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For a quarter of a century, Tulio Halperín Donghi's Historia Contemporánea de América Latina has been the most influential and widely read general history of Latin America in the Spanish-speaking world. Unparalleled in scope, attentive to the paradoxes of Latin American reality, and known for its fine-grained interpretation, it is now available for the first time in English. Revised and updated by the author, superbly translated, this landmark of Latin American historiography will be accessible to an entirely new readership.
Beginning with a survey of the late colonial landscape, The Contemporary History of Latin America traces the social, economic, and political development of the region to the late twentieth century, with special emphasis on the period since 1930. Chapters are organized chronologically, each beginning with a general description of social and economic developments in Latin America generally, followed by specific attention to political matters in each country. What emerges is a well-rounded and detailed picture of the forces at work throughout Latin American history.
This book will be of great interest to all those seeking a general overview of modern Latin American history, and its distinctive Latin American voice will enhance its significance for all students of Latin American history.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"If Halperín's book owes its interpretive power and revisionist insights to the perspective and ideas of the economists concerned with the roots of Latin American underdevelopment, it tempers these insights with a historian's broad view of historical change, a wide familiarity with primary documents, and an unrivaled command over available secondary sources."—Charles Berquist, University of Washington, Seattle

"The translation of this classic work is long overdue. Halperín's remarkably skillful at interweaving threads of social, political, and economic history into a coherent whole in a way very few historians can."—Deborah Jakubs, Council on Latin American Studies

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822313748
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/1993
  • Series: Latin America in Translation
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 426
  • Sales rank: 1,375,310
  • Lexile: 1530L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Tulio Halperín Donghi is Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. John Charles Chasteen is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Tulio Halperín Donghi is Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. John Charles Chasteen is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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Read an Excerpt

The Contemporary History of Latin America

By Tulio Halperín Donghi, John Charles Chasteen

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1374-8


The Colonial Heritage

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the traces of conquest were still visible on the Latin American landscape. Nineteenth-century historians who lived in capital cities like Lima, Buenos Aires, or Asunción—cities that seemed to be the direct and enduring result of decisions made by individuals—were fascinated by the triumphs and vicissitudes of the conquistadores. Looking beyond heroes and events, we can discern more enduring realities, contours of social and economic life that link the conquest of the sixteenth century with the independence era of the early nineteenth.

As was well known to the jealous imperial rivals of Spain and Portugal, the Iberian conquerors sought, above all, precious metals. Following the path blazed by its rogue vanguard of conquistadores, the Crown of Castille arranged matters in the West Indies with exactly the same purpose. Beginning roughly in 1500, the nucleus of Spanish settlement remained for two decades in the Antilles, where surface finds of gold produced an early mining boom using Indian labor. The next twenty years, 1520–40, saw the conquest of the Mexican and Peruvian highlands, with their silver mines and dense Indian populations. These areas then became the heartlands of the New World empire of Spain. The catastrophic decline of Indian population caused by epidemics of European diseases put an end to gold production in the Antilles before mid-century, and the volume of silver from Mexico and Peru quickly surpassed gold from the Antilles in the shipments sent from the New World back to Spain. Silver exports permanently passed gold in value as well as volume at the close of the first century of colonization.

By 1600, Spain's empire in the New World had acquired its full extent, and its geographical configuration hardly changed until the wars of independence two hundred years later. The most vulnerable areas of this vast empire organized around the production of silver were its Caribbean and South Atlantic coasts, open to the attacks of rival European empires. Jamaica, among Spain's earliest settlements, was taken over permanently by the British, and the Portuguese advanced their frontiers at the expense of Spain in the South Atlantic. Overall, however, the territory claimed by the Spanish during the sixteenth century remained almost intact by 1810. Observers of the Spanish empire in the eighteenth century were intrigued by, and sometimes indignant about, this spectacle of a vast empire ruled by one of the most archaic nations in Europe.

