Inflation theology

The Cambridge History of Latin America: Volume Six - The Cambridge History of Latin America: Volume Six
September 22, 1995

Leslie Bethell's monumental Latin American juggernaut continues to roll on. He has been the driver since the start, and must now feel that he is within sight of his destination. Volume VI is the eighth in the sequence to appear, and Vol.

XI, consisting of a highly useful collection of bibliographical essays, has also recently been published, which means that there are now only two further volumes to come: one on Brazil, and international relations, since 1930 (Volume IX), and the other (currently in press) on culture, again since 1930 (Vol. X).

Volume VI covers general economic, social and political trends since 1930 - the Spanish American countries' individual stories have already been dealt with in Volumes VII and VIII - and it comes in two parts, both of which are substantial volumes in their own right. These two books would doubtless have been numbered VI and VII had not Volume VII appeared already. As it is, the final set will now consist of 12 volumes. It was originally to have been eight. Some kind of inflationary pressure has evidently built up somewhere along the line - as it has so often in the Latin American economies over the past few decades.

One of the consequences of this is that no less than half the volumes (leaving aside Volume XI) will deal with the years since 1930 - barely more than one eighth of the total span of Latin American history, if Columbus's landfall in the Bahamas is taken as its starting point, as it usually is. It can no doubt be argued that the complexities of Latin American life have greatly multiplied in the last 60 years (as they most assuredly have) and that this must be reflected in the design of the Cambridge History. But the disproportion seems to me excessive. Grateful as scholars and students will be to have these books on the shelves of their college libraries, it is not unfair to ask whether editorial indulgence has been a trifle over-generous. (On another editorial level, I noticed a number of misprints, and in a Cambridge book even one misprint is one too many.)

The question gathers force when the 17 individual chapters of Volume VI are perused at close quarters. An unavoidable impression is that the subjects and arguments are developed at a distinctly leisurely pace, and that the quality of the prose is sometimes rather too inert for comfort. (This may have something to do with the fact that the great majority of the 22 authors represented in the double volume are social scientists rather than historians.) Some judicious cutting might suitably have gone on here - might, in fact, have confined the chapters to a single volume, though no doubt a thick one.

To make such points is not to be churlish. Those who are interested in the fortunes of Latin America between the onset of the Depression and the early 1990s will find a rich store of both information and argument in this double volume, despite its intermittent longueurs. As with the previous volumes in the sequence, the contributors' scholarly credentials are impeccable. And the story they have to tell is both important and intrinsically fascinating. For much has changed in Latin America since 1930. The period has been an extraordinary one for the region - not simply the most recent. Most strikingly, its population has more than quadrupled (from 110 million in 1930 to around 450 million now): the implications of this are closely examined by Thomas W. Merrick in the opening chapter of Part 1. The surge in births has now slowed down, but there could well be as many as 750 million Latin Americans by 2025.

The economic ups and downs of the period (an extended "up" sandwiched between two "downs") receive especially detailed treatment in the three following chapters. As Victor Bulmer-Thomas shows in the first of these, Latin America did surprisingly well in the 1930s, both maintaining exports and encouraging local manufacturing. In the 1940s and 1950s the larger and middle-sized countries (influenced partly by locally thought-up economic ideas discussed in an interesting chapter from Joseph Love) opted for a strategy involving state intervention and an expanding public sector, with "import-substituting industrialisation" (ISI) as the key aim. This "inward-directed" strategy was more successful in delivering economic growth than its "neo-liberal" enemies now find it convenient to admit, but it failed to eliminate large-scale poverty, and its Achilles heel (as all the authors here agree) was its relative neglect of exports. In the 1970s, in the aftermath of the first oil shock, many countries financed continued growth by dint of heavy borrowing: the world was then awash in petrodollars.

The harsher global environment that followed the second oil shock (1979) - notably the abrupt rise in international interest rates - meant that this could simply no longer be maintained. Latin America was plunged into its appalling debt crisis and the "recessive adjustment" from which some countries are barely recovering even now. The 1980s was for most Latin American nations a "lost decade", with increases in both unemployment and poverty. It could well be (as the three Latin American authors of the third and final economic chapter suggest) that in the 1990s too much faith is being pinned on free markets and exports - just as too much confidence was placed, earlier, in state intervention and the public sector. But Latin America is hardly the only region to have to face the ravages of the "neo-liberal" tide now sweeping round the globe. This has become a worldwide problem, and nobody seems to know the answer.

The remaining chapters in Part 1, and those in Part 2, look at the social and political dimensions of these six decades. Norman Long and Bryan Roberts suggest that changes in the countryside were "greater I during this half century than in the preceding four centuries". They note the decline of the traditional hacienda (sometimes through agrarian reform, undertaken in 12 out of the 20 Latin American countries) and the rise of modern, commercial farms often geared to the export trade, traditional peasant agriculture now contributing much less to national production. The Latin America of 1930 was still predominantly rural; it is now predominantly urban, with a quarter of its population living in cities of larger than 2 million. Partly because of this urbanisation, partly through road building, aviation and radio, the state nearly everywhere has become altogether more coherent, and has expanded its control as well as the range of its habitual functions - a theme intelligently taken up by Laurence Whitehead.

Politically speaking, most Latin American countries in 1930 can be said to have been (or to have recently been) "oligarchic republics", governed by small, mostly landed elites. Despite long and sometimes horrifically savage episodes of military rule (notably in the 1960s and 1970s), an underlying trend to genuinely wider democracy seems to have set in over the years since 1930; Jonathan Hartlyn and Arturo Valenzuela are cautiously optimistic about its future prospects. Certainly the spectres of both militarism and Cuban-inspired revolutionary insurgency (insightfully analysed by Alan Angell in his chapter on the Left) have now receded.

If opportunities for urban trade unions have diminished (as Ian Roxborough's chapter explains), opportunities for women have expanded, both in education and in the workplace, though here what Asunci"n Lavr!n (in her chapter) terms "personal and institutional traditionalism" has inhibited the growth of the kind of large-scale (and sometimes raucous) feminism familiar to those of us who live in the USA.

Other chapters deal with science (Thomas F. Glick) and the Catholic and Protestant churches. On this latter score, Enrique Dussel charts the rise and relative decline of "liberation theology" within the extremely heterogeneous framework of the Catholic Church, while Jose Miguez Bonino takes a brief look at the explosion of Latin American Protestantism (especially its dominant Pentecostal variety) over the last few decades - a phenomenon whose future significance, if any, is still rather hard to assess. Whatever else may be said about it, it is a genuinely new feature in the continuously changing panorama of Latin America - a panorama which, we can confidently predict, will remain continuously changing. As for the past 60 years, the reader who has the patience to plough through these two chunky books will be rewarded with as good a general survey as is currently available or perhaps conceivable. But it could have been shorter.

Simon Collier is professor of history and director, Center for Latin American and Iberian Studies, Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.

The Cambridge History of Latin America: Volume Six: Latin America since 1930 Economy, Society and Politics, Part 1 Economy & Society

Editor - Leslie Bethell
ISBN - 0521 23226 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £60.00
Pages - 645

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