your question would probably be a mistake. If the question is how would I describe popular movements in Latin America which sought to restore some balance to Latin American political systems that by the end of the 19th century excluded the vast majority of the population and then resulted beginning in the 1930’s in the extension of the franchise (the right to vote) to a majority of the male population and then to women, I think —if that is Populism— my view of it is entirely positive. On the other hand, a number of populist movements in Latin America sought not to create a vibrant citizenry and to extend rights of participation to all citizens, but mainly to extend some of the benefits of access to public goods and services only to those well-organized citizens who could cause trouble. One finds that from Peron in Argentina and Getulio Vargas in Brazil, and in the North the Cardenista regime in Mexico, there was a movement by the state to incorporate larger numbers of citizens by providing them certain benefits. But this was not usually accompanied by an effort on the part of the State to overcome the principal institutional legacy in the late 19th century, which was a system of governance that failed to provide equal rights and opportunities or to all citizens. Some people got schools, some people got their trade unions recognized and their wages raised, others got certain kinds of benefits —from land reform in particularly troublesome regions—, but for the most part the system of government that had been installed in the late 19th century remained. It was a system in which the State did not create solid institutions of a modern society, but instead created institutions that were in constant turmoil because access to the State depended on mobilization or clientelism. In this sense, I think the historic failure of populism was its failure to create a country of citizens in the fullest sense of thee word. Populist regimes did incorporate more people, but did not create states that were capable of extending education to everyone, providing public health to everyone, providing judicial and legal and citizenship rights to everyone. Instead some people were incorporated - those who could make the most trouble and were the best-organized. Thought of in those terms, populism was a political reaction to social turmoil, but it was not the most creative or beneficial response that could have been imagined.

33Finally, if you think of populism as the tendency of some Latin American governments to spend more money than tax revenues provide, or tolerate high rates of inflation, —and you can find examples of this on the left and on the right—, then I think Populism has generally proved to be both damaging and unsustainable

  • 1 Caudillismo is a political phenomenon of 19th century in Latin America, which consists in the appar (...)

34In a recent publication on Latin American history, José Maria Del Pozo argues that populism is a caudillismo1 adapted to the mass society. What is your opinion concerning this statement?
I think it’s an oxymoron. Caudillismo is usually thought of as a form of personalist rule appropriate to a chaotic and mostly rural society. Populism occurs in a society of masses in which some part of the masses are well organized enough to create institutional pressures on the State. Caudillismo and Populism in this sense belong to two different eras. It’s a good turn of phrase, but I don’t think that the 19th century caudillo who mythically rides off to battles with his estate workers as foot soldiers bears much resemblance to the populist caudillos of the 20th century.

35How could you characterize the Mexican populism in regard to the other Latin American populisms?
If you think of Mexican populism as the consequence of the Mexican revolution, I think what you find is something quite distinct in Latin America. The Mexican revolution itself was something of a surprise; its consequence after six years of civil war was the utter destruction of the political influence of the landowning class in the countryside, and coming to power of a new group of younger and probably more capable political leaders, many of them from the middle and lower middle classes with some sympathy for the plight of their less fortunate brethren. What the Mexican revolution did, and not always intentionally, was to create the political conditions that made it possible to carry out a radical agrarian reform without risking a powerful backlash from the landed classes This situation didn’t exist anywhere else in Latin America.

36During the Cardenas period Mexico carried out a massive redistribution of titles to land, some in the form of cooperatives others in individual plots. What was unique about Mexican populism was that it involved a the redistribution of real assets to a much larger number of people than benefited from populist regimes in other parts of Latin America, which, for the most part, were confined to urban populations. In the case of Mexico there were concessions to trade unions of the kind that you find elsewhere in Latin America, but it’s the rural Populism of Mexico that defines it as so much different than most of the rest of the region.

37And what about the Argentinean populism?
Argentinean populism was urban and it involved a particular model of how to industrialize. Import substituting industrialization is based on the premise that by creating tariff barriers and other obstacles to the importation of manufactured goods, governments can foster sustainable industrialization. This has often proved false hope. A number of countries who pursued such policies ended up with very inefficient industries, producing low quality products at high (protected) prices. Worse yet, some countries, like Argentina taxed their successful and efficient export producers to subsidize inefficient industries. If you look at the Mexican case, the Cardenas regime did not make the mistakes that Peron’s regime did later on in Argentina. The Cardenas government did not nationalize industries (apart from oil), nor did not run huge budget deficits that could not be sustained, and it paid particular attention to its external balances. So I think it was in some ways a more radical regime because it redistributed the assets (land), but if you look at the fiscal side it was a much more careful and prudent government.