This surprisingly durable system, designed to produce the largest profit with the least investment, underlay the "colonial compact" binding the New World territories to Spain. How else could one explain why lands producing enough silver to revolutionize the markets of Europe should themselves suffer chronic shortages of coin? Of course, the Crown took quite a considerable portion directly through taxation. The rest of the money in the colonies tended to flow to Spain to pay for imported European goods. Because the colonial market was closed to competition, Spanish merchants could inflate the prices of European goods and maximize their profit margins. The colonial compact also guaranteed the dominance of the privileged mining sector in the economic life of the New World territories as a whole. Obviously, this system had grave consequences for the development of Spanish America. The first of these was the ascendancy of outsiders, agents of the imperial system of taxation and trade, in the economic life of the colonies. The second was the exclusion of almost everyone else—including the miners themselves—from direct participation in the Atlantic economy.

The colonizing power derived clear advantages from this state of affairs, while the descendants of the conquerors had reason to be less pleased. During the first century of conquest, they resisted with an occasional show of force but afterward reconciled themselves to the Crown's organization of Spanish American economic life for the benefit of Spain. The reconciliation was not without its tensions and moments of instability, however, and it existed at all only because the booty of the conquest included people and land along with the precious metals. While tax collectors and merchants carried away most of the gold and silver, the descendants of the conquerors consoled themselves with their control of Indian populations. The highlands of Mexico and Peru became centers of Spanish colonization not only because of their rich mines but also because of the large populations of highland Indians already accustomed to laboring for imperial masters before the arrival of the Spanish.

In addition to facilitating the extraction of forced labor destined for the mines, the complex social organization of highland Indians fit them to be artisans and agriculturalists. The conquerors and their heirs exploited these possibilities in ways that evolved over the course of the colonial period. The conquerors and their immediate heirs often became encomenderos, receiving from the Crown a group of tribute-paying Indians to support them. This arrangement declined in the highland centers of Spanish colonization, just as had happened earlier in the Antilles, when Indian populations were decimated by epidemic diseases, and increasingly the heirs of the conquerors controlled the remaining Indians indirectly through royal grants of property. Land and Indian labor, the rewards that the Crown allowed the conquerors to keep for themselves, became the twin pillars of a way of life that carried into the nineteenth century its contradictory traits of opulence and penury. Of course, the new lords of the land did not win their dominions without a struggle. Sometimes the struggle was open and violent, as in mid-sixteenth-century Peru where after open conflict, in return for new oaths of obedience to the Crown, the conquistadores were able to obtain an improvement in the juridical status of encomenderos. As the decline in Indian population accelerated, landowners had to contend with the mita, the forced-labor draft of workers sent regularly to textile sweatshops and, inevitably, to those insatiable devourers of Indian manpower, the mines. Long before the true horrors of the mita were added to the "black legend" of Spanish cruelty in the New World, the infamous labor draft had drawn the antipathy of large landowners, Crown officials, and the clergy in the regions where the mita's victims were recruited.

The heirs of the conquerors held sway in broad areas of the countryside, but they did not dominate the colonial economy. However "feudal" might appear the relations between these rural landlords and their serflike populations of Indians, it would be an error to characterize the colonial social order as feudal. The weight of the primary agricultural sector within the Spanish American economy was much less than might be expected, given the large proportion of the population involved in agriculture, though that proportion is often exaggerated. In fact, the organization of the Spanish American economy effectively marginalized the agricultural sector, a process itself partly responsible for the seemingly "feudal" qualities in parts of the countryside. Furthermore, patches of small-scale Spanish agriculture appeared very early alongside the larger areas cultivated by tribute-paying Indians. The existence of these smaller farms was the result of the huge demands already placed on Indian labor. Indian agricultural laborers had to produce enough to support a class of minor Indian nobility, Spanish clerics, and Crown officials, as well as the encomen-dero's family not to mention their own families. The competing labor requirements of miners and merchants compounded these difficulties.

