Monday, June 02, 2008

Thomas O'Brien's Making the Americas

If you want a well-researched and highly readable history of U.S.-Latin American Relations, check out Thomas F. O’Brien’s Making the Americas: The United States and Latin America from the Age of Revolutions to the Era of Globalization. It is history, so the 1990s and beyond are covered only in the last of ten chapters, but the contemporary relevance of the historical analysis is always very apparent. I've put it on my "Good Books" sidebar.

“The central argument of this work is that over the past two centuries the people of the United States have envisioned themselves on a global mission of reform” (p. 4). From the beginning, U.S. policy makers, bankers, investors, travel writers, professors, philanthropists, tourists, soldiers, evangelists, etc. came to the idea that Latin America could be “fixed” with superior North American solutions. Although the specific nature of that mission has changed over time and according to the individual or group involved, for many the essence remains intact. You don’t know what you’re doing, so listen to us. The problem, though, is not so much with the “offer” of help, but rather the deaf ear turned to the Latin American voices offering criticism and/or their own solutions. The mission of the United States has all too often been entirely one-sided.

One particularly compelling theme, which is laid out in even more detail in Ricardo Salvatore’s Imágenes de un imperio, is the way in which U.S. companies created consumer demand in Latin America where before it had not existed, or only to a limited degree. Coca Cola, GE, Ford et al became part of the overall mission to civilize and “Westernize” Latin America. These products could make you more like U.S. consumers and therefore “better.” As he points out, Coca Cola even successfully paid to have a main character in a Brazilian soap opera drink only Coke. The book has many such examples, both historical and contemporary.

Of course, U.S. policy is still littered with references to how U.S. solutions will work best, and any substantive change to that policy will at the very least require acknowledging the fact that many Latin Americans do not agree and instead have their own solutions.


Anonymous,  9:47 PM  

Duly noted. Sounds like a similar take to Beneath the United States. That reminds me, I need to try to get a desk copy of your textbook.

Greg Weeks 1:30 PM  

It certainly has some similarities, but doesn't focus solely on policy makers.

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