38What was the international position of the Latin American countries at the beginning of the Cold War?
Latin American republics constituted almost forty per cent of the votes in the first UN general assembly meeting. And at that moment in time the Latin American governments sensed that their influence in the world organization and in world affairs would be much greater than it turned out to be. They did insist on the inclusion in the UN Charter of an article authorizing the creation of regional organizations and as a result the OAS was formed three years later, in 1948. The Latin American governments championed the creation of the OAS, which the United States initially opposed, thinking that it would be better for them to pursue their interests in an organization in which they outnumbered the United States, than one in which the United States had lots of allies around the world that could outvote them. This calculation was a mistake. So, too, was the decision of the larger countries to pursue and deepen their commitments to import substituting industrialization. This decision turned the Latin American countries inward and robbed them of an opportunity to take advantage of a very rapidly growing world market in the post world war two period. Instead, much of the region threw up tariff walls and other obstacles with the result that Latin America’s share of international trade diminished radically over the next twenty years.

39In 1993 you published an article entitled Pax(norte)Americana: Latin America after the Cold war. Could you explain us what means Pax(norte)Americana?
I think by Pax(norte)Americana I was referring to the hegemonic role that the United States played in Latin America and the consequences of that hegemony in the Post Cold War era.

40How did the United States display this hegemony in Latin America?
In the late 1940s, the United States decided that its interests required it to assume a role throughout Latin America —and not just in the Caribbean— as a consequence of the Cold War. What the United States did was to use its power to insure that each and every Latin American government would be reliably pro-American or anti-soviet. U.S. authorities worried about whether Latin American governments were sufficiently sensitive to American economic and strategic interests, whether they were permitting or prohibiting the political participation of groups believed hostile to US interests. In effect, the United States rapidly assumed a sense of political supervision in the region that it had declined to do in the 1920’s and even in the 1930’s. The result was that the United States sought allies in the region and formed a kind of strategic alliance with Latin American elites who also sought to impose reliably conservative, anti-communist regimes throughout the region. Together, the US and its allies worked to prevent those that didn’t fit from coming to power, or to secure the overthrow of regimes they opposed. In general this alliance was quite successful, with the notable exception of Cuba, over the next forty years of the Cold War.

41What are the most recent developments of US historiography about the 20th century in Latin America?
I would say one of the most interesting developments in US historiography of Latin America in the 20th century has been the explosion in the last five to ten years, of books relating to Latin America in the Cold War, and to US-Latin American relations which are now treating this topic with a degree of realism that was for the most part absent in much of the historiography of US-Latin American relations until the end of the Cold War itself. I would mention the book of an NYU colleague, Greg Grandin, but he is not alone. You can now find really well-researched and solidly argued works on the role of the United States in Latin America during the Cold War, something that was nearly impossible to find earlier, in part because historians were not interested in this, in part because we now have more sources for writing this history. That and perhaps some of the developments in economic history —that I mentioned earlier—, would be the two things that I could mention.

42In your opinion what gaps in Latin American historiography should be treated?
I think that the US historians for various reasons have not played a very active role in the development of intellectual and cultural history in Latin America. I think part of that has to do with the expectation that Latin Americans themselves would be better suited to write their own intellectual and cultural history. It takes a deep immersion in culture and language to be able to write intellectual and cultural history well. Even so, I do think the advantages of having foreigners intrude in the cultural and intellectual history of one’s country are quite significant and it would be good if more US historians would become interested in these fields. It would be especially helpful, in that regard, if Latin Americans could be persuaded to undertake writing about the cultural and intellectual history of the United States, which is badly in need of new perspectives.

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1 Caudillismo is a political phenomenon of 19th century in Latin America, which consists in the apparition of charismatic leaders who came to power thanks to informal mechanisms of exercise of the authority. The caudillos were supported by important parts of Latin American societies.

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Daniel Rojas Castro, « Latin american contemporary history: problems and tendencies.
An interview of John H. Coatsworth.
Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Images, mémoires et sons, mis en ligne le 13 décembre 2013, consulté le 19 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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