The demographic collapse that bottomed out in the seventeenth century provoked profound changes in the agricultural sector of the Spanish American economy From Mexico to Argentina, sheep grazing partly displaced farming because its labor requirements were so much lower. In addition, the arrangement whereby Indian agricultural communities paid a tribute in labor and agricultural products began to be replaced by haciendas, large estates where the Indians lived and worked under Spanish supervision. The transformation took place gradually, through a variety of legal pretexts, and it varied from place to place. It occurred most slowly in areas without urban populations because, unlike the tribute-paying Indian communities, the haciendas produced primarily for a market. The strongest and most rapid development of the hacienda system occurred in areas connected by mining and mercantile activities to the trans-Atlantic channels of the colonial economy; the urban populations that grew up around the mines and the centers of trade became the chief markets for agricultural products. Leading in this development was Mexico, at first secondary to Peru in silver exports but better connected in the networks of long-distance trade.

Not even in Mexico, however, did a truly wage-earning work force develop. Wages might be expressed in monetary terms, but payment was mostly in kind. In addition, many rural workers lost their freedom to participate in a wage market because they became indebted to the owner of a hacienda and then could not leave it. Many intermediate stages existed between the tribute system and the fully formed wage system. Commonly, rural laborers received a parcel of land to cultivate for their own families in return for tending the crops of the landowner. Such labor obligations took on a myriad of local variations, as during the transformation of rural Europe centuries earlier.

Though clearly dependent on mining and long-distance trade for its secondhand access to the money economy, the agricultural sector was also able to develop on the lines of a subsistence economy, and mediating between the two economies could be among the most profitable activities in Spanish America. Merchants wanted to keep the door between the two economies only half open. They needed a number of things produced in the countryside: food for the urban population, mules for transport and the mines, and cloth woven in the homes of rural people. They wanted the door open enough to eliminate urbanscarcities, but a full opening would force them to compete for the products of the countryside in a wider market. They turned to Crown officials for assistance in regulating the exchange to their advantage. Crown officials instituted the system of repartimiento (forced distribution) of goods, in the absence of any more spontaneous exchange, to reduce the isolation of the countryside by royal order. District officials of the Crown began to receive shipments of goods that the Indians under their control were obliged to buy from them. Complaints about what the Indians had to buy—inferior merchandise that had failed to find buyers in urban areas—grew increasingly loud in the eighteenth century. If repartimiento reveals much about the abuse of Indian peasants, it says something as well about the limitations imposed on the power and wealth of the landowning class, who did not share in the benefits reaped by the merchants and officials from the forced distribution of inferior goods. Thus, the subordination of agricultural producers to other interests can be detected not only in a sectoral overview of the colonial economy but also in the remote corners of Spanish America where the predominance of the local landowning class is often thought to have been total.

The relationship between the mining and the commercial sectors varied as much from Peru to Mexico as did the forms of rural production. In Peru, the mine owners of Potosí depended absolutely on capital lent to them by the merchants of Lima, and, though the relentless exploitation of Indian labor in the mines during the eighteenth century responded partly to the gradual exhaustion of the ore, it also represented the attempt of the mine owners to pass along to their workers the pressure they themselves felt from their merchant creditors. Mexican mine owners, in contrast, frequently had enough capital to operate almost autonomously, and when borrowing they normally sought sums that were easily available in Mexico's busier commercial market, without compromising their ability to do business. The Mexican mining sector operated on a fully developed wage system, and European travelers found the mine workers' wages surprisingly high. In the last century of colonial rule, mining production stagnated in Peru and boomed in Mexico. As in the case of the agricultural sector, the differences between Mexico and the rest of Spanish America derived from Mexico's central location in the circuits of the colonial economy, a fact that mitigated for Mexico the negative consequences of the colonial compact.

