What phase of development has Latin America entered right now? What place does it occupy in “the march of history,” with respect to the rest of the world? Octavio Paz puzzled over that question in an exquisitely writ-ten passage of his book on Sor Juana, the Baroque convent poet. And he concluded that, for reasons peculiar to Hispanic life, no answer can be given. “Our history has never been a march, in any of the accepted meanings or variations of that word: the straight line of the evolutionists, the zigzag of the dialecticians, the circle of the neo-Platonists.” The history has been, instead, “a discontinuous process made of leaps and falls.”
In Paz’s interpretation, the Hispanic world has always consisted of several different civilizations superimposed on one another, with each civilization jostling against each of the others. And the consequences, for anyone trying to identify the stages of development, can only be exasperating. “Again and again we Spaniards and Hispano-Americans rub our eyes and ask ourselves: What time is it in the history of the world? Our time never coincides with everyone else’s. We are always ahead or behind.”
The title of Alma Guillermoprieto’s book, Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, expresses something of that same Hispanic bafflement. In the last few years, writers from various places around the world other than Latin America have demonstrated, in their own book titles, a serene confidence in their ability to identify history’s direction and even its pace. Francis Fukuyama could write his self-assured The End of History and the Last Man because, from his American perspective, the collapse of communism plainly demonstrated that liberal democracy was history’s ultimate end, and the forward march was indisputable.
A few years later the writer Eva Hoffman returned to the Eastern Europe of her childhood, took a look around, and rebutted Fukuyama’s interpretation in a book called Exit into History—though Hoffman’s refutation consisted mostly in showing that, from an Eastern European perspective, Fukuyama’s “end” could more accurately be called a beginning. History’s progress remained visible, either way. But Guillermoprieto’s Looking for History proposes no such conclusion, or even rebuttal—only a search. And the distinctly Latin American flavor of her book is evident even in its title.
A generation ago, many thoughtful and serious people on the left imagined that Latin America had taken its place in history’s march forward, and might even be at its head. The Cuban revolution radiated an air of success, and the heroic figures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro led many people to suppose that Cuba’s triumphs were destined to spread across Latin America and to Africa and, in time, perhaps, to everywhere else. Guillermoprieto’s Looking for History includes an essay about Che called “The Harsh Angel,” commenting on the recent biographies of him by Jon Lee Anderson and Jorge G. Castañeda. And it is striking that, of all the essays in her book—there …