Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The History of Drugs in Latin America

The latest issue of Hispanic American Historical Review (the flagship academic journal on Latin American history) is a special issue on the history of the drug trade. The lead article, by Paul Gootenberg and Isaac Campos, says the following:

This introduction brings the issue of Latin American drug trades and cultures into conversation with the region's historiography. Illicit drugs are now notoriously associated with Latin America and represent untold billions in exports, generating over the last three decades tremendous violence, instability, and public controversy. Yet historians are just starting to seriously research the topic. Psychoactive drugs, broadly conceived, have been central in Latin American history from pre-Columbian times to the present; this piece offers a long-term periodization of drugs to uncover and analyze their complex and often-surprising roles. Rather than fetishize drugs, the essay maintains that they can be productively woven into the largest contexts and problems of Latin American history. After analyzing three methodological concerns of drug history — issues of transnationality and scale, the place of drugs in commodity studies, and the social constructivist approach to drug meanings and effects — the special issue editors introduce three exemplary new essays on the history of drugs in Latin America.

What strikes me about this is that it seems almost to confirm how long drug trafficking has been a major challenge. After all, now it's actually history!

I don't really get the fetish mention, which is mentioned several times. Here is how it is presented later in the article:

Modern (and highly contestable) medical discourses of “addiction,” as well as most big conspiracy theories regarding the untold power of “cartels” and other undergrounds (like those about the connection between the Central Intelligence Agency and crack), suffer equally from this misleading magical fetish about the powers of drugs. Drugs are mystified as the lead culprit for many social ills imagined and real. As we think our own work demonstrates, historians can usefully focus on a single drug commodity through time. But we also believe it crucial to avoid the pharmaco-centric fallacy, something made possible by integrating drug histories into larger questions, contexts, and currents of historical practice. 

Is this just a History disciplinary thing? At least in the Latin America context, in Political Science I can't recall any discussion about drugs being somehow "mystified." The focus is typically on trying to understand the violence that results from trafficking, and in the U.S.-Latin America context the focus is often on the disconnect between local realities and foreign policy. Nothing I've ever read suggests that the power of cartels is "untold," and I am not even sure what that means.

Given the current discussions about Mexico in particular, I really welcome historians digging (metaphorically) into Colombia (and presumably Bolivia, though they don't have an article on it) and elsewhere to provide a broader, historical understanding that can help us get a better grip on the patterns and issues we see now.


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