The colonial compact of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries underwent significant changes in the eighteenth century when Spain abandoned many of the old restrictions on trade and allowed almost total freedom of shipping between the Iberian Peninsula and Spanish America. The architects of empire in Madrid had decided that the American colonies of Spain had more products to offer than silver bullion, and they had begun to see a market there for Spanish industries and agriculture. In a number of ways, however, the innovations of 1778–82 upset the delicate equilibrium of interregional trade in the Spanish colonies. The colonial areas that had dominated parts of the old closed system now had to compete with the metropolitan economy itself. As a result, eighteenth-century flows of trade altered considerably from former patterns, from the Caribbean to the Río de la Plata. The landowners of Cuba and Santo Domingo, who formerly had raised livestock for the Mexican market, now grew tobacco and sugar for Spanish markets. The cacao (cocoa) planters of Venezuela also reoriented their exports from Mexico to Spain. In the Río de la Plata, the Spanish market stimulated the increased slaughtering of cattle for hide exports. Direct access to trans-Atlantic trade gave rise to the fragmentation of the Spanish American economy into zones of monoculture that often developed closer contacts with Spain than with neighboring parts of Spanish America. The process of economic fragmentation had fateful consequences for Spanish America. While tightening its bonds to metropolitan Spain, the liberalization of trade disrupted the bonds that had bound the disparate parts of Spanish America to each other.

The new mercantile conquest that swept over eighteenth-century Spanish America, as Spanish merchants displaced their colonial counterparts from Veracruz to Buenos Aires, was closely linked to changes occurring in Spain itself. Many at the time decried the monopolistic tendencies of merchants in the southern Spanish port of Cádiz, long dominant in the trans-Atlantic commerce. Cádiz had become essentially an entrepôt for merchants from northern Spain, especially Barcelona. The rising commercial hegemony of the north was accompanied, to a degree, by the industrial development that imperial administrators had hoped to encourage through the liberalization of trade, but ultimately this part of the plan achieved limited success. Eighteenth-century Spain was unable to supply all the manufactures that the Spanish Americans wanted, and these had to be acquired from the more successful manufacturing exporters of western Europe. The new version of the colonial compact ultimately failed because, instead of building a stronger trade relationship between Spain and its American empire, it transformed Spain into an unwelcome intermediary between Spanish America and the dynamic economies of northern Europe.

Of all Spain's American territories, Mexico (the heart of the vice-royalty of New Spain) was the richest, the most populous, and the most significant to the European economy. The mining boom of the 1700s had made Mexico City the largest and most magnificent urban center of the New World, with mansions and public buildings to rival even the Old World's great capital cities. In the mining region of north-central Mexico—Querétaro, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí—new, larger mine shafts had been added to the older ones, and the prosperity of these mining centers provided a vigorous market for the cattle raised further north. There, in the Spanish borderlands of North America, lay vast areas very sparsely populated with missions and militia settlers whom the Crown had sent to guard against British and Russian advances from the Pacific Northwest. Because of these origins, the Mexican north was less Indian in its demographic makeup than the central or southern regions. The development of the hacienda system had progressed further in the north than elsewhere, partly owing to the stimulus created by the lucrative market for agricultural products at the mining centers, partly because in the north Spanish ranches could expand onto land not subject to competing claims.


Excerpted from The Contemporary History of Latin America by Tulio Halperín Donghi, John Charles Chasteen. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Translator's Preface
Prologue to the Thirteenth Edition
Prologue to the First Edition
I The Colonial Heritage 1
II The Crisis of Independence (1810-1825) 42
III The Early National Period (1825-1850) 74
IV Emergence of the Neocolonial Order (1850-1880) 115
V Maturity of the Neocolonial Order (1880-1930) 158
VI Progress in a Stormy World (1930-1945) 208
VII New Directions in the Postwar Period (1945-1960) 247
VIII A Decade of Decisions (1960-1970) 292
IX Latin America in Our Time 338
Epilogue 401
Bibliographical Essay 407
Index 421
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