The Invention of Latin America

The Cambridge History of Latin America: Vol. I, Colonial Latin America

edited by Leslie Bethell
Cambridge University Press, 645 pp., $75.00

The Cambridge History of Latin America: Vol. II, Colonial Latin America

edited by Leslie Bethell
Cambridge University Press, 912 pp., $80.00

The Cambridge History of Latin America: Vol. III, From Independence to c. 1870

edited by Leslie Bethell
Cambridge University Press, 945 pp., $85.00

The Cambridge History of Latin America: Vol. IV, c. 1870 to 1930

edited by Leslie Bethell
Cambridge University Press, 676 pp., $69.50

The Cambridge History of Latin America: Vol. V, c. 1870 to 1930

edited by Leslie Bethell
Cambridge University Press, 951 pp., $79.50

Upon her husband’s becoming prime minister in 1886 Lady Salisbury was advised to pay no visits. “So I never pay any,” she later told her friends, “except to foreign ambassadresses. Of course I don’t include those of the South American republics or any others of the people who live up trees.” “The European world,” the Colombian Jose Maria Samper had complained in 1861, “has made more effort to study our volcanoes than our societies; it knows our insects better than our literature, the crocodile of our rivers better than the acts of our statesmen, and it has much more learning about how quinine bark is cut, or how hides are salted in Buenos Aires, than about the vitality of our infant democracy!” The protest, Malcolm Deas concludes in his survey of Venezuelan, Colombian, and Ecuadorian history after independence, is valid today. In the 1930s a Latin American posting was still regarded by British diplomats as a kind of exile. “Not such as he,” the novelist Ann Bridge wrote of a rising diplomat, “are sent to Bogotá.” As late as the 1970s I asked Harold Macmillan how often Latin America cropped up in the Cabinet during his time in office. “We once had a few discussions on Argentinian beef” was his reply. He professed—indubitably with characteristic exaggeration—never to have remembered reading a dispatch from a Latin American embassy.

The compendious Cambridge History of Latin America should do something to dispel this climate of unknowing and prejudice. The volumes under review, which cover the period up to 1930, amount to some four thousand pages, and the completed work may well run to nine volumes. A quarter of a century ago such an enterprise would have been an inconceivable and unprofitable venture. The old dismissive ignorance persisted. A handful of dedicated scholars in Europe and the US tilled a field regarded by their colleagues as marginal land.

It was Fidel Castro who changed passive indifference into active concern. It seemed to some observers in the early 1960s that a socialist revolution on a Caribbean island might infect—biological metaphor was fashionable—a whole continent. Soviet missiles appeared eighty miles from Florida. Latin America became what the Near East is today, with Castro as a secular ayatollah preaching a continental revolution. Academic interest followed political concern. Professors would supply policy makers with the basic materials on which to base a counter-revolutionary strategy consistent with the premises of liberal democracy. The Ford Foundation pumped money into Latin American studies in US universities; the Parry Committee, set up by the British government, published a report that was to lead to the setting up of Latin American centers in the United Kingdom. A generation of scholars were provided with the tools to set to work. Their researches are the foundation on which Professor Bethell has erected his vast edifice.

This renaissance of interest in the society and politics of Latin America was part of a more general phenomenon in the West: an